NOTE: Middle East Eye just published my latest piece on Israel’s attack on Iran’s Natanz centrifuge production facility. Please give it a read.
As Christians will know, the founder of the Church, Paul, had a “conversion” on the road to Damascus, (the ‘Damascene Conversion’), which led him to break with his Jewish past and found a new religion. Though Peter Beinart’s new essay in Jewish Currents, Yavne: A Jewish Case for Equality in Israel-Palestine will not mark the founding of a new religion, it does mark a radical step in his journey from the leading American Jewish defender of liberal Zionism to a supporter of a one-state solution.
His is a vision of a secular New Jerusalem akin to Ezechiel’s in the Holy Book. Of course, the Biblical prophet’s is a religious vision of a restored Third Temple and the Messiah ruling a restored Davidic kingdom. Beinart’s vision is no less radical, but it responds to the needs of today and a secular solution to the century-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
The importance of his essay cannot be overestimated. Before publishing it, he was perhaps America’s pre-eminent liberal Zionist public intellectual. His arguments, problematic though they were, buttressed American Jewry’s liberal Zionist faith. Now that he has renounced it, those who respected him will have some profound soul-searching to do. This will not kill liberal Zionism, but it will begin an inevitable process of unraveling which has been long in the making.
The new essay offers the same sort of radical break that Saul (later Paul) underwent after he had a vision of blinding light and heard Jesus’ voice asking why he (Paul) was persecuting followers of his new faith. It was this revelation which turned the Apostle away from his previous allegiance to the Jewish Pharisees. Though Beinart never “persecuted” anti-Zionists or Palestinians, he served as a bulwark defending the two-state solution and the notion that Israel must be a Jewish state with a Jewish majority. His defense played a major role in upholding a suffocating two-state status quo, which held sway over American Jewish supporters of Israel for the past thirty years or more.
Beinart’s “conversion” was caused by the overwhelming burden of maintaining a liberal vision of Israel as the State careened down a path to Judeo-fascism. Unless he writes a book and tells us, we may never know what was the moment that Beinart saw that flash of light and realized he could no longer defend the indefensible. Nevertheless, we must be thankful that he had the intellectual integrity to realize he was fighting for a lost cause. Not every person who has invested years in upholding a conception of self and nation has the courage to question those beliefs and jettison them.
Tracing his professional odyssey, you will find that he has followed a path that began with writing for the New Republic, where the prototypical liberal Zionist intellectuals, Martin Peretz and Leon Wieseltier, reigned supreme. After writing his seminal book, the Crisis of Zionism, he founded a forum for liberal Zionist critics of Israel called Zion Square, which was a project hosted by the Daily Beast. While it was a home for some critical thought, it offered few Palestinian voices and also offered the voices of right-wing academics like Gil Troy. As a result of criticism from some quarters (including me), Beinart changed the project’s name to Open Zion, given that the former name, an actual geographical location at the heart of Jewish west Jerusalem, situated the forum firmly in Israel-centric discourse. But Open Zion never embraced any voices outside of what is known in Israeli politics as “left-Zionism.”
After it shut down in 2013, Beinart moved on to The Atlantic, where right-wing liberal Zionist (and former disciple of Meir Kahane), Jeffrey Goldberg, ran the show. He also wrote columns for the Jewish Forward and Haaretz. These publications, like Open Zion, are firmly anchored within liberal Zionist discourse. Though they offer a periodic platform to Palestinian or anti-Zionist writers, the overwhelming ideological perspective endorses a two-state solution and the existence of Israel as a Jewish state.
But the real break came earlier this year when he announced that he had joined a reinvigorated Jewish Currents as editor-at-large. I confess when I heard this news I feared that the new editors were steering their ship rightward to meet Beinart’s politics. I had no idea that it might be precisely the opposite: that Beinart’s views might be moving leftward and that Jewish Currents would be a perfect home for them. This has proven to be the case with his new essay.
In full disclosure, I have for years been a critic of Beinart. Even a merciless one. I wrote this about his version of Zionism here in 2012:
A pro-Palestinian twitter follower wrote that Beinart’s op-ed is hasbara writing its own requiem. I don’t think Beinart is a hasbarist. I’d say, rather, that it is liberal Zionism writing its own requiem.
The idea that his intellectual gravitas was employed in maintaining the fiction that Israel was both a Jewish and democratic state, seemed not only offensive, but profoundly damaging to those of us who saw clearly the monster that apartheid Israel had become. It also was maddening that Beinart never seemed to grapple with the inconsistencies of his argument, never admitted weakness, and never engaged in any substantive way with his critics on the left. He seemed much more solicitous of his critics on the right within the mainstream Jewish community. He appeared to crave their approval far more than he craved honest appraisal.
But Yavne has blown all this away. And he has done so in a powerful, persuasive way, which will be difficult for his right-wing critics to rebut, try as they might. One of the most moving elements of the piece is his admission that he is a “child” of the mainstream community. He was brought up and nurtured in its heart. That he knows its shibboleths and taboos. He understands that what he’s done here is, if not to cut ties entirely, to radically reconfigure his relationship with it. One of the most powerful aspects of his struggle is that he refuses to do it outside the community. But rather he stands within it and demands that the community meet him on his terms. This of course is a difficult choice to make since, as he notes himself, the majority of American Jews are not there yet. It leaves him in a lonely position of insisting on being within the tent, while those on the inside might just as soon see him leave it entirely.
Beinart does not seek to found a new anti-Zionist religion. Rather, he seeks to radically redefine Zionism in a fashion that permits it to fully engage, recognize, and affirm its long-time Palestinian enemy [italics mine]:
This doesn’t require abandoning Zionism. It requires reviving an understanding of it that has largely been forgotten. It requires distinguishing between form and essence. The essence of Zionism is not a Jewish state in the land of Israel; it is a Jewish home in the land of Israel, a thriving Jewish society that both offers Jews refuge and enriches the entire Jewish world. It’s time to explore other ways to achieve that goal—from confederation to a democratic binational state—that don’t require subjugating another people. It’s time to envision a Jewish home that is a Palestinian home, too.
Remember, the Balfour Declaration did not recognize a Jewish state. Rather, it recognized a “Jewish national home.” A home, not a state. If you abandon the idea that Israel must be a Jewish state in which the religious majority reigns supreme, and the Palestinians exist as a tolerated minority; if you recognize that the 2-million Palestinian citizens of Israel and 2-million Palestinians under Occupation deserve the same home, and recognition of their rights; then you need not be an anti-Zionist. Your Zionism may not be one that David Ben Gurion would accept. And it is certainly not a Zionism that Bibi Netanyahu would accept. But it remains a powerful Jewish response to the classical version of political Zionism.
Beinart’s ideas, well-articulated as they are, are not revolutionary. He has not created anything new or spawned an entirely new vision of Israel and Zionism. It’s not so much what he says, but rather the person saying it. After all, Israeli and Diaspora Jews have expressed these views for decades. They have mostly been voices calling out in the wilderness. But they have existed and persisted. It is certainly frustrating for many of us who have advocated these positions, only to have the communal Establishment reject them summarily, to see that it took someone like Beinart to make our ideas at least somewhat kosher.
As an example, the New York Times, a bastion of traditional liberal Zionism in its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has republished a slightly different, scaled-down version of Yavneh, I No Longer Believe in a Jewish State. I can’t recall any previous op-ed by a Jewish writer which endorsed a one-state solution and renounced the concept of a Jewish state. What took them so long? Perhaps it was Beinart’s intellectual stature. Perhaps it took the firing of James Bennet, the embattled Times Opinion editor who, with a few exceptions, toed a strict liberal Zionist line in his choice of writers and topics. Whatever the reason, we should be thankful that the dam has burst and that discourse should gradually widen to admit more of us with the tent.
An indication of the impact of the piece on liberal Zionist discourse in the media is the overwhelmingly favorable response it has found amongst the pillars of the media Establishment. Jonathan Freedland, the dominant UK foreign policy analyst writing for the Guardian; Matt Yglesias, another timid, vacillating figure on Israel issues; and Max Fisher have all written at least respectful, if not rapturous tweets about it. Had any other figure written Beinart’s essay they would, no doubt, have ripped it apart limb from limb. That they feel they can’t in this case, indicates both Beinart’s stature, and the growing credibility of these hitherto radical views.
Similarly, Palestinian figures like Yousef Munnayer and even Ali Abunimah have tweeted their appreciation for Yavne. This may be the only such instance in which liberal Zionists and Palestinian nationalists have been able to find consensus in favor of such a radical document. All of which makes this a watershed moment.
Encouraging Change Within the Democratic Party
Perhaps the most significant overall impact will lie in the realm of American politics. Polls consistently show views among Democrats gradually moving in favor of Palestinian rights. They show increasing numbers of Democrats willing to sharply criticize Israel in fundamental ways. In fact, younger Americans show majority support for a one-state solution. Increasingly, this is the direction that public opinion will move. The handwriting is on the wall. That is why the Party’s left-wing represented by The Squad, most notably Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilan Omar have championed views hitherto anathema in national politics: support for one-state and BDS. Though there has been pushback from the Israel Lobby, it has not been able to “collect scalps” of those who defy it as it did in the past when it ran candidates against its opponents and drove them from office.
A Democratic left-wing critique of Israel is here to stay and will only get stronger as new insurgent candidates like Jamaal Bowman win seats in Congress. Eventually, we will also have Democratic senators joining Bernie Sanders to voice sharply critical views on Israel and endorsing cuts in military aid in response to Israeli apartheid policies like annexation. As for Sanders himself–his policies, while the most progressive of any senator, are incremental rather than radical. He and his foreign policy advisor, Matt Duss, who remain solid liberal Zionists, will now be challenged to move left on these issues. The question is whether they will do so willingly and embrace this as an opportunity; or whether they will do so grudgingly despite the clear winds of changing blowing across the American political landscape.
In the likelihood that Sanders does not run a third time for president in 2024 or 2028, it gives an opportunity for an even more progressive candidate on Israel-Palestine to step forward and carry the mantle on this issue. In that sense, Beinart’s essay is a rallying cry for change in the Party.
Similarly, BDS will come out of this even stronger. Though the Israel Lobby has passed anti-BDS legislation in 28 states, Yavne offers defenders of BDS a powerful argument against such punitive laws. It strengthens the inevitable court challenge which should find them unconstitutional. And it offers further credibility to the notion that Israel is a pariah state deserving of ostracism. This is, in turn, will encourage BDS to help transform these attitudes into policy and law. We can expect a far more robust response from American governments to Israeli apartheid in future including defunding settlements, denying tax-deductible status to settlement charities, denying military aid, and supporting official government sanctions, as we do against Iran.
What Did Beinart Miss?
There are weaknesses in Beinart’s prescriptions for the future: he favors a binational state. For him, it seems part of an evolutionary path from a two-state solution to a paradigm that offers two peoples a tempered form of independence within a single state. He seems to believe there is a need to guarantee in some ironclad fashion the separate rights of each people within a single entity. Personally, though I have enormous respect for the binational vision of the founders of Brit Shalom, Martin Buber, Judah Magnes and others, I don’t believe such a solution will work today. It would be too complicated to devise a system in which two peoples would co-exist in a single state yet have separate realms of authority. How do you define what those separate realms are and their specific powers? How do you then meld those two separate entities into a single entity as a state of its own?
It is far simpler to have a single state in which each citizen has a single vote in a single parliament ruled by a single prime minister. Yes, there will be some ethnic conflict and tension in terms of the distribution of power. Whichever group is the minority might feel shut out of the perquisites of power. Unless of course, it could craft a coalition by allying with a portion of the majority ethnic group. But of course, this is the essence of politics in a society like Canada, Switzerland, Belgium or Lebanon, composed of competing ethnic groups within a democratic system.
While Beinart has offered some models of governance for his envisioned binational state, he has not offered a path to get there. In other words, given that Israel itself is irrevocably entrenched in the status quo; and international bodies have neither the inclination nor sustained will-power to intervene; and the U.S. remains locked into the two-state dead-end–how do we get from here to there? What needs to happen in order to break this logjam? There are precedents in recent history showing that a seemingly stable political system disintegrates relatively quickly and suddenly. This happened with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It happened over a longer term in Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia, and with Kosovo’s break-away from Serbia.
By what scenario might the same happen to Israel-Palestine? It certainly will not arise spontaneously within Israel itself. Its population is too comfortable with the status quo and too fearful of change. Nor do Palestinians alone have the capacity to force such a change on Israelis. The United Nations and European Union have too many other crises on their agenda to offer the sort of ongoing, intense engagement required to transform the region. While the U.S., given the right circumstances might possess that sort of capacity, it does not now and will not for the near to medium term. Perhaps for these very reasons, Beinart has hesitated to suggest a way forward.
Despite his radical break with his past views, there were a few lingering linguistic echoes of his liberal Zionist past. Take this passage:
Only by helping to free Palestinians—and in the process coming to see them as human beings, not the reincarnation of our tortured past—can we free ourselves from the Holocaust’s grip.
There is something uncomfortable in the notion that Jews should “help free” Palestinians from their subjugation. It reminds me of the Boston statue of Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves, which features a newly liberated Black slave kneeling at his feet.
Finally, I was struck by the concluding paragraph of his essay:
Imagine a country in which, at sundown on the 27th of Nissan, the beginning of Yom HaShoah—Holocaust Remembrance Day—Jewish and Palestinian co-presidents lower a flag in Warsaw Ghetto Square at Yad Vashem as an imam delivers the Islamic du‘a’ for the dead. Imagine those same leaders, on the 15th of May, gathering at a restored cemetery in the village of Deir Yassin, the site of a future Museum of the Nakba, which commemorates the roughly 750,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled during Israel’s founding, as a rabbi recites El Malei Rachamim, our prayer for the dead.
That’s what Yavne can mean in our time. It’s time to build it.
While it is true that the preponderance of Israeli and Palestinian reality concerns the dead–and acknowledging them and the suffering endured by both sides–I’m struck by how much of Beinart’s vision concerns acknowledging death, and how little is dedicated to a vision of life and how to move it forward. Of course, suffering cannot be shoved under the carpet. In fact, a good deal of the early years of such a state will be absorbed in the equivalent of reconciliation commissions investigating and holding accountable those who committed crimes. But beyond this, how do you create a national identity based on positive, shared values?
A major engine of integration will be economic. Huge commercial opportunities will become available that were hitherto restricted due to the apartheid nature of what were two separate entities of Israel and Palestine. Those economic projects must be available equally to both Israeli Jews and Palestinians. Collaborations between them in which responsibility and financial reward are shared must be guaranteed. But economics alone will not create a single state.
Certainly, education can start this process. A curriculum which teaches truth and facts of history, rather than propaganda, will ensure that children will grow up appreciating the narrative of both sides.
Though the envisioned single state will have a reduced military footprint, since it will no longer be arrayed against a threatening Palestinian enemy, the army will remain a unifying force in society. If both Jews and Palestinians serve together in an integrated military, this would offer a huge step forward.
Undoubtedly, others have sketched out such visions in academic studies. I would like to have seen more of this from Beinart’s essay.
nick wheeler says
Excellent news, and a much appreciated summary of something that the revolutionary left has been saying for over 50 years.
Beinert couldn’t have picked a worse time to publish.
Covid 19 does not distinguish between Zionists, liberal Zionists, post-Zionists, Jews or Arabs.
We are all struggling now, and very few people have the time or the inclination to read Beinert, much less think deeply on what he is saying.
Stone idols are being toppled, and institutions that we took for granted, are being shaken down to their foundations. A desert land squabble isn’t holding anyone’s attention right now.
“Remember, the Balfour Declaration did not recognize a Jewish state. Rather, it recognized a “Jewish national home.” A home, not a state ”
Mmm….I’m not altogether sure of that.
‘In a private conversation at Balfour’s House in the summer of 1921, both Balfour and the Prime Minister contradicted him [Churchill] and told Churchill that “by the Declaration they always meant an eventual Jewish State.”
See, David Fromkin’s, A Peace to End All Peace, page. 520, where Fromkin cites to Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Companion Volume, Vol. 4, Part3: April 1921-November 1922, p. 1559.(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975)
Richard Silverstein says
Don’t be an idiot: what does Covid19 have to do with Beinart’s essay? Nothing.
More inanity. In fact, Beinart’s essay ran in the NY Times as well as Jewish Current. It has been discussed widely throughout the world. I’d argue in fact that a pandemic is a perfect time for publishing this as people have far more time on their hands to do things they cannot do regularly–like read essays.
WTF?? A “desert land squabble?” Is that what you call a 70 year conflict in which tens of thousands have died? A squabble?
I smell a hasbaroid buddy. Watch your step. Keep publishing such tripe here & your days will be numbered.
I could care less what Balfour said in a private conversation. What matters is what’s written on the printed page of an official government document–where it clearly says “a Jewish home.”
avram stern says
“on Israel’s attack on Iran’s Natanz centrifuge production facility.”
I don’t recall anyone taking the credit for this attack. Do you have a solid source for this aside from assumption or heresay?
Patricia Ann Abraham says
Once again the FACT that Christian Communities exist in both Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories is totally ignored. I wonder why this is a continuing failure of MSM? Why present all Palestinians as Muslims? Why ignore the reality that Christianity itself began in the Middle East; that Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem? More importantly, what ignore the fact that Christian teachings could be a bridge to bring the ideal of a single state between the Joran and the Mediterrainian into a reality? Just asking….
nessim dayan says
Dear Mr S,
i am inserting here a link so you may fall off your chair laughing . a rabbi trying to sell to the world the fact that annexation is NOT annexation because the west bank was jewish , wait for it , 2000 years ago, ergo you can say the u.s. does not exist because you are still british and you are entitled to vote for brexit
and this is what goes as reporting in the jerusalem post , craps this jewish (ahem) land is crushing under thousands upon thousands of sick haredis who categorically refuse to abide by cleanliness is next to godliness have the balls to crawl from under a rock like a scorpion to spew old venom . and yet
regarding your item – the Democrats are cowards chained by aipac, Biden has already shut the door fully to any notion for ANY AND I REPEAT ANY MOVE beyond the cemented norm. Read his declaration for changes demanded by the left wing, Pelosi is no better than Mitch when it comes to bringing the stone age manifesto into the 21st century.
forget it , it wont come to pass , unless bibi does something really but really stupid, which is possible in the realm of greed. but if all things stay as is, do not expect any change in the next 8 years regarding israel by then we will have cemented the apartheid into law whilst the world is yawning out of boredom
Why are you leaving out all Palestinians in refugee camps outside of Israel and the occupied territories? They have a right to return.
Deir Yassin says
I read something by Beinart some years ago, he explained that what made him change/question his vision on Zionism was when he saw a video-clip of a small Palestinian boy crying ‘baba, baba’ as he tried to reach his daddy on some farmroad near Nablus (if my memory is correct). His daddy was taken away by heavy armed army-thugs for ‘stealing’ his own water back from settlers. Beinart wrote that his little boy called him baba too…
Beinart’s inspiration says Israel a ‘colony’ | JPost – April 2012 |
Too little, too late!?
Israel is in the process now, of steeling what is left of Palestine. Maybe at the end of this process small enclaves, surrounded on all sides by “israeli” territory may exist, al la Gaza, and the “two state *solution*” will be enshrined in law and accepted internationally.
Call me a cynic, but could it be that Beibart has changed his tune now, in an effort to appear pragmatic, open, caring, now that Kushner/Trump’s “peace plan” is being driven forward?
The time for opposition to this plan was 4 years ago. The time to highlight the difference between “home” and “state” was 50 and 70 years ago.
But in years to come Beibart can point to his “road to Damascus” moment to show the world, and American Jews, just how emotionally intelligent, fair-minded and compassionate he is when it comes to recognising the humanity of the Palestinian people. In other words, is this not a simple, well timed PR exercise that will be used to morph and rebrand the bloodied Liberal Zionists as compassionate and caring “open” Zonists once Palestine is crushed beneath the boot of the rebranded “Jewish Home”?!
Thank you for this essay and the impulse to read Beinart’s I don’t know how much Beinart’s probably long fermenting change will actually change things. but it’s welcome. I have admired his integrity, insight, striving for moral clarity.
A lot of what he is saying, the vision, solutions, possibilities, what would turn Israel away from it’s now accelerated unsustainable path, have been floating around and dismissed or turned on deaf ears. The writings of Bernard Avishai comes to mind. Beinart also distinguishes, interprets fairly, the prior modern history from the post-Holocaust response/trauma that took over politics and the Jewish communal psyche. How to get out of that mentality when there is a political structure leading in the opposition direction that feeds off of it is the issue. Beinart does not say- maybe feeling that reason will work. How do you get a communal evolution of consciousness, and healing? Who is Beinart talking to or influencing?
There will more problems for Israel with this annexation, a “coming out”, no longer a drip drip drip. The “get over it-we won they lost” response will ring loud.But Israelis will become more and more isolated, perhaps more uncomfortable, many will leave. People have a consciences to live with. The old dogs may not hunt too much longer.. maybe.
The Limey says
What time is it?
Time to replace the colonial state with something more equitable and just.
Tom Ackerman says
ApprecIate that you acknowledge the challenges of achieving a unitary not binational state.
But you haven’t acknowledged the likelihood of an intra-Jewish civil war (literally) in the interim.
And citing Lebanon as an example, in itself an invention of colonialism, doesn’t advance your case.
Richard Silverstein says
@ Tom Ackerman: That analogy does not hold. Israel is not Lebanon. Totally different circumstances. Who would fight this Israeli Civil War? Palestinians against Jews? Secular Jews against settler Jews? None of these scenarios will happen.
I remember Beinart’s reaction to that man being dragged away in front of his small son too. The thing is, Beinart is a decent person. Others, seeing the same video, claimed it was ‘Pallywood’, that ‘if Palestinians loved their children they would not let them be present at such a scene’, that Palestinians were ‘abusing a small kid to arouse sympathy from bleeding heart leftists’ etc. etc.