Jacobin / July 13, 2020
Peter Beinart is editor-at-large at Jewish Currents, professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York, and author of several books, among others The Crisis of Zionism (2012).
Liberal writer Peter Beinart recently wrote that he no longer believes in the project of a Jewish state, but rather a “Jewish home” within a democratic, equal state. In an interview with Jacobin, Beinart reflects on how his thoughts on Israel and Palestine have evolved, generational shifts within American Judaism, and why Jews must be part of a movement for justice led by Palestinians.
Last week, Peter Beinart wrote an essay for Jewish Currents and an op-ed for the New York Times stating that he no longer believes in the project of a Jewish state, and instead favours a “Jewish home” within a democratic, equal state. Beinart, one of the foremost intellectuals of the progressive American Jewish community, had been an outspoken advocate of a two-state solution for many years. He has held up the hope that liberal democracy is possible within the construct of a Jewish state. Now he’s declared that vision dead.
“The painful truth,” he wrote, “is that the project to which liberal Zionists like myself have devoted ourselves for decades — a state for Palestinians separated from a state for Jews — has failed. The traditional two-state solution no longer offers a compelling alternative to Israel’s current path. It is time for liberal Zionists to abandon the goal of Jewish-Palestinian separation and embrace the goal of Jewish-Palestinian equality.”
Jacobin’s Hadas Thier recently spoke with Beinart about the articles and his own political trajectory on the question of Israel and Palestine. The conversation has been edited for clarity.
In your recent Jewish Currents piece, you talked about watching the threat of annexation unfold and wondering for the first time in your life whether the price of a Jewish state is too high. But I also got the sense that there wasn’t a single definitive break on this question for you. Could you describe the process of unlearning and evolution that got you here?
The first time I went to spend time with Palestinians on the West Bank was about twenty years ago. That was probably the catalyst for a kind of rethinking that then unfolded. I have been against occupation since I was in high school, and argued about it during the First Intifada, but I had really not seen Palestinian life under occupation for myself. And it just left this impression.
I kept returning and going back again and again. I just kept feeling more and more deeply that the conversation among the mainstream in the American Jewish community doesn’t really capture the reality of how brutal it is to live your entire life in a country in which you can’t become a citizen, a state that has no obligations to you. That even for those American Jews who understand that intellectually, until you’ve seen it, it is hard to imagine what that means for people day in and day out. That had a very strong effect on me.
Then when [Barack] Obama was elected, and he clearly had some inclination to challenge Israeli settlement, and I saw that the American Jewish political establishment was going to line up with Bibi [Netanyahu] against him, and with Avigdor Lieberman who entered the government at that point. Back then Avigdor Lieberman was seen as really radical. That was another moment for me of choosing sides. Those were moments of an evolution.
More recently, as I was writing and saying things that I’ve been saying for a long time, they were sounding more stale and less convincing to me. As a writer, you just can’t be a good writer if you’re not writing things that you genuinely believe in. It wasn’t like I had an alternative. But I felt like I was getting to a dead end. And so I thought, well, let’s take some time to read more broadly in some different areas and see if anything comes up.
It’s also very important for me to root my relationship with Judaism and the Jewish people in places where it can’t be destabilized or undermined by the fact that I might be politically out on a limb. I started Daf Yomi in January, studying a page of Talmud every day so that I finish in seven and a half years. And I actually feel like in some way that’s also been helpful to me, because it roots me every day in a different conception of Judaism, not AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] Judaism. If I’m seen as more marginal or radical in this conversation, I have a different Jewish conversation that I’m rooted in.
One of the things that really struck home to me in your piece is distinguishing between a Jewish state and a Jewish home. What do you think are the problems inherent to a Jewish state?
A Jewish state, as most people would define it, is a state that has obligations to Jews that it doesn’t have to the other people under its domain. Most of them are Palestinian. Right there you have a serious tension with the notion of equality under the law, which is really core to liberal democracy. And that’s just within the Green Line where Palestinians are citizens, but not equal citizens. In the West Bank, there’s no liberal democracy at all. Those Palestinians are not citizens, they don’t have the right to vote.
For a long time I hoped that Israel would end the occupation, and then inside the Green Line, it would evolve towards a more inclusive national identity. Maybe it would still have certain things like granting refuge to Jews or certain special obligations for Jews, but it would broaden its notion of Israeliness to make it more fully inclusive for Palestinian citizens. But in reality, Israel has more and more deeply entrenched its control over the West Bank. And it’s also simultaneously become more illiberal inside the Green Line.
My hopes for this trajectory were framed partly because I’m a product of the 1990s. There was a certain moment in the early 1990s, where one could squint and see that possibility a little bit in the distance. Now we’ve gone in completely the opposite direction. So, I’ve had to reconsider that.
Now I’m not a diasporist. I believe that a Jewish society in the land of Israel is deeply important. In that way, I’m influenced by people like Ahad Ha’am, who believed that there were certain things that a Jewish society in the land of Israel could create, that in diaspora Jews could not create.
When I think about a Jewish home, that’s partly what I’m thinking about — all of the cultural production and religious innovation that comes out of Jewish Israel. Not all of it’s good, but there are certain mitzvot that you can only do in the land of Israel. There’s a way in which Israel, as a Jewish society, can have a public conversation which is infused with Jewish thought and Jewish text. That’s what I think about as being a Jewish home.
I believe, and obviously many to my right will disagree with me, that this could also be a place of refuge for Jews as well as being a place of refuge for Palestinians. I’m even idealistic enough to believe what Ahad Ha’am thought about, which was that a Jewish society that would radiate and enrich the whole world might even be able to do so more powerfully if it was also equally a Palestinian home.
It’s hard to make a case that there’s a Jewish home that is safe and enriching right now. The Jewish state has a contradictory impact in that way. It has not made the world safer for Jews. There is this long history of Jews who lived in historic Palestine, before the Zionist movement took root there, and lived side by side with their Muslim, Arab neighbours. But now the “common sense,” ingrained idea is that Jews and Arabs inherently could never live together in a single state. Where does this idea come from?
It’s such a good question. At least partly it comes out of the trauma of anti-Semitism culminating in the Holocaust, which then becomes a template projected onto every place where Jews live, but especially this place where there has been one hundred years of conflict.
I also think that one of the great tragedies of Israel has been that for a complicated set of reasons Mizrahi Jews, who are Arabs themselves, who could have been a bridge between Ashkenazi Jews and Palestinians, did not play that role. Because of the intense anti-Arab ethos in Israel, especially early on in the fifties, Mizrahi Jews had to divest themselves politically of their own Arabness, even though culturally they may have retained big elements of it, and they’ve become often more anti-Arab than the Ashkenazim. And that has allowed for this kind of narrative to emerge: That Jews can’t live peacefully with Arabs and look, the Arab Jews themselves say so.
I heard this in my own family. My grandmother was born in Alexandria, Egypt and she would say: If you knew Arabic and you had lived with the Arabs like me, you wouldn’t trust them either. And I heard it for years and years and then at a certain point, I wondered, if you grew up speaking Arabic, and you’re from Egypt, why aren’t you an Arab too? I think that’s part of what happened that’s led to this narrative.
You argue that the question of whether a two-state or a one-state solution is more realistic is not the most useful frame, because neither is on the immediate horizon. But the question is, what kind of a vision could animate a movement that’s powerful enough to contend with Israeli power? Who and what do you see as the driving forces to forward such a movement, and is a one-state paradigm important towards that end?
I think about it not in terms of a one-state, but as an equality paradigm. I do think that it is possible that a confederation, which was two states that allowed free movement between them, might be one potential option that emerges. There’s a spectrum that leads you from federation to shared sovereignty. So I tried, in writing this piece, not to get too wedded to any one particular model.
I also think that in terms of thinking about where the movement comes from, as a Jew and not a Palestinian, I am not best positioned to answer that question, in the sense that it’s only logical that this movement will be led by Palestinians, since they’re the ones who are lacking rights. And I don’t have the intimate understanding of Palestinian political culture to be able to make reasonably informed guesses about how that might emerge.
But I do think that it’s really crucial that Jews try to be participants in a movement for equality. And that the movement itself can become a model for what the country looks like. South Africa and Israel/Palestine are different in a lot of ways. But I think that one of the really crucial things about South Africa is that the ANC [African National Congress] itself was an embryo of the country it wanted to create. It was a vibrantly multiracial and multicultural institution.
Of course, it was black-led and mostly black, as it should have been. But as a child of South Africans, my hero growing up was Joe Slovo, who was born in Lithuania and came to South Africa at the age of nine speaking only Yiddish. In Lusaka, Zambia, as the head of the ANC military wing, planning military strategy, when he would get stressed out he would go out and sit and read Yiddish literature.
It was a movement that included South African Indians and people of mixed races. It had that embryo of the society that it wanted to create. And so when the apartheid government kept on saying that people in this country have to be separate based on their race and tribe, the ANC said no, we’re embodying this vision of a genuinely equal, multiracial, multicultural society. So what I really hope is that something emerges that Jews can be part of, even though of course we shouldn’t be leading it, that can model that both on the ground and also for those of us here in the US.
For progressive Jews in the US, what do you think the dangers are of holding on to the hope or vision of a two-state solution?
I would distinguish between two types of people who hold on to the two-state solution. If you’re someone who is willing to fight for two states, and willing to impose a pressure on Israel to try to achieve it, that’s fine. I’m not in that place anymore. But if you’re willing to actually try to change Israel’s structure by supporting a conditioning of military aid and other forms of pressure, that’s fine. I don’t think those people are complicit in enabling the status quo.
But I do think, unfortunately, there are very large numbers of people in the American Jewish establishment who claim to be two-staters, but in fact are deeply complicit in the entrenchment of the status quo.
They’ve never been willing to do anything in support of a two-state solution that would put them in conflict with the Israeli government in a meaningful way. And that position has become a fig leaf for this status quo, which is morally indefensible and I fear may ultimately even move towards mass population expulsion. That is the kind of two-statism that is really playing a negative role.
To what extent do you think the trajectory that you discuss in terms of your own thinking is reflective of shifts that are happening right now among the progressive American Jewish community? Whether it’s a generational shift or more broadly a political realignment.
There has been this generational divide for quite a while now, at least outside of the Orthodox community, for a variety of reasons. And I also think we’re in a moment of mass movement politics in the United States right now, which is being led often by young people, and many Jews are part of that.
One of the lessons of American history, if you look for instance at the 1960s, is that broader movements for social change often produce movements for social change within the American Jewish community. Breira, for instance, the first Jewish organization to support a Palestinian state, was really led by veterans of the civil rights and anti-war movements. So we have seen the emergence of groups like IfNotNow. I suspect that the Black Lives Matter movement, and the fact that there are Jews who are involved in that movement as allies will further generate movement for change inside of the American Jewish community.
I don’t think it’s very likely that most American Jews of an older generation will embrace the vision that I’ve laid out, but I do think there may be more openness among younger American Jews. And that maybe it is that generation of people who may be able to start to flesh out and institutionalize and organize around this kind of vision, or make it their own in various ways.
One of the things that was most meaningful to me was that ten years ago when I wrote this essay “The Failure of American Jewish Establishment,” I couldn’t have imagined an organization like IfNotNow. But it did emerge. And I realized that that what I was hoping for. I hope that somehow, maybe this essay will contribute to new incarnations of Jewish politics which are underway and will have a vision of equality at their core.
I hope so too. And I’m quite hopeful of it given the fertile ground that exists for these kinds of shifts, at the political and grassroots levels. There have been over the last few years some small but significant changes within sections of the Democratic Party on the question of Israel and Palestine. How do you think that might develop?
I don’t think it’s likely that very many Democratic politicians are going to sign on for what I’ve laid out. But I do think that as the two-state solution recedes as a plausible option, even though progressive Democrats aren’t going to come out and say we don’t support the traditional two-state solution, the discourse will change. They will start talking more about rights and equality, rather than about a particular kind of state formation.
If you go back to the Obama administration, so much of the discourse has been, and still remains, “we oppose settlements and we oppose annexation, because we have to preserve Israel as a Jewish state.” It’s not really a language of human rights. It’s mostly a language of perceived Jewish self-interest.
Bernie Sanders has already done a lot of really important work and now Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is doing some of it as well. I think the discourse can shift even more towards a discourse of rights. That can move the party in a different direction. A lot will depend on what happens on the ground in terms of Palestinian politics. But I do think that this is the future of at least where the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is going to be over the next few years.
I know criticizing Israeli policies, let alone questioning the foundations of a Jewish state, as a Jew, can be an uncomfortable space. Both in terms of being in the public limelight where plenty of people are ready to label you as a “self-hating Jew.” And for you on a personal level, I know this can be difficult as well. Is there anything you want to add about navigating that space as Jew and the role that you hope the articles you’ve written can play at this moment?
What I’ve struggled to do for myself is first of all to try to convey to other Jews — including the ones who very fiercely disagree with me, some of whom are my friends and extended family and people I go to synagogue with, and families of the children my kids go to school with — that for me, this comes from a place of love and solidarity.
I am a liberal, but I’m not a pure universalist. I think the central metaphor of Jewish peoplehood is extended family. The book of Genesis tells the story of the family, and then in slavery, that family becomes a people. “B’nei Israel,” children of Israel. I try to find ways of showing people that for me, I feel a sense of love and solidarity, and that peoplehood is important to me, I see the Jewish people as family.
Even though some people feel that I express that in perverse ways, from their perspective, I still want to try to convince them that that’s where it comes from, as well as a deep belief that Palestinians are human beings who have inalienable rights and that those rights must be respected. But it also comes from my sense of Jewish honour, as a people who forged in slavery.
And then I also try to find ways of feeling rooted in Judaism, which is outside of this debate. Many mornings over the last few months, I prayed, and over time, I felt more comfortable, not just intellectually but emotionally and spiritually, to come to terms with this. It has settled me and helped me figure out what the right thing to do is.
Hadas Thier is an activist and socialist in New York