Middle East Monitor / July 12, 2023
I have long held a deep fascination with the intellectual journey of individuals who undergo profound conversions. Religious or political, witnessing the gradual evolution of ideological stances, culminating in the decisive act of severing one’s personal Gordian knots, is truly captivating. With my background, profession and personal interest, I have had the privilege of observing first-hand the transformative journeys undertaken by Muslims who undergo profound shifts in their perceptions and practices of Islam, as well as Zionists who experience a profound disillusionment with their emotional connection to Israel.
When it comes to the latter, Thomas L Friedman and Peter Beinart are two contemporaries whose political trajectories I have watched closely. Their respective paths have been a subject of great interest and intrigue in equal measure. Beinart’s, for the way he has abandoned his early certainties about Israel and Zionism; and Friedman’s, not only because of his public disillusionment with the apartheid state, but also because The New York Times columnist is arguably the journalist who has most shaped US debate over Israel-Palestine in recent decades.
Although Friedman and Beinart still share major disagreements on Israel, their different paths highlight powerfully the existential crises in what’s referred to as liberal Zionism. As I pointed out in a previous article commenting on a discussion between the two, both are liberal Jews and, unlike Beinart, who has had a very public political conversion regarding Israel and Zionism, Friedman has been less willing to part company with his past loyalties. That, however, does not mean that he has not become disillusioned over the direction that Israel is taking.
In that discussion, Friedman refused to use the word “apartheid” to describe Israeli policy. I argued that the main reason he is less trenchant in his views over Israel than Beinart is because, as one of the main commentators in the US on the Middle East, the NYT columnist is less concerned about the rights and wrongs of “the conflict” as much as he is about writing for his audience. “Do you want to make a point, or do you want to make a difference?” Friedman said during the exchange, shooting back with a prickly response when Beinart presented him with a charge sheet of Israeli crimes against the Palestinians, beginning with the ethnic cleansing in 1948 through to the crime of apartheid.
Of course, numerous factors contribute to why individuals cling to beliefs they disagree with privately but may not openly acknowledge. One significant factor is emotional attachment, as people tend to develop strong emotional connections to their beliefs. This emotional bond can create resistance to letting go, even when faced with conflicting evidence. Beliefs become intertwined with personal identity, fostering a sense of belonging and self-worth.
Furthermore, social pressure and conformity play a role. The fear of uncertainty that accompanies the relinquishment of long-held beliefs can be daunting. It requires courage for individuals to question their worldview and confront the potential fallibility of their convictions. Recognizing the complexities involved, it becomes evident that the process of re-evaluating one’s beliefs requires introspection and a willingness to embrace the possibility of being wrong. It is an endeavour that demands personal growth and the experience of serious discomfort.
During his discussion with Beinart, Friedman exhibited traits reminiscent of someone grappling with an ideological crisis. As I posited in my piece, Friedman, who has spent a significant portion of his career covering Israel and Palestine while often defending the occupation state, now perceives himself as a person of influence not only in the US but also in Israel. Consequently, he is cautious about expressing anything that may undermine his position. In my analysis, I proposed that Friedman’s rationale lies in the belief that being at the heart of the debate, where he can potentially sway the perspectives of those he disagrees with, is more impactful than advocating from an external standpoint. It is this consideration that seemingly prevents him from undergoing a political conversion akin to Beinart’s of several years ago.
Nevertheless, upon reading Friedman’s article in The New York Times yesterday, it appeared evident that the 69-year-old journalist has taken yet another step towards a comprehensive political transformation. Within the piece, Friedman articulated his view that the US had initiated a process of re-evaluating its association with Israel. He spoke of “a sense of shock today among US diplomats” about the direction of Israel and the “breakdown of shared values” between Washington and Tel-Aviv.
However, the most remarkable revelation in the article emerged as Friedman delved into the concept of a “shared fiction” between the US and Israel, which allows the perpetuation of the occupation state’s unlawful settler-colonial policies. Whether rooted in religious or political beliefs, misguided ideological positions stem from the presence of false notions, misplaced optimism, and untruths. According to Friedman it is the shared fiction about the nature of Israel’s occupation that is at the root of America’s inexplicable devotion to Israel.
The US is reassessing its relationship with Israel, said Friedman, because the far-right government of Benjamin Netanyahu is undermining “[o]ur shared values and the vitally important shared fiction about the status of the West Bank that has kept peace hopes there just barely alive.” Friedman went on to explain that one of the most important Israeli and American shared interests was the shared fiction that the occupation of the West Bank was only temporary and one day there could be a two-state solution.
Washington did not feel the need to worry about the now more than 500,000 [700.000] Jewish settlers, argued Friedman, because one day there will be a Palestinian state. “Because of that shared fiction, the US has almost always defended Israel in the UN and the International Court of Justice in The Hague against various resolutions or judgments that it was not occupying the West Bank temporarily but actually annexing it permanently,” said Friedman. “This Israeli government is now doing its best to destroy that time-buying fiction.”
The idea of a shared fiction is key to understanding why US support for Israel has been based on nothing more than false beliefs, false hope and bare-faced lies. It’s been apparent for decades that the Jewish settlements were meant to be permanent, which is why every human rights group has now decided to call Israel out for its imposition of apartheid. It is fiction to have believed and continue believing that Israel was ever interested in peace; that it would end its occupation and allow Palestinians to have their own state. It was all a lie from the beginning.
I am delighted that Friedman has mustered the courage to call Israeli policies “apartheid” just as I am thrilled to see him admit that US relations with Israel have been built on a “fiction”. Such revelations undoubtedly bring individuals like Friedman one step closer to completing their political conversion and abandoning Zionism.
Nasim Ahmed is a political analyst