Embattled but resolute, Beinart responds to his critics

In the last two years, the ideas of Jewish journalist Peter Beinart have been at the center of the conversation over how American Jews should relate to Israel today.

In his 2010 essay in the New York Review of Books, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” Beinart argued that leading American Jewish groups, by demanding that Israeli government policies be supported and not questioned, have made it increasingly difficult for liberal American Jews to also be Zionists.

That essay was, for those on the left, a rallying call. Last year, college-age members of the dovish lobby J Street put the writer’s face on T-shirts that proclaimed, “We are Beinart’s Army.”

Now, in the days leading up to the release this week of his new book, “The Crisis of Zionism,” Beinart has shown that his 2010 essay was just the opening salvo. On March 19, The New York Times published as an op-ed an excerpt from the book’s most controversial section, its straightforward message summed up in the headline: “To Save Israel, Boycott the Settlements.”

In 2010, the right-leaning “establishment” alone felt attacked and compelled to counter Beinart’s criticisms. This time, both the right and the left are rejecting Beinart’s proposal, each for its own reasons.

“Jews boycott other Jews all the time,” Beinart said in an interview last week, responding to those who took issue with his call for a boycott of Jews by Jews. “Many synagogues, if you’ve left your wife an agunah, if you haven’t given her a get [Jewish writ of divorce], you wouldn’t be able to get an aliyah,” he said, referring to a long-standing tradition of denying to such men the honor of being called to the Torah.

Beinart spoke from his office at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he is an associate professor, at the end of a week during which he was frequently responding to critics on Zion Square, a new blog he edits for The Daily Beast, where he is senior political writer.

“Another argument is that this is a slippery slope to BDS,” Beinart said, referring to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which targets the whole of Israel, not just the areas beyond the country’s pre-1967 borders that Beinart plans to boycott. He calls his settlement-boycott proposal “Zionist BDS.”
“I believe that one of the things that fuels the BDS movement is the creation on the ground of a one-state reality and the despair that we could ever partition the land,” he said.  “Whatever steps we could take toward keeping that possibility alive is a kind of mechanism against full BDS.”

In the op-ed, Beinart summed up this distinction — between Israel within its pre-1967 borders (also known as the green line) and the areas outside those borders that the Jewish state has been occupying in the four decades since — by calling the areas within the boundaries “democratic Israel.” The area beyond the green line is usually called the West Bank; many on the right call it Judea and Samaria. Beinart wishes to dub it “nondemocratic Israel.”

“The phrase suggests that there are today two Israels: a flawed but genuine democracy within the green line and an ethnically based nondemocracy beyond it,” Beinart wrote in The Times, and advocated for, along with a boycott of settlement products, “an equally vigorous embrace of democratic Israel.”

If Beinart’s analysis of the situation in Israel still had appeal for many on the left, his boycott proposal did not.

An editorial in the Forward published days after Beinart’s op-ed called it “an empty gesture,” even as it acknowledged Beinart had succeeded in giving expression to “a deep frustration and confusion on the part of many Jews who want to stop the peace process from unraveling and see the occupation end with Israel’s security intact, who want to help reclaim the high moral ground in the struggle for Israel’s democratic soul.”

Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder and president of the J Street lobbying group, whose dovish position has appealed to liberal Zionists most likely to share Beinart’s views, also criticized Beinart’s argument in a statement published on his group’s Web site on the day Beinart’s op-ed appeared in print.

“I don’t think that it makes any sense to put negative pressure on people whose behavior you hope to change,” Ben-Ami said in an interview with journalist Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic on March 23. “I think that the way that Israelis will feel comfortable making the compromises and the sacrifices — and Israel as a whole, not just the settlers — is when they really feel that not only American Jews, but the United States, is going to be there for them.

“I think if you begin to do things that say, ‘We’re not really with you, we’re against you, we’re putting pressure on you,’ ” Ben-Ami continued, “I think that causes people to pull more into a shell and pull back.”

For his part, Beinart — who has spoken at J Street events in the past and was one of the featured speakers at this year’s J Street annual conference in Washington, D.C., on March 25 – told The Journal he hadn’t considered what Ben-Ami’s reaction might be before publishing the op-ed, and suggested that organizational concerns might have guided Ben-Ami’s reaction.

“I’m a writer, so I take positions based on what I think makes sense,” Beinart said, “and someone who runs an organization has to think about the needs of the organization.”

Beinart dismisses claims his boycott would be ineffectual, pointing to the success of the Palestinian Authority’s boycott of settlement goods in spurring more than a dozen Israeli companies that once did business in the West Bank to move back across the green line.

“There have been some significant examples of companies that have moved back within the green line as a result of pressure,” he said. “The Swedish Mul-T-Lock company did. Barkan wine did.”

Beinart couldn’t say when he last purchased goods made in the West Bank, but he said he intended to put his boycott into practice.

“I am going to do my best to abide by what I write,” he said.

If the criticism of Beinart from voices on the left focuses on the practicability of his proposal, the American Jewish establishment is still taking him to task over his basic assessment of the situation in Israel.