Peter Beinart and David Suissa debate Zionism’s ‘Crisis’

When Peter Beinart\'s new book, \"The Crisis of Zionism,\" was published earlier this year, it was met with a tsunami of responses -- from reviews, to op-ed pieces and a fury of blogging.
May 17, 2012

When Peter Beinart’s new book, “The Crisis of Zionism,” was published earlier this year, it was met with a tsunami of responses — from reviews, to op-ed pieces and a fury of blogging.

The dissemination and dissection of Beinart’s argument — that the future of Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state is in serious danger because of Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip — has now moved into a second phase. In addition to the usual stops on a book tour, Beinart has participated in public debates staged in Boston, New York and, on May 16, in Los Angeles, at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

In L.A., Beinart faced off against David Suissa, president of The Jewish Journal and a weekly columnist for this newspaper and its Web site, jewishjournal.com. The Journal co-sponsored the event, which was moderated by Rabbi John Rosove, Temple Israel’s senior rabbi. Beinart began the debate with an opening statement, followed by Suissa’s, and then Rosove addressed questions to the two without taking any audience questions.

Beinart, editor-in-chief of Open Zion, a blog about Israel, Palestine and the Jewish future at The Daily Beast, used his opening statement to outline his book’s basic argument: that Israel, by continuing its policy of settling Jewish citizens in areas beyond the country’s pre-1967 borders, is approaching a point when more Arabs than Jews will be living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, potentially putting Israel in the undesirable position of having to choose whether it will continue as a Jewish state or as a democratic one.

Beinart argued that unless Israel acts decisively soon to end its occupation of the West Bank, the majority of Palestinians who currently support a two-state solution will instead embrace a vision of a single bi-national state.

Calling that a “terrifying outcome,” Beinart described the Palestinian argument as: “The birth rate is on our side, the world is increasingly on our side, let’s just have the 100-year struggle for the character of that one state,” adding, “and, ultimately, we will divest it of its Jewish character.”

While acknowledging that the Palestinian leadership deserves “significant blame” for the current impasse in peace negotiations between the two sides, Beinart claimed the Israeli government deserves the lion’s share of responsibility.

“It is not the Palestinians who are essentially paying Israelis to move into the West Bank,” he said.

For his part, Suissa disputed Beinart’s basic assertion, arguing that Israel’s current situation is not a crisis at all, and, if a crisis did exist, it is incumbent upon the Palestinians, not the Israelis, to change their ways in order to resolve it.

While Beinart says a settlement like Ariel, a city of about 18,000 that sits 13 miles east of the Green Line, represents a dangerous encroachment by Israel on land that would likely make up any future Palestinian state, Suissa countered that Israeli settlers only occupy about 1 percent of the West Bank. No new settlements have been built in the past 14 years, Suissa said, arguing that successive Israeli governments — including the current government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — have shown a willingness to make territorial concessions in pursuit of peace. Suissa pointed to the Palestinian leadership as the recalcitrant party, unwilling to prepare its people for what a peace settlement might require.


Suissa also argued that Beinart is hoping for a peace settlement that is unlikely to materialize, and, with that in mind, Suissa criticized Beinart for taking Israel to task as publicly and fiercely as he has.

“It’s criminal that this miracle country has become the world’s most favorite and most popular punching bag,” Suissa said. “So what do you want me to do? Do you want me to join in?”

As the evening went on, Beinart, who had started off speaking slowly and methodically, increased his pace, marshaling facts to respond to Suissa’s questions. Yet he also peppered his presentation with emotional notes, paying particular attention to the intergenerational nature of this discussion.

“The Crisis of Zionism,” Beinart said, was inspired by his very personal worries that the future State of Israel that will exist for his own children and grandchildren might not be the same Jewish and democratic state for which he repeatedly expressed his love.

Beinart also acknowledged that many Jews, even within his own family, disagree with his perspective, often vehemently.

“My mother said it’s a good thing my grandmother doesn’t know how to blog,” Beinart joked.

The audience of about 400 included people from across the ideological spectrum on Israel. After the two-hour debated concluded, many people lingered in the temple’s auditorium to discuss what had occurred.

“I thought he was rather anti-Semitic,” Frieda Beer, 85, said, referring to Beinart. “If the Arabs were in power, how would they treat the Jews? And I don’t think that the Jews treat the Arabs that badly.”

Alan Breslauer, meanwhile, said he felt Suissa failed to mount a convincing counter-argument to Beinart’s.

“Obviously, I do tend to side with the Beinart position,” Breslauer said. “But let’s have a debate about it, let’s talk about the truth, what’s on the table and what’s not.”

Breslauer was referring to disagreements that emerged during the debate over some seemingly straightforward facts. At one point, for instance, Beinart said the Palestinians have continued to negotiate with Israelis, mostly in secret, even as recently as the beginning of this year. He cited reports of these negotiations. Suissa repeatedly dismissed Beinart’s assertion, arguing that the next step on the road to peace must involve Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas returning to the negotiating table, without preconditions.

Other disagreements stemmed from the two men’s different ideas about what Israel should do now about the settlements.

Admitting that a final peace deal may be years, or even decades, off, Beinart nevertheless believes Israel should eliminate the government’s current economic incentives that often make it cheaper for Jewish Israelis to move to settlements in the West Bank than to live within the borders of pre-1967 Israel, in the hopes of preserving the possibility that a Palestinian state could be created there.

In stark contrast, Suissa believes Israel should tighten its hold on the territory in the hope of strengthening its negotiating position.

“If Peter Beinart really wanted to help the peace process, he would help Israel make a legitimate claim for its rights in Judea and Samaria,” Suissa said, using the biblical Hebrew names for areas that would, under the Oslo Accords, become part of a new Palestinian state. 

Even as the differences between the two speakers became ever clearer, audience members expressed positions both further to the left of Beinart and to the right of Suissa.

Among Beinart’s most-discussed arguments is his proposal for a boycott of products made by Jews living outside the 1967 borders. This proposal didn’t seem achievable to Estee Chandler, the leader of the Los Angeles chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace. Chandler, who said she has read all three of Beinart’s books, believes a boycott exclusively targeting products from the settlements cannot happen because items produced within the settlements are labeled “Made in Israel” and are, therefore, indistinguishable from other Israeli goods.

“It makes it difficult to boycott settlement products,” she said.

And while Suissa — after repeated questioning from Rosove as to what he would choose if Israel had to become either a Jewish state or a democratic one — appeared to conclude that Israel could not just choose one, his supporters disagreed.

“There are rabbinical talmudic imperatives for Jews to live in Israel as a Jewish nation,” said Scott Jacobs, a video journalist who runs the Web site JooTube.tv.

“[Beinart] may call himself a Zionist, but he’s not a learned enough Jew to recognize the halachic need to keep Israel Jewish, not democratic.”

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