February 17, 2019

Flotillas, a New Center and Other Questions for Peter Beinart

Jewish Journal: In your essay, you wondered “what Israel’s leaders would have to do or say to make the heads of AIPAC and the Presidents’ Conference scream ‘no.’ “  Take the Israeli response to the first aid-bearing flotilla in the waters off of Gaza. Should American Jewish leaders have screamed “no” to that?

Peter Beinart: I would distinguish the actions vis-à-vis the flotilla and the actual embargo itself. Israel may have made a tactical screw-up in the way it tried to intercept these ships, but once the Israeli commandos found themselves in these circumstances, I think one has to be sympathetic to their situation. What needs to be discussed and acknowledged is that the embargo is not simply an attempt to prevent Hamas from gaining the materials to build rockets; it is also an attempt to try to use collective punishment to turn the people of Gaza against Hamas.

JJ: Watching protests around the world in the wake of the flotilla incident, can you as easily dismiss the idea that some anti-Israel sentiment is actually anti-Semitic sentiment?

PB: I don’t think I’ve ever said that no anti-Israel sentiment is anti-Semitic sentiment. I just think that we should reserve the phrase “anti-Israel” for people who don’t want Israel to exist as a Jewish state, not apply it to people who are just harsh critics. And on “anti-Semitic,” you need to show that there is some genuine animus towards Jews, of Jews-qua-Jews. I’m not suggesting that that doesn’t exist. It certainly does exist, in the rhetoric of Hezbollah and Hamas, for instance, and certainly in the government of Iran.

Did you expect the reaction you got to the essay?

PB: A lot of people told me that I should be worried. Overall, I’ve been pleasantly surprised. I guess there’s been a lot of criticism, but there’s nothing wrong with criticism. 

JJ: Some have taken issue with your choice to publish the essay in The New York Review of Books (NYRB). 

PB: You know, there are actually not that many places out there these days where you can publish a long, somewhat serious essay and have it be widely read. I also think that a lot of the criticism of the NYRB has been unfair. It did publish that Tony Judt piece in 2003 — which I would disagree with — but I don’t think that any publication publishes as many important Israeli intellectual voices, from David Grossman to Avishai Margalit to Bernard Avishai, as does the NYRB. And I don’t think of those people in any way as anti-Zionist.

Are you staking out a new center? Or are you reacting pragmatically to a new demographic and political situation in Israel?

It would be presumptuous of me to say that I am staking out a new center. I mean, I’m not even an Israeli. What has struck me, reading the debate on the blogosphere, is that the binational state position is becoming a less marginal position. I think it is gaining ground in liberal circles, and I could imagine it gaining more ground if you have several more years of no real progress. So, in that sense, I think I do represent a centrist position. I would urge people to my right to acknowledge that if you kick the critical Zionists out of the tent, you may well find yourself confronting increasingly in the future a group of people who are not Zionists at all.

JJ: I’ve read that you were brought up Orthodox. 

PB: I don’t know where that got started. I wasn’t. We grew up in a Conservative synagogue. Gradually, we kind of gravitated toward Kesher [Israel, in Georgetown] for various reasons.

For instance?

PB: Well, as I said in the piece, I have a great admiration for the emphasis on Jewish education —which is the answer for Jewish continuity — that you tend to find at Orthodox synagogues, and certainly at Kesher.

Since we’re on the subject of education. You wrote: “I was raised to love Israel and I will teach my children to love it.” How were you raised to love Israel? And how will the way that you teach your children to love it differ from the way that you developed your Zionist identity?

PB: Hmm. That’s a good question. I was raised to love Israel in a couple of different ways. Partly it was a sense of Israel as refuge. My grandmother, she’s South African, she had a big impact on my life. She was born in Egypt, spent her childhood in Belgian Congo, and she’s really seen the precariousness of Jewish life in the Diaspora. I also had some sense growing up of the richness of Israeli culture, of the quality of Israeli discussion, of the quality of Israeli intellectual life, of the fact that in some ways, Israel has a more robust culture of self-criticism than even the U.S. — even though Israel has been in a more precarious neighborhood than the U.S.

For my kids, I suppose they probably won’t identify as much with the idea of Israel as a refuge growing up in the United States. But I hope to instill in them a sense of the extraordinary drama of Jewish return and Jewish peoplehood playing itself out, and for them to take some of the same delight that I do in watching the unusual mosaic that is Israel. And even as I worry sometimes, I really admire what Israel has been able to accomplish.