A Liberal Zionists Move to the Left on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict – The New Yorker

Posted By on May 25, 2021

In the fights over the future of Israel and Palestine, in which enmities are often understood to be both ancient and eternal, Peter Beinart is the rare figure to have come unstuck. Having made his name as a stalwart of liberal Zionism and a prominent center-left supporter of the Iraq War, both as an editor of The New Republic and a familiar face on cable news, Beinart has spent much of the past decade reconsidering those positions. Last summer, he made a clean break. The painful truth is that the project to which liberal Zionists like myself have devoted ourselves for decadesa state for Palestinians separated from a state for Jewshas failed, Beinart wrote, in a long essay for Jewish Currents. He called on interested parties to work toward a single state in the Middle East that would protect the rights of Israeli Jews and Palestinians alike. On May 11th, as violence escalated in Israel and Gaza, Beinart published a second essay, arguing that the Jewish right to return home should also apply to Palestinians. If Palestinians have no right to return to their homeland, he wrote, neither do we. Two days later, Rashida Tlaib, the left-wing Palestinian congresswoman, quoted Beinart when she led several of her progressive colleagues to the floor of the House to denounce Israels latest actions. No one involved in these debates missed the implication: the most influential liberal Zionist of his generation no longer believed in an exclusively Jewish state in the Middle East. Peter Beinart had switched sides.

Beinart, who turned fifty this year, has lived for a decade within a well-defined Orthodox Jewish community on the Upper West Side. He looks similar to how he did when he first became a public figure, around the turn of the centurythe same close-cropped black hair, smooth skin, and wide-set featuresand hes retained the earnest, slightly formal manner of a person who has been debating very serious matters from a very young age. Because he is saying Kaddish for his father, an anti-apartheid South African Jew, who died not long ago, Beinart visits a synagogue twice a day, and spends an hour each morning studying the Talmud. Within this community he is a better fit religiously than politically. One day not too long ago, he was walking to shul when a man came up to him and asked if he was Peter Beinart. And like a complete idiot, I thought, Oh, yes, how nice of you to recognize me. The man said, Your politics are shit.

For a couple of years, Beinart had been a scholar-in-residence at a Passover programelaborate affairs in which mostly Orthodox Jews travel to hotels in places like the Yucatn or Whistler that have been rented for the occasion, with lectures and religious ceremonies. Its like Jews gone wild. All people do is pray, and eat, and talk about what theyre gonna eat, Beinart said. I loved it so much. Its fabulous. At one event, there were rumors that Ivanka Trump was present. Another year, a book of Beinarts was published, in which he detailed what he saw as a crisis within Zionism. Word got around. Eventually Beinart learned that someone had raised an alarm. He said, If Beinarts going to be there, and you want me to not withdraw, youve gotta insure that I never lay eyes on him. Literally I was such a turnoff that people wouldnt come. Beinart became slightly sentimental. They can hate me if they want, he told me. Theyre still my people.

Even by Israeli standards, the latest escalation of hostilities has taken place across an unusually intimate geography. The crisis began in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, over a court case which threatened the eviction of six Palestinian families, but it spread not just outward, to the skies and to the occupied territories, but inward, to Israels mixed cities. In Lod, a suburb of Tel Aviv, Israeli Arab protesters threw stones and set fires at a Jewish school, a synagogue, and other businesses; a Jewish man was killed when he was hit by a rock while driving, and an Arab Israeli was shot to death. The citys mayor called for a state of emergency, saying that the country was on the brink of a civil war. In Bat Yam, a mob of Jewish extremists beat an Arab motorist whom they had pulled from a car, an incident captured by an Israeli news crew. There were other incidents, in Ramla and Hebron. Mobs attacked civilians, or police, or, in one case, a news crew of the public broadcaster. On Friday, a ceasefire agreement, brokered by Egypt, put a stop to the violence, at least temporarily. But the fact that the fighting was not contained in Gaza or the West Bank, that it spilled so fluidly into Israel proper, made all the decades of political effort to delineate two states, with a green line between them, seem suddenly far-fetched. The fact that this violence breaks out in all of these mixed cities inside the Green Line, I think, has been shocking to a lot of Jews, Beinart told me the other day, via Zoom. But probably less so to Palestinians, because its just a reminder that there is a Palestinian people.

Giving up on the two-state solution is a pessimistic proposition. It means deciding that a project that has created the government for one people (the Palestinians), and directed the history of another (the Israelis), in which millions of people and many nations have spent decades invested, is a lost cause. In Beinarts telling, he only came to the position this past spring, in the stasis of the 2020 pandemic. He was already questioning the feasibility of a two-state solution, but he couldnt get his mind around an alternative. So I started reading, he told me, many Palestinian writers and historians: Ali Abunimah, Mahmoud Darwish, Edward Said. He came across an interview from 2000 in which Said, who was born in Mandatory Palestine, more than a decade before the establishment of Israel, had declared himself the last Jewish intellectual, distinguishing himself from the satisfied suburban squires in Israel and America who had lost the feeling of statelessness and marginalization. (Such a mindfuck! Beinart said). These Palestinan intellectuals, he thought, turned out to be deep readers of the conflict, similar to the insights that Black American writers brought to U.S. history. Just in this clichd way that white liberals thought we could never elect Trump, and Black Americans thought we couldits exactly the same way, if you talk to many Jews about the idea of another nakba [when seven hundred thousand Palestinians were driven from their homes in 1948], they will say, What kind of slander is that? You talk to Palestinians, and theyre like, Uh-huh. Sure.

Holed up on the West Side with his books, Beinart could encounter the Palestinian case in a more dispassionate setting. He noticed the generosity of these writers, and the empathy they showed toward the Jewish experience. But he also noticed that these writers account of Palestinian history had a deep continuity to it. They say the nakba never ended, Beinart said. This summer, he was praying during Tisha BAv, a holy day during which Jews are invited to imagine themselves leaving Jerusalem when it was in flames, and to imagine hoping to redeem it through return. The experience made him think of how hypocritical it seemed for a Jew to tell a Palestinian to give up on returning home. On the one hand you had the temple, on the other the nakba. In Gaza, no one needs to cast his mind thousands of years into the past to imagine himself as a refugee. Beinart said, Theres just something kind of absurd about the idea that we think so little of Palestinians that we dont think that they know how to teach their children to remember things.

There is sometimes a totalizing strain in Beinarts thinking. Too few American Jews, he said, recognize what a service the Palestinian Authority provides for Israel, by keeping relative order at a relatively low cost. I do think we may be entering an era where eventually the Palestinian Authority is going to collapse, and the cost for Israel of controlling millions of people who lack basic rights goes up, and that fills me with some dread. He mentioned a close friend from college who had been killed in a Hamas bus bombing. The last thing I want to see is for Israelis, Jews to be killed. But I think it is unrealistic to think that you can maintain control over millions of people who lack basic rights at a low cost forever. The cost has gone up. And I think one possible scenario is that it never goes back down to where it was before. He recalled that, in 1985, South Africa declared a partial state of emergency because of the anti-apartheid resistence. Beinart said, So it was basically a kind of intifada in South Africa, but it never ended. And so Ive mostly just been thinking about, What happens if this never ends?

Beinarts writing, thematically, has often orbited political power. So has his life. Though he frequently visited Cape Town, where his family was from, in childhood and adolescence, he grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his father was an architecture professor at M.I.T.; after his parents divorced, his mother, whose family were Sephardic Jews from the Mediterranean, married Robert Brustein, who founded both the Yale Repertory Theatre and the American Repertory Theatre. Even by the standards of tenured Cambridge, Beinarts academic path was incandescent: Buckingham Browne & Nichols, then Yale, then a Rhodes scholarship, after which he moved to Washington to take a job at The New Republic, whose combative eminences, Marty Peretz and Leon Wieseltier, were both deeply devoted to the Jewish experience and the cause of Israel. Within a few years, Beinart, still not yet thirty, was made the editor of The New Republic and the heir to its particular negotiation between universalist and tribal causes. It was in some ways a Jewish magazineyou could analogize it to the way that National Review has always been a Catholic magazine, Beinart said. And yet it was, of course, also an important general magazine of arts and politics, and the fact that you could have those two at the same time, with Jewish identity as front and center, as it was for Marty and also for Leon, to me just showed how much Jews had arrived.

But as the Clinton era gave way to the Bush Administration, both the magazine and Beinart himself occupied a more specific niche, as prominent liberal interventionists who supported the Iraq War. In 2006, when Beinart published The Good Fight: Why Liberalsand Only LiberalsCan Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again, he recalled, both Bill and Hillary Clinton came to the book party. And that was not because it was a great book. It wasnt. It was because, at that point, I was saying something useful to Democratic politicians. Those politicians, he said, were worried that the Democratic Party had this Vietnam syndrome where it was on the defensive on foreign policy, and my book was about reclaiming Cold War liberalism.

In his newsletter this winter, Beinart noted that several of his contemporaries from this time, most of them well-credentialled Gen X liberals, are now running American foreign policy. Tony Blinken, who started at The New Republic a couple of years before Beinart, is now the Secretary of State. Jake Sullivan, who was also a Rhodes Scholar, is the national-security adviser. Beinart once interviewed for a position at the Center for New American Security, the think tank founded by Michle Fluorney, who was a candidate to be Bidens Secretary of Defense. Beinarts departure from a similar trajectory wasnt fatedhe applied to work in the Obama Administration and might have stayed in Washington. But the timing wasnt right. As the Iraq intervention deteriorated, during George W. Bushs second term, Beinart decided that his whole framework for thinking about American foreign policy had basically run aground. On Israel, the situation wasnt much better. Barack Obamas early efforts to challenge Benjamin Netanyahu on settlements were not effective, even within his own party, and the nascent left-wing Jewish lobby around J Street was not strong enough to back him. Obama threw in the towel pretty early, Beinart said. He was working at the time on a book about the hubristic traits in American foreign policy in which he was critical of his own position on the Iraq War, which was itself a quiet split with Washington. In 2009, Beinart secured a tenure-track position in CUNYs journalism department and moved his family to New York. Among the young Washington liberals who seemed poised to run the world, he was one who left.

Political actors of Beinarts type, who were made in Washington institutions, are often denounced for their variability. But, up close, they tend to have virtues, too. They can take heat. Beinarts alienation from the mainstream American Jewish establishment began with the publication of The Crisis of Zionism, in 2012, in which he predicted a coming split between an increasingly hard-line Orthodox community, its numbers swelled by high birth rates, and more assimilated liberals who were becoming less and less attached to Israel. (Beinart, communally Orthodox and politically progressive, was the rare Jew of his generation with a foot in both camps.) But his willingness to publicly change his mind about Iraq also earned him some credibility in the Obama Administration. Ben Rhodes, a longtime foreign-policy aide to Obama, told me, When I was in government, the totality of Peters world view certainly led me to question the relevance of the type of language we are using to describe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the efficacy of putting faith in negotiations with someone like Bibi Netanyahu, who has no interest in resolving this conflict, and the ethical questions raised by U.S. assistance that can be used for purposes we should be increasingly uncomfortable about. Rhodes told me that he had recently gone on Beinarts podcast and made some comments critical of Israel, which led Mike Pompeo, Trumps Secretary of State, to accuse Rhodes, who is half Jewish, of holding anti-Semitic views. Rhodes got in touch with Beinart. He wasnt overly sympathetic, Rhodes said. He was kind of like, This is the price.

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A Liberal Zionists Move to the Left on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict - The New Yorker

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