Why Are (Mostly Liberal) American Jews Silent as Right-Wing Extremists in Israel Threaten the Country's Democracy?

Peter Beinart, a political science professor at New York University, has long been a decidedly mainstream voice of the American center-left, a member in good standing of the Jewish establishment. Like many American Jews, Beinart has long identified as a “liberal zionist,” and a dedicated supporter of Israel. But now he finds himself at the center of a whirlwind of controversy after his attempt to start a conversation in that community about the course the “Jewish state” has taken over the past decade or so.

In his book, The Crisis of Zionism, Beinart argues that the liberal democratic principles upon which the state of Israel was founded are threatened by the continuing occupation of the Palestinian people. He condemns the largely progressive Jewish establishment for its knee-jerk defense of a Netanyahu government that more often than not walks in lock-step with the country's religious right and the settlers movement (the two groups overlap quite a bit).

Rather than beginning a dialogue, Beinart found himself scorned as an apostate, becoming the subject of "two minutes of hate" on the part of many in the American Jewish establishment. In a semi-coherent screed, Commentary magazine's Ben Cohen accused Beinart of being an anti-Zionist, conflating his work with that of journalists Max Blumenthal and Philip Weiss. “It’s a narcissistic book, and the narcissism of privileged and haughty people is never particularly attractive,” said Marty Peretz (who is well known for his privileged and haughty narcissism).

Beinart appeared on this week's AlterNet Radio Hour to discuss his book, the trends in Israeli society that inspired it and the reaction it has received. Below is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation (you can listen to the entire show here, or on iTunes).

Joshua Holland: Peter, I have to say that I find this one of those instances in which somebody says something that is almost self evident -- I mean one can always take issue with the details -- but the basic premise of the book is that Israel’s status as a liberal democracy is somewhat incompatible with the continuation of a 45-year-old occupation. Were you surprised by how the book was received?

Peter Beinart: Not really. I knew this was a very emotional issue. I knew that it would produce a lot of anger. For somebody within the Jewish community to take a view of Israel’s direction that suggests it is deeply in the wrong path – this is an issue close to many people’s hearts. People come at it from their own perspectives. I wrote it knowing that whatever the initial reaction would be that this is going to be a debate that is probably going to continue in some form for the rest of my life. I wanted to try and make some statement about the danger of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank becoming permanent and threatening Israel’s status as a democracy while there was still time to do so.

JH: You take the American Jewish establishment to task for its, what you might call, knee-jerk defense of Israeli government policy. Most American Jews tend to skew left to varying degrees. They tend to be liberal on social issues and economic issues, but then there’s Israel. It has a government that’s taken a very severe rightward turn over the past 10-20 years, and that seems to be inspired by tribalism. I wonder if you agree with that. What hope do you have using reason -- rational arguments -- against tribalism, or extreme nationalism?

PB: The reason for Israel’s turn to the right are party demographic. The influx of Russian immigrants in the 1990s – people who tend to lean pretty far to the right. Also the religious population in Israel is growing. But it’s not only that. To be fair there were a lot of people in the center, maybe even to the left of center, who turned right as a result of the Second Intifada. The collapse of the Oslo peace process in 2000-2001 and several years following that of awful war. It was certainly awful war for the Palestinians and there was a randomness to the violence in Israel, directed at civilians, that produced a hardening of attitudes.

I try to argue in the book that the narrative that’s very popular in the American Jewish establishment -- that Israel gave the Palestinians the moon and they responded with terrorism -- while there’s a grain of truth to it, it also misses some very important realities. The truth of the matter is that societies under that kind of threat or trauma, whether it’s America after 9/11 or Israel after multiple terror attacks, do tend to move to the right. Israel has not really recovered from that move since then.

JH: I certainly agree that external threats and security threats always play to the advantage of authoritarians and nationalists. There’s a piece of this I don’t think is discussed often enough in the United States. We haven’t seen an abundance of coverage of Israel’s social justice protests over the past year. But there’s been an outpouring of protests against growing income inequality, rising rents, student tuition issues, etc.

Israel, for much of its history, was a progressive state as far as its domestic and economic policies. It was basically a European-style social democracy. So you have the Second Intifada and the country moves to the right. I wonder how has that impacted Israel’s political economy? How has it impacted Israel’s social safety net?

PB: It’s an interesting question. You’re very right: Israel, much more than the United States, has a social democratic ethos. “Socialism” is not a dirty word in Israel in the way it is in the United States. There’s a strong public memory of collectivism, of things like the kibbutz.

But Israel has been affected by a lot of the same phenomena that have affected a lot of countries, which is essentially neo-liberal economic policies that have been fostered particularly by this Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu. He’s unusual, even among the Israeli right, in terms of his Thatcher-Reaganite kind of views of economic policy.

I think the social protest movement has essentially avoided the Palestinian issue because sadly the left in Israel seems marginal on the issue. They’re trying to garner a much broader swath. I think there are many progressives in Israel who hope that people will eventually make the connection – frankly, one of the reasons for the economic distress for many middle-class Israelis is that so much money has been pushed across the green line. The vast network of subsidies and the settlement project really has been the most ambitious social project that Israel has instituted since 1967. In a whole series of ways it’s cheaper for Jews to live in the West Bank than inside Israel. I hope that people will increasingly make that connection.

JH: A number of critics of the Israeli government have suggested that the ethos of the occupied territories has in a sense been creeping back across the Green Line. We’ve seen some legislation passed in the Knesset looking at new scrutinies for nongovernmental organizations who champion human rights. There was an effort, I believe a successful effort, to sanction organizations that celebrated what Palestinians call the Nakba – Israel's Independence Day. What’s your take on that? Do you see this sense of criminal justice blowing back?

PB: I think there’s a troubling dynamic taking place that I try to chronicle in my book which plays out a couple of ways. The first is that 20 percent of the Israeli population inside the Green Line are Palestinians. Traditionally they’re called Arab-Israelis but increasingly they’re calling themselves Palestinian citizens of the State of Israel. They are discriminated against quite significantly, but they do have citizenship and the right to vote, to be elected to the Knesset, and serve in the court.

The problem is that since they have a natural affinity with the Palestinian population under occupation, they've become more deeply alienated from the Israeli state. Then their affinity with their Palestinian brethren -- they really are extended families -- in the West Bank leads to them being perceived to be a fifth column within Israel. This allows people like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to build their political careers on the claim that these people are disloyal.

Secondly, as Israel’s policy in the West Bank make it more isolated from the world, people on the right in Israel look to Israel’s internal critics and say they are a fifth column contributing to our demonization abroad. These have both been phenomena that Lieberman and a lot of figures on the Israeli right have played upon since 2009. They’ve contributed to this growing sense that there's a growing anti-democratic trend inside Israel itself.

JH: There was a recent measure considered by the Knesset to require Supreme Court justices to have served in the military, which you could say was a backdoor mechanism from keeping Israeli Arabs, who are exempt from military service, off of the high court.

Peter, you’re a liberal Zionist. For a long time I think that was the default position of most Jews in the United States, and certainly in Israel. Now some are calling themselves post-Zionists or even anti-Zionists in some cases. I want to read a little paragraph that Anat Biletzki wrote. She’s an Israeli peace activist and scholar at University of Tel Aviv. She wrote earlier this month, “It seems that liberal Zionists will never forsake the Jewish majority as the essence of the State of Israel. Since precisely that majority is what they think makes the state a democracy. But no democracy should determine or foretell the identity of its citizenry.”

She then asked, “What shall we do when in a century from now when Israeli Arabs just naturally become a majority through natural reproduction rates or Jewish emigration, or any other unforeseeable vagary of history. Shall we cast all Arab-born sons into the sea?”

How do you reconcile that?

PB: I think at the very beginning of the book there’s a tension between Zionism and liberal democracy. Between a state whose Declaration of Independence has a promise of complete equality irrespective race, religion, or sex and a state that has a special obligation to safeguard and represent the Jewish people. I think that tension is real, but I think it’s worth noting that Israel is not the only country that faces that tension. There are many countries that have crosses on their flags. To be the Head of State in the United Kingdom you have to be Anglican. There are many democracies, especially in Eastern Europe, that have preferential immigration policies.

Obviously the importance of Israel treating its citizens equally is beyond dispute, but you can also see -- particularly in a state formed in the wake of the Holocaust -- the value of a state that has a particular mission for the safeguarding of a people that have been particularly vulnerable for 2,000 years. That may seem very remote to people, but it was only in the 1980s that Israel, because of its Jewish character and Zionist commitment, essentially rescued the Jews of Ethiopia. Even today there’s been a significant influx of Jews from France moving to Israel because they no longer feel totally safe there.

I think there are very important questions that Israel is going to have to face. Remember this is a country without a constitution and that has never even really defined what the word “Jew” means. I think you can imagine an Israel that evolves toward greater mechanisms for full representation of the Arab population without fully losing the special responsibility it has for the safeguarding of Jewish life.

It’s important to remember that Zionism historically has been a very broad canvas. I consider myself a political Zionist who believes in the democratic Jewish state, but it’s worth remembering that there was another strain of Jewish Zionism called cultural Zionism. It was from Theodore Herzl’s great rival Ahad Ha'am. It doesn’t even necessarily believe that a Zionist had to believe in a Jewish state. It posited that there must be a Jewish community inside Israel representing a cultural point for Jewish people in the diaspora.

JH: I want to push you on this just a little bit. You say that you’re in favor of a distinctly Jewish and democratic state, and we do see this demographic pressure arising from differential birth rates. How do you deal with the fact that if trends continue, eventually Jewish people will not be in the majority, absent some intervention?

PB: Who knows where trends will take you. I think the answer is I would never support any coercive measures in any way aimed at keeping down Arab birth rates. I do think that it is well within Israel’s right to encourage Jewish immigration, but Israel will have to respond by being a country that offers fuller, and ultimately true equality to its Arab citizens, Palestinian citizens inside the Green Line. I don’t think that necessarily has to exclude a recognition that as part of its mission is a commitment to the protection of Jewish life. Today that's embodied in the right of return. At the very least I think this state should have a concern for Jews who suffer persecution and oppression around the world.

JH: In the book you talk about how this growing rightward lurch of Israeli society – with the support of the American Jewish establishment -- is alienating younger American Jews. You and I are about the same age, but we come from pretty different perspectives. You attend an orthodox synagogue. I consider myself Jewish ethnically and culturally, but I’m a non-practicing atheist type. Some would call me a "bad" Jew, and maybe I am.

From my perspective, I don’t know why it’s a problem that younger American Jews are finding themselves distanced from the state of Israel. We’re not under threat as Jews are in some other countries. I think we have a very secure position here in the United States. I don’t get why that’s more of a problem than Catholics not feeling an attachment to the Vatican. I’m not sure why I should care about a contested chunk of earth thousands of miles away.

PB: I guess I would say a couple of things. The first is that one of the things I think most young Jews feel most proud of in the Jewish tradition, whether they are religious or not, is that it contained ideas about justice and human dignity that have been very powerful throughout the world. Stories like the Exodus have inspired many people. It’s had such an influence on African American civil rights and so many other movements.

I guess the point I would make to those people is that this tradition, this Jewish tradition, written in our texts about dignity and justice was forged in powerlessness. Jews wrote these texts essentially when we were powerless. Jews haven’t had sovereignty for 2,000 years. If it turns out that the Jewish tradition cannot inform the actions of a Jewish state when Jews wield power; if it turns out that those traditions become essentially meaningless once Jews actually have the power to do to others what others have done to them, then that is a kind of retroactive judgment of the Jewish tradition itself, which is quite devastating.

It seems to me, regardless of your connection to religious observance and regardless to your connection of the idea of a Jewish state, the question of what Jews do with power should be something of great concern to you because ultimately I think what Jews do with power is the great test of the Jewish tradition itself.

JH: That’s a fairly satisfying answer. I appreciate that.

Finally, you’re part of the mainstream Jewish community. You’re fighting to change the conversation in the hope that US policies toward Israel might reflect a wider diversity of viewpoints. In their book, The Israel Lobby, which was greeted with the same sort of mudslinging as your book, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer go out of their way to point out that the Israel lobby they describe is not a Jewish lobby. There are organizations like Christians United for Israel, which is a very right-wing group. All these conservative evangelicals have an almost obsessive attachment to Israel.

I wonder: what’s your view on this phenomenon, and specifically the way the institutional Jewish community -- I could point to AIPAC for example -- in the US has embraced the Christian right, people with whom they don’t necessarily agree with ideologically on anything else?

PB: I think what you’ve seen is the weakening of the institutional Jewish community’s historic commitment to issues of equity. There was a time, believe it or not, where the major instruments of American Jewish life would have been deeply invested in the Supreme Court’s decision on healthcare. In the middle of the 20th century, civil rights and questions of economic justice were very much at the fore in the institutional American Jewish community in a way that they’re not today. Obviously, lots of American Jews are very involved in the issues, but institutionally the community has moved toward a much stronger focus on defense of Israeli policies and defense against anti-Semitism -- I would say that sometimes it’s perceived anti-Semitism, or anti-Semitism defined in a way that makes the term meaningless.

That was partly a response to the rise in Republican power in Washington and the need for the American Jewish community to do business with Republicans. It has fed into this alliance with the Christian right.

I think what’s so disturbing about this is that I think you have in Christian Zionism essentially a belief in Israel that has no concern for Israel’s democratic traditions and no affinity whatsoever for the idea in Israel’s Declaration of Independence that this must be a state where enlightenment principles live. It’s a tradition which existed for many early Zionists -- for Herzl in particular. Essentially Christian Zionists tend to, in their current configuration, see “the West” as basically Jews and Christians in opposition to Islam. If you’re someone who believes you can be pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian -- pro-Jewish without being anti-Muslim -- then this is an alliance that’s really a disaster for the very basis on which you want to make the case for the idea of Israel. That’s what disturbs me. 

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