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Do American Jews Live in a Cocoon?

Peter Beinart thinks so. He's wrong.

Birthright Israel

News of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s late September speech before Jewish leaders in New York got me thinking about Peter Beinart’s latest piece from earlier that month in the New York Review of Books about American Jews and Israel. Beinart, formerly an editor of The New Republic, has billed this piece as the sequel to his 2010 NYRB piece which launched his crusade against the “American Jewish Establishment,” as he calls it. In the more recent piece, Beinart charges American Jewish elites as well as ordinary members of the community (he switches back and forth, making it hard to tell) with living in a self-imposed “closed intellectual space,” where voices not entirely supportive of hawkish Israeli policies are simply not heard.

It’s hard to think of a community in America with a more robust and diverse and self-critical intellectual space than that of American Jews, and it’s hard to conceive of a single issue on which this diversity—in all its contentious, maddeningly noisy glory—manifests itself more than on Israel. If the charge is that American Jews live in a cocoon on issues of concern to them, the first reasonable question needs to be, “Compared to what?” There are three approaches to answering that. One would be to compare American Jews to the pro-Palestinian political community, or alternatively to American Muslims or Arab-Americans. Another would be to compare it to diaspora communities which are partisans to other international conflicts. A third would be to invent some epistemic standard of what an open intellectual space should aspire to be, and compare the American Jewish community, with all the relevant caveats, to that. Beinart does none of these.

Beinart's first bit of evidence for the closed intellectual space that is not purely anecdotal is Hillel campus guidelines (non-binding, I assume) urging chapters not to host speakers who “deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders,” “delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel,” or “support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel.” I couldn’t find a single fault with these guidelines, but Beinart finds three. First, he argues, the guidelines are so vague they could conceivably bar any Palestinian or non-Palestinian critic of Israel. Vague compared to what? What guideline is less vague? To bolster this point he points out that even advocating the 1967 border might violate the “secure borders” standard according to Netanyahu. Are you following carefully? Israel’s prime minister has argued that the pre-1967 borders are not secure borders and Hillel urges not chapters not host speakers who “deny the right of Israel to exist [in] secure and recognized borders,” therefore, by Beinart’s impeccable logic, Hillel could be banning speakers who advocate a withdrawal to 1967 borders. Is that even a remotely plausible reading of this guideline? Has Beinart come across even one example, ever, of a speaker not being hosted by a Hillel because they advocated the 1967 borders? Then what is he talking about?

The second objection Beinart lodges is even more slippery. He notes that “even moderate[s]” like former Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad support boycotting settlements. It is Beinart himself who is always at pains to distinguish boycotting settlement products (good) from boycotting Israel (bad), but he suddenly forgets his own distinction. Again, has Fayyad or anyone remotely like him ever been banned from a Hillel? The third objection is that an Arab member of Knesset who even “presides over sessions of the Knesset” wants to remove Israel’s Jewish identity, and therefore he might not be allowed to speak at a Hillel function. Can anyone imagine a member of Knesset being turned away from a Hillel? Has this happened? All Beinart has done is present Hillel’s entirely reasonable sounding guidelines, mock them as vague where they are deliberately anodyne, and then proceed to give them the most uncharitable and radical interpretation possible. He provides exactly zero examples of anyone in Hillel or any other Jewish organization doing anything similar, but goes on to excoriate them based on his own extreme interpretation.

How does such a weak argument get made and become so resonant? I’ve identified four themes in Beinart’s writing on the topic that are particularly apparent in this most recent essay. First, he makes bold, sweeping judgments on little or no evidence, often with out-of-date and out-of-context quotes. He reaches back to 1989 to show that American Jews have no idea that Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis go to separate schools. What does this indicate? Some countries have dealt with national minorities by forcing them to be educated only in the majority language in state schools in hope of erasing their separate identity. This has never been the goal or the method of Israeli policy toward its large Arab minority (nearly 20 percent). Does Beinart wish it were? Otherwise what is the point of this datum?

In a 2012 poll he cites, “two thirds of American Jews said they wanted Jerusalem to remain Israel’s undivided capital,” but those same people by overwhelming majorities have no idea where Ras al-Amud or Silwan, two Arab neighborhoods in the east of the city, are. Again, what does this show? The implication, as best as I can gather, is that American Jews are ignorant of Arab claims and history and somehow therefore less entitled to an opinion on the issue. Are people who are in favor of dividing the city or who reject any Israeli presence or advocate internationalization any better informed? Let’s try this quiz. On which side of the 1949 Israeli-Jordanian Green Line are the following pre-1948 Jerusalem neighborhoods: Talbiyeh, Shimon Hatzadik, the Jewish Quarter, Beit Safafa, Abu Tor, and Romema? Don’t let the names fool you; the answers, in order, are: Israeli, Jordanian, Jordanian, split, split, and Israeli. What is the minimum score on this quiz that entitles one to an opinion on the division and sovereignty of Jerusalem?

Beinart doesn’t stop there. Of Elie Wiesel’s statement about Jerusalem that “for the first time in history, Jews, Christians and Muslims all may freely worship at their shrines,” he writes bluntly, “Sadly, this is false.” On what grounds? Has Israel shut down a mosque or a church? Has it even intervened while the Islamic Waqf carts away archeological treasures from the Jewish Temple? No. The only basis for this claim is travel restrictions into Israel (and according to Israeli law, Jerusalem is in Israel) which affect Muslims coming from outside, particularly from the territories of the Palestinian Authority. Israel has been in control of a united Jerusalem for nearly five decades now. If it were an Israeli policy goal to prevent access to holy sites, this would have been uniformly implemented. For most of this period, however, access has been completely free. It becomes harder as the security situation deteriorates, and it became a lot more complicated after Israel relinquished direct control over the Palestinians with the establishment of the Authority in 1994. Gazans certainly cannot easily get to Jerusalem. Is it really reasonable to see this as an assault on religious freedom? Is there some a priori reason that the border with Gaza needs to be open for all to cross through Israel, even as Gaza’s Hamas government fires rockets on Israelis? Let’s apply this logic elsewhere and see if the shoe fits. The United States claims it protects religious freedom for all, but Mexican Catholics who wish to worship in American churches find that they have to get visas and wait at cumbersome border checks—and many aren’t let in at all. If Elie Wiesel praises American religious freedom, would that be “false” as well?

That there might be a security consideration behind this—even one that is ill-conceived and deserving of criticism—is not considered. That Palestinian actions contribute to the security situation is not broached either. Israel limits religious action because, well, that’s just the kind of place Israel is. Pay attention to the triple maneuver here, because it is a Beinart hallmark. First, results of the conflict or of Palestinian actions are always and forever simply Israeli policies, actions carried out by the subjects on their objects. Second, a partially true bit of data is used to make a sweeping criticism of Israel in a way that would be laughably stupid in any other context. And third, an out-of-context quote is used to make every other American Jew much less thoughtful than Beinart himself.

Those boorish American Jews don’t just ignore Palestinian suffering, according to Beinart. “At times,” he writes, “American Jews actively mock it.” This is a pretty heady charge, and you’d think Beinart would have something to back it up, but all he’s able to come up with is an incident from over a decade ago where a few people booed the U.S. deputy secretary of defense at a pro-Israel rally on the National Mall. Beinart already dredged this incident up for his earlier piece at the NYRB and has mentioned it elsewhere as well. It’s a bit of a stretch to deduce from the behavior of what was apparently a tiny minority at a large outdoor rally that people are mocking anyone’s suffering. The deputy secretary of defense himself has rejected both the characterization of the booing incident and Beinart’s implicit claim from it, noting that he finished his speech to loud applause and that both the Israeli deputy foreign minster who was there as well as the ever-shady Elie Wiesel both thanked explicitly for mentioning the suffering of the other side. If Beinart had anything—anything at all—to substantiate his claim that American Jews or their “establishment” actively mock Palestinian suffering beyond a decade-old incident of overheard booing, we can safely assume he would bring it up.

Beinart’s discussion of suicide bombings is a good place as any to acquaint ourselves with the second theme of his writing. Any outcome or effect or result, however small or large, of the Israeli-Arab conflict is always and forever portrayed as an Israeli policy or the action of an Israeli subject on its Palestinian object. Where such a portrayal can’t credibly be made, Beinart will trace back an Israeli original cause. He correctly notes both that Palestinian anger doesn’t justify suicide attacks and that stopping Palestinian terrorism requires understanding it. But as the next paragraph shows, he’s not actually keen to understand it, just to trace its causes to Israel. Selectively quoting from three sources, including a ten-year old NYRB article by Avishai Margalit, he notes that a database of suicide killers shows that they all had personal grievances and sought spectacular revenge. This surely can be a helpful bit of information in determining how suicide bombers are recruited by organized political movements once they have made the strategic decision to send such terrorists into crowded buses and cafes with the aim of murdering as many civilians as possible. But it doesn’t explain how a society becomes mobilized behind such a strategy—and suicide bombings were, according to contemporary polling data supported by over 70 percent of the Palestinians at the time and by similar numbers throughout the Arab World—and especially not when such a strategy, like the method itself, is clearly suicidal. It doesn’t explain why the first suicide bombing in Israel happened in 1994, immediately after the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in accordance with the Oslo Accords, or why they have disappeared (for now) since the construction of Israel’s security barrier. A more curious or critical social scientist—one who is less trapped in his own cocoon—might wonder why, if a desire for revenge for a personal grievance is all that is needed for a man to strap a bomb to his waist and blow up twenty children, there have been no Israeli relatives of terror victims who have carried out suicide bombings on Arab buses.

There is a third theme to Beinart’s work on Israel and American Jews, and in many ways, it is the one I find most interesting, even though it is probably the least unique to Beinart himself. No amount of self-criticism on the part of Israelis or Jews or their supporters is ever enough is for Beinart, while at the same time there is absolutely no expectation for any self-criticism or reflection by Palestinians or Arabs or their supporters. American Jews must have the only ethnic lobby in the United States where a politician speaking can’t be taken seriously unless he also makes some critical remark. It is only about Israel that people always feel the need to point out that supporting it doesn’t mean agreeing with all of its policies etc. This is all true, of course, but nobody needs to say this speaking to diaspora leaders in the Indian or Irish or Armenian communities—and nobody dares say this at a pro-Palestinian gathering.

In this, American Jews emulate (I dare not say “take their lead” because I have no idea who is inspiring who and I doubt there is a clear direction anyway) the Israelis quite well. Commissions of inquiry have investigated military failures, most famously after the 1973 Yom Kippur War and after Israel’s Christian allies carried out a massacre in Lebanon in 1982, resulting in the resignations of very senior figures in both the civilian and military echelons. Academics, particularly but not exclusively in the last three decades, have assiduously worked to revise and reassess Israel’s history and to challenge heroic myths of elites and public opinion. Filmmakers, playwrights, and artists shine a harsh a light on all of Israel’s social ills, and especially problems arising from the conflict, the wars, and the occupation. The first literary attempt by an Israeli author to deal with the Palestinian experience of catastrophe in 1948 was by S. Yizhar—in 1949!

It’s an open question whether or not all this self-criticism has actually had a positive effect on Israeli policies, whether by making them more effective or moral or both, or whether it has only served to make us feel better about ourselves, but that is not the subject of Beinart’s charge or of this essay. What is not an open question at all is that nothing like this occurs on the other side of the conflict, and that, to my mind, has had disastrous consequences, both for the cause of peace and for the interests of the Palestinian people.

Beinart is indignant, for example, that Birthright trips don’t venture into Palestinian towns in the West Bank, without bothering to note that safety might be a concern or that Birthright trips don’t venture into Israeli settlements either. He’s outraged that trips to Israel organized by pro-Israel organizations spend only one day in Ramallah talking to Palestinian officials. Beinart dismisses such journeys as “replicating the cocoon,” but I wonder what his standard would be for an appropriate amount of time. He never tells us, never compares to the amount of time pro-Palestinian delegations spend with Zionists (hint: it rhymes with hero), and never provides a standard from any other conflict or any other PR or lobbying campaign for any cause. I’d venture that the diversity of opinions on these trips and the effort to bring in voices not just from some opposition but from actual enemies is entirely unique to Jewish organizations. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that for the last year I have been working as a senior research associate with Bicom, a British pro-Israel organization that also takes delegations of journalists and politicians on tours of Israel, though I have nothing to do with the delegations or the trips. They too make a point of taking their guests to the West Bank and organizing meetings with leading Palestinian figures as well.)

Beinart is not ignorant of the amount of self-criticism among Israelis and their supporters in and out of the Jewish community in the U.S. He doesn’t pretend it doesn’t exist; he points right at it, and claims it’s not enough. And again, I ask, compared to what? He praises the Israeli film The Gatekeepers (it is, by the way, an excellent film and required watching for anyone who wants to understand the tragic dilemmas of Israel’s hopeless misadventure in the territories it conquered in 1967), but seems uninterested in asking why a similar film couldn’t be made about the other side.

I think it’s a legitimate question. I don’t expect partisans in any conflict to be overtaken by self-criticism or genuinely be able to see the other’s point of view. But I am struck by the total absence in the pro-Palestinian discourse of even a minority view that diverges from the tale of pure victimhood. I wonder not why anyone hasn’t answered difficult questions about very popular decisions made by leaders both inside the Palestinian camp and by its supporters in the Arab states which turned out to be disastrous, but why no one seems to care to ask.

Perhaps it is a reasonable time, now that 65 years have passed, to assess the war aims of the Arab states who invaded Israel the day after the Jewish state (but not the Arab one envisioned by the partition) was declared. At that point, roughly half of those Palestinian Arabs who would become refugees from that conflict were still in their homes. Could a war whose stated aim was genocide or ethnic cleansing succeed? Should it have? The Arab states argued at the UN that the Jews weren’t a nation and held as proof the large Jewish minorities living so happily in Arab countries (for some reason, very few of these Jews remember it as fondly). How can this be reconciled with the state-sponsored pogroms against Jewish populations throughout the Arab world in the 1940s—before, during, and after the 1948 conflict in Palestine? Is it too much to ask for a moral accounting? Fine. Can we ask if this was wise even from a strictly propaganda perspective? And didn’t the mass exodus of Jewish population from the Arab states into Israel in the immediate aftermath of 1948 only strengthen rather than weaken the fledgling Zionist entity? What kind of assessment can we make of the violent anti-semitism of the period if it continued despite it so obviously being counter to the interests of the states pursuing it?

Has any Arab writer or pro-Palestinian activist ever bothered to make a comparison of how Israel dealt with its 1948 refugees and how the Arab states dealt with theirs? What might they discover?

While every aspect of Israel’s decision making and behavior in the 1948 war, as well as in every other stage of the conflict, has been held to the searing light of scrutiny, critique, reassessment, and self-doubt, nothing of the sort occurs on the Arab side. And to bring us closer to Beinart’s topic, nothing of the sort occurs in the west among partisans of the anti-Israel cause.

Which is a shame, since it could have really been helpful before the same poor decision-making brought a new catastrophe upon the Palestinians in the last decade. I don’t refer to all the new settlement housing built during this time, which would not have and could not have been built had a Palestinian state been established on the West Bank in 2000, but rather to the pointless bloodletting and loss that was the second intifadah. Again, I don’t have any expectation to read a Palestinian take on those events that sounds like it could be Ehud Barak’s memoirs. But I wonder why it is so hard to find any critical voice to ask the tough questions. Did the suicide bombings and jihad talk of the 1990s strengthen rejectionist elements in Israel and make a deal harder? Was the Barak offer of 100 percent of the Gaza Strip and nearly all of the West Bank really so awful? If so, why lie about it later? Why not make a counteroffer, or grab the Clinton parameters at Taba?

Maybe rejecting the offer seemed like the right thing to do at the time, but does looking back and seeing the outcome—thousands of lives lost and a Palestinian Authority that controls a fraction of the land it could have had—change that? Was there a moral cost to the death cult which took over Palestinian society in the early 2000s as suicide bombers became heroes and as Palestinians continued to pay an enormous price for suicide terrorism? If there was a dilemma involved, what was the actual material benefit that might have justified this madness?

And once Gaza was entirely liberated in 2005, without the Palestinians making any concessions or promises in exchange for an Israeli evacuation of all civilians and soldiers, was this victory really capitalized on in the most intelligent way? Is it possible that the cost of continued rocket fire into Israel far exceeds the benefit (whatever that might be)? I should say that, uniquely on this last set of questions, I have actually encountered Palestinian voices willing to ask them, and to do so not out of any sympathy for Israel but purely as a kind of tactical self-criticism of the kind one can often hear from Israelis. But I have only heard it from actual Palestinians, never from any activist or journalist or intellectual of the vast pro-Palestinian community in the West.

We are all familiar with the critiques of the anguished, conscientious friends of Israel. They frequently appear as letters in the NYRB with dozens of signatures or op-eds in the Times. They don’t attempt to justify the hostility or violence of the Arabs towards to Israel; they take it as a given. But they will criticize, say, Israeli targeted killings as only provoking more violence, or Israeli settlement construction as empowering radicals on the other side, or Israeli stubbornness in negotiations as short-sightedly precluding a deal or irresponsibly ignoring possibly undesirable but unavoidable changes in the region. I have never encountered similar rhetoric from partisans of the Palestinians. No one writes that jihadist rhetoric only empowers Israeli radicals, that tolerance of terror organizations makes “doing a deal” harder. A typical partisan of the Palestinians will look at the growth in settlement populations and not conclude that his side better hurry up and do a deal before time runs out but will instead—surprise!—have only more condemnation of Israel. Condemnation which may well be deserved, I hasten to add. What’s notable to me here is that there is no discourse that views the Palestinian as agents too, acting in an environment that is not always favorable. Learned opinion is quick to ascribe the rise of Islamist Hamas to the occupation (as though Islamist politics have not been on the rise throughout the Arab world despite not being occupied), but never excuses the strengthening of the Israeli right to the suicide bombings and rocket attacks that have followed each Israeli withdrawal of the last two decades. Who here is in a cocoon?

And this brings me to the fourth theme. Close readers of Beinart’s work know that he has undergone a significant ideological transformation in recent years, especially on issues connected with the Middle East. There is nothing wrong with that. On the contrary, he is to be applauded for emerging from his youthful hawkishness. I generally find myself agreeing both with his defense of Israel’s existence and his critique of the Israeli settlement project in the West Bank. But Beinart has a real problem separating the personal from the political, and doesn’t only seek to blame a nefarious establishment for previous views which he now abjures, but seeks to deny the older pedigree of things he has only now discovered. Thus every time he encounters something for the first time, it is always a new trend rather than something which has been there all along.

The Arab Boycott—both as a way of avoiding any contact with Israel, and as an aspiration to isolate Israel and the Israelis from anyone else in the world, as a first step to rejecting the very presence of Jews in the Middle East—is the most glaring example of this tendency. Beinart seems genuine about his belief that a boycott of Israeli organizations is a recent phenomenon of the past few years, fueled by “interactions” with Israel in the territories. He says the same thing about “anti-normalization” campaigns. But this is to miss both the depth of the hostility to Israel and its much older roots. The Arab Boycott began in 1945 (before the occupation, before the "nakba") and was explicitly directed at “Jewish” rather than “Israeli” interests, as there was yet no State of Israel. “Anti-normalization” has been the rallying cry ever since the first peace overtures were made in the 1970s. The resistance to having any contact or cultural exchange with Israel or Israelis is why so many Palestinians (all the Palestinians Beinart has ever met, according to his own writing) can credibly believe that Zionism is a colonialist movement. An actual dialogue might be able to puncture this with the questions that the total lack of self-criticism mutes: If they were colonists, who was the mother country that sent them? And didn’t their elites flee back there when war started the same way Palestinian elites did in 1947?

Beinart is “repeatedly struck” by his conversations with Palestinians only because they are new to him; nothing there is new at all. This becomes apparent near the end of the article when he describes efforts to bring pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian partisans together for dialogue—and the refusal of pro-Palestinian groups to participate. Beinart very gently condemns this refusal, but writes compassionately that “one can understand the reluctance” of such groups to take part as they feel it is somehow consenting to the occupation. With this he has unwittingly knocked out two legs from his own rickety stool. First, the reluctance of Palestinians to participate is somehow understandable, but American Jews’ reluctance to be subjected to accusations of ethnic cleansing and genocide or their perfectly reasonable desire to see Israel (or for their children to see Israel) for its beaches and holy sites and not only its conflicts is not. Well, why not? Second, it’s only at this very late point in the article that we ever actually encounter someone, somewhere, anywhere, refusing to hear the other side or speak to it—and it’s not an Israeli or a Jew at all! Maybe other readers are sharper than I am, but it was only there that it dawned on me that for a whole article about Jews’ refusal to breach their closed intellectual space, one that he tweets he spent an entire summer working on, Beinart was unable to find a single actual example—as opposed to fanciful hypothetical scenarios he himself invented—of anyone from the American Jewish establishment refusing to hear someone or speak with someone from the other side. His only examples come at the end of the article; he very gently criticizes them; and they are actually all in the direction opposite to his thesis. “One can understand the reluctance” actually manifests all four themes at once.

Between the lamentable phenomenon he observes of a lack of dialogue and the conclusion that it is because American Jews live in an intellectual cocoon, there are several steps which need to be logically filled. If a Jewish organization had cancelled the appearance of a Palestinian speaker, if Jewish groups heckled Arab artists at cultural events or threatened to boycott joint events, he might have a case. If Israeli leaders or other Zionists were being invited to speak at pro-Palestinian events, he might have a case. If he could, despite a furiously overheated search engine, find one example of Jews “actively mocking the suffering” of the Palestinians, he might have a case. If he could find partisans of any other conflict in American political life who have a more open, more self-critical internal discourse, then at least we could have a baseline for discussion.

Beinart has found none of these things. He simply observes a regrettable state of affairs between the American partisans of a distant, but emotionally resonant conflict and assumes it must all be the fault of the Jewish side. It’s an apposite metaphor for his analysis of the larger conflict too.