Peter Beinart is not the most popular pro-Israel, Zionist critic of Israel these days.
His new book, “The Crisis of Zionism,” has spurred controversy and debate, particularly when it comes to his two new catch phrases: a boycott of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, or “Zionist BDS,” a reference to the largely anti-Israel movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel; and calling the West Bank “nondemocratic Israel.”
But Beinart is standing by his thesis, first laid out in his controversial 2010 New York Review of Books piece, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.” Beinart’s central argument is this: Because Israel continues to occupy the West Bank and gives rights to the Jewish settlers who live there, but not to the Palestinian population, the future of Israel as a democratic and Jewish state is at risk.
If the occupation becomes permanent, then Israel could become apartheid, “a word that does not easily come off of my tongue,” Beinart told American University students and D.C. locals at a speech on April 24 at A.U.
A.U. wasn’t the only college campus to host the Zionist Israel critic recently. In the D.C. area alone, Beinart has spoken at Georgetown University and the University of Maryland since the high-profile release of his book in March at the annual J Street conference in D.C.
Beinart’s words have become a flashpoint of debate, the cause of immense tension in the American Jewish community.
“There’s a lot of anxiety amongst of a lot of American Jews about Israel’s future, and I think we’ve seen recognition that the American Jewish community is divided even though that division is very painful for people,” Beinart told New Voices. “It’s divided along generational lines, it’s divided along religious lines, and there is an anxiety at least among some American Jews of the path that Israel is on, and then there’s anxiety amongst other American Jews about the anxiety those American Jews have.”
But that generational divide is not surprising to Beinart, who says that American Jewish youth relate to his position based on one fact: They don’t remember a pre-1967, fully democratic Jewish state; they’ve only ever known Israel to be in a position of power, not of weakness.
That’s quite the contrast to “the American Jewish establishment” (Beinart’s catchall phrase that reminds this writer a little too much of the anti-Semitic stereotypes of the power of the American Jewish community). This group of older white gentlemen, in Beinart’s eyes, continues to sway American and Israeli foreign policy with the help of their good friend across the Atlantic, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Beinart has been the target of what the Forward’s J. J. Goldberg called “unhinged,” “unglued,” criticism by “knee-jerk apologetics.” Joe Klein at Time Magazine wrote that the “lies being promulgated against ['The Crisis of Zionism']” show “the current desperation of many neocons.”
“After my book came out, my friend said to me, ‘Have there been any angry words, personal attacks, ad hominem denunciations?’” Beinart said at A.U. “And I said, ‘You mean outside of my own family?’”
But some of the criticisms have been valid. Gal Beckerman of the Forward wrote that, “Beinart removes all agency from Israel’s adversaries. Time and again, he makes the point that if only Israel ended the occupation, everything would resolve itself.”
This is true to a certain extent. If Palestinians are mentioned at all in “The Crisis of Zionism,” they are only used to briefly mention their role as an unwilling partner for peace. They are mentioned for the sole purpose of countering critics such as Beckerman and illustrating the culpability of Israel and American Jews. Criticism of the Palestinians never overshadows criticism of Israel and “the American Jewish establishment.”
But Beinart is insistent that he doesn’t give the Palestinians a free ride. In his speech at A.U., Beinart unequivocally criticized Palestinian terror tactics and use of violence.
“As I say in my book, I think the Palestinians do bear blame,” Beinart told New Voices.
Beinart also concludes his book calling for greater attention to Jewish education in the hope of decreasing intermarriage and increasing Jewish involvement.
But a response Paul Golin wrote for the New Jersey Jewish News that there is no real correlation between assuring a strong Jewish future and decreasing intermarriage.
“The tragedy is not that people get intermarried,” Beinart said. “The tragedy to me is that so many American Jews essentially don’t carry on – don’t raise Jewish families – without really having much of an understanding of what they’re giving up.”
Last but not least, Beinart calls for “Zionist BDS, which I know is very controversial,” as he put it to New Voices. Namely, Beinart advocates for targeted boycott of the settlements as a means to put pressure on what he might call “democratic Israel” to end the occupation of “non-democratic Israel.”
But Nathan Guttman at the Forward pointed out that any BDS movement targeted specifically at the settlements would have a limited effect.
Even though he unequivocally condemns the global BDS movement for its delegitimization of Israel, Beinart emphasized to New Voices that “the psychological impact [of settlement boycott] would be significant.”
Plenty of Beinart’s most vehement opponents have questioned his ideology, challenging the notion that it is pro-Israel at all. But in the end, Beinart says he loves Israel just as much as any Jew should. In a callback to one of the central ideas of the New York Review of Books piece – that young Jews today find their Zionism and their liberal politics at odds – Beinart talked at A.U. about the miracles of the Zionist movement and praised Jews’ ability to treasure their liberalism and their Zionism for decades.
“We have enough problems with Jewish identity and Jewish continuity here in the United States,” Beinart told the A.U. crowd. “One can only imagine what our plight would be if we did not have the Zionist movement and the people of Israel.”
Zach C. Cohen is the New Voices D.C. bureau chief. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Eagle at American University. Zach has contributed writing and reporting to TIME Magazine, the Jewish Daily Forward, AWOL, AmWord and the Suburban News. Follow him on Twitter at @Zachary_Cohen.