The crisis of Zionism and the Diaspora

A shorter version of this article appeared as an op-ed in the Friday 20th April 2012 edition of the Australian Jewish NewsSee the original article, as published.

IT DIDN’T take long for parts of the Jewish world to attack Peter Beinart’s latest book, “The Crisis of Zionism”. And it’s no wonder either – for parts of the Jewish community establishment around the world, it is fundamentally at odds with their values and their strategy.

Actually though, Beinart’s book is crucial to the future of Israel, and the future of the Jewish people, both in Israel and around the world. By far the two most important takeaway points for us, as Zionists in Australia, are these.

First, a choice confronts Israel: if it wants to remain Jewish and democratic, it must release from its grip millions of Palestinians, the West Bank and the settlement enterprise. It is undermining Israeli democracy; Israel cannot claim to be a democracy while Israelis and Palestinians are subject to an entirely different set of laws in a huge swathe of territory under your jurisdiction.

“If [Israel] keeps holding the territories, in the end the territories will hold [Israel],” Beinart quotes Israel’s former finance minister Pinchas Sapir as saying, though his sentiments are hardly unique. The effects of the occupation have been bleeding into Israel proper for decades already – just look at the racist rabbis on the state’s payroll and how the public supports them, or the terrifying testimonies brought into the public sphere by Breaking the Silence. It is only a matter of time before it is entirely consumed by it and, as former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert have both warned, becomes an apartheid state.

While decades ago Israel may have been primarily a refuge for Jews, in modern times its raison d’être is dominated by the causes of Jewish expression and self-determination. In that, two core elements of our ethical code come to mind: Hillel’s ‘golden rule’ – “that which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow” – and the Biblical notion “you shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

The treatment of Palestinians, both within Israel and the Occupied Territories, are examples of where we aren’t living up to standards that we ourselves set. “The ground truth is this: occupying another people requires racism, and breeds it,” Beinart writes, at pains to admit that racism has taken root within Israel, despite the Jewish people having been at the wrong end of it for so long.

Second, the Jewish world also faces a choice – it can support Israel down one of either two paths. Beinart contends that too much of the Jewish world at the moment, dominated by hawkish American organisations, have Israel travelling on trajectory where it will hold on to the settlements indefinitely, undermining its legitimacy not just in the international realm, but also among Jews. Groups like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in the US, and similar organisations in Australia, only feign support for the two-state solution, preferring to conjure images of Jewish victimisation, where in fact we are powerful, and exhorting everyone not to trust Palestinian overtures for peace. All the while, the window of opportunity for peace, and a more secure and moral Israel, slips away.

Of course, the other option is a true communal embrace of the idea of two-states for two peoples and an Israel that lives up to the virtuous statements of its declaration of independence. One example Beinart gives is this: at AIPAC’s 2011 conference, a dozen panels discussed Palestinians, and yet not a single Palestinian was actually present to give their point of view. This condition is suffered no less in Australia; how many times have we, in the halls of Melbourne or Sydney, hosted a Zionist and Palestinian side-by-side discussing the peace process?

If we are truly committed to a two-state solution – and if we’re not, then something in our community’s DNA is seriously wrong – why are we so scared to hear from our partners in that process? Our conversations need to be daring with the view to salvaging Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and maintaining Diaspora support at the same time.

SOME HAVE derided the book as lacking understanding, and as irrelevant and incomplete, but I believe it is in fact core Jewish values and honesty that have led Beinart to his conclusions.

As I do, when Beinart reads the stories that typically come out of Israel – be it anti-democratic bills or Hamas rockets on Sderot – fear burns inside him for the future of Israel.

Israel is a project of the entire Jewish people. “If Israeli democracy falls, it will fall for all of us,” are the words on the final page of Beinart’s book, which underscores the plea that his book really is: if you believe in a Jewish state and believe in democracy, and while Israeli democracy underpins its legitimacy, then there is only one possible option, and it is all our responsibility.

The key, Beinart says, is “to delegitimise Israel’s occupation while legitimising Israel itself.” Stressing the demarcation between the “flawed by genuine democracy within the green line and an ethnically based nondemocracy beyond it,” Beinart advocates for a boycott of all settlements in non-democratic Israel.

I understand that many have objections to Beinart’s call; it is an extremely difficult decision to take to boycott other Jews. But the cold reality is that it’s unhealthy supporting the very enterprise that is undermining Jewish democracy. Rather than going to support Jews in the West Bank subject to a different legal system than their Arab neighbours, I would prefer to send my money to Israelis inside the green line. It’s an ethical choice that doesn’t differ in practice to choosing free range, instead of cage eggs.

Israeli academics and artists refuse to visit Ariel, Amos Oz, David Grossman and AB Yehoshua have been doing it for years and prominent writer Bernard Avishai also advocates for a settlement-only boycott. This is hardly something new or innovative, and while it may not ultimately be terribly effective, it is both a personal statement and a strong message to the Israeli government.

Having said that, the reservations to the settlement boycott are understandable – though the accusation it will ultimately lead to Zionists pursuing full BDS is absurd – and its similarity to the tactics of BDS is clear and unfortunate – in the same vein, Beinart could surely have chosen a more palatable phrase than “Zionist BDS”. Unlike BDS, though, whose main advocates are all explicitly or implicitly trying to end the existence of the State of Israel and replace it entirely, a settlement boycott comes from a Zionist perspective – trying to save the great Jewish experiment of the 20th century. If one truly understands the gravity of the consequences of an indefinite occupation, then surely a settlement boycott can similarly be understood to be a legitimate choice

His other prescriptions are perhaps less applicable to Australian Jewry. In fact, where he worries about the future of Jewish education in the US, he also praises the Australian Jewish education system for its penetration rate. However, what Beinart doesn’t acknowledge is the opposite, ‘Jew-ed out’ paradigm large numbers of Gen-Y’ers currently suffer from. It’s not just the rate of education; crucially it’s the style and methods of it that matter even more, the effectiveness of which has been alluding this community for some time now.

Beinart also briefly explores the hateful Hamas charter, based on the work of fiction that is the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but that in fact Hamas is making serious overtures towards support of a two-state solution. He quotes Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian pollster, as saying that Hamas supporters actually would like the group to pursue an agreement based on the 1967 borders with Israel, and don’t support the group for its radical Islamism.

While he hints at it briefly during his long description of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s political upbringing, and the ideology particularly of his father, Benzion, what could have been explored further are the rejectionist similarities between Likud’s charter and Hamas’s. No one is saying that Likud is calling for the death to all Muslims in the Levant, but you cannot also ignore the way its charter blithely ignores Palestinian seriousness in the peace process, or the desire to share the land with our neighbours.

MOST REVIEWS of “The Crisis of Zionism” so far have contained an element of rejectionism of Beinart’s telling and interpretation. This is where I will deviate significantly from them. Beinart’s book is not supposed to be a book of history, unlike his last book, “The Icarus Syndrome”. He does not try to reveal new facts or proclaim to be the book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (If you want real, new insight, you should read Gershom Gorenberg’s “The Unmaking of Israel”. In fact, reading it as a companion to Beinart’s will give you the most holistic view of the situation that faces Israel and the Diaspora as a whole.) Beinart is trying to tell a story and implore the reader to understand the gravity of the situation that he sees with such clarity. In that, as well as creating a global conversation about Israel, the Diaspora and Zionism, he has undoubtedly succeeded.

The way I see it you cannot disagree with Beinart’s principal thesis of the Zionist choice to consolidate Jewish democracy in Israel by ending the occupation and implementing a two-state solution as fast as practically possible. As long as people believe in the two-state solution it must be understood that time is limited.

Ultimately we ignore his advice at our own peril.