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Who Really Matters? Adventures in Beinart-Land

Alyssa Goldstein
May 5, 2012
by Alyssa Goldstein A few days ago, liberal Zionist poster-child Peter Beinart came to Bard to give a talk. I haven’t read Beinart’s book, though I do follow his website Open Zion. I’ll be straight-up about the fact that I’m not a fan of liberal Zionism, and I didn’t expect to agree with just about anything Beinart said. However, given his recent popularity, I guess I did expect something a little more. . . impressive. He spoke for only half an hour, with only a slightly longer time at the end for questions. Nevertheless, for someone who spoke underwhelmingly for a short time, he did manage to leave me boiling with anger. I suppose that’s a sort of accomplishment. Beinart started rolling out the gold right from the start, saying that diaspora Jews would find it difficult to maintain their Jewish identity without Israel’s revival of Hebrew as a living language. Not only did I fail to see the connection, but this also seemed rather insulting to diaspora Jewish identity in the past and present, as if Yiddish and Judaeo-Spanish and every other Jewish language never counted. Would that were the worst thing Beinart said that night, but his seemingly unconscious disparagement of Palestinian identity was still yet to come. He continued by saying what I’ve heard others voice over and over again: that time is running out for Israeli democracy because of the occupation (conveniently, the purported demise of Israeli democracy is always in some fast-approaching non-specified time in the future that never seems to arrive). He called a one-state vision “utopian,” but spoke so casually about dismantling the settlements that my history professor leaned over to me and whispered, “what year does he think this is, 1969?” Beinart’s biggest contradiction of the night came after he characterized the state of Israel as the Jewish people’s dream of 2000 years, and urged that a two-state solution would be the way to make that 2,000 year wait worthwhile. At the end of his talk, I raised my hand and asked about Palestinian refugees expelled in 1948, a population whose concerns the two-state solution does not address. I asked, how did he square his “liberal” ideas with preventing a refugee population from returning to their homeland simply because they are not Jewish? “Those Palestinian homes and villages don’t exist anymore,” he replied. “Those keys they have don’t unlock anything. Most of the people who are refugees now weren’t even born there.” I was stunned. Hadn’t he just said that the establishment of the state of Israel was a 2,000 year old dream? The Jews “returning” to Palestine hadn’t been born there, and their houses and villages from 2,000 years ago certainly didn’t exist anymore. But in Beinart’s eyes, a return for Jews after 2,000 years was a noble dream fulfilled; but a return for Palestinians after 64 years would disturb the “peace.” “He must think years work differently for Jews and Palestinians,” a friend of mine remarked. “Like human years and dog years.” Beinart also claimed that the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement is not worthwhile, despite its nonviolence, because it “doesn’t recognize the importance of the Jewish claim to Israel.” Given that Beinart has no problems denying the Palestinian claim, this was especially ironic. When I went up to Beinart after the talk and told him that if the reason Palestinian refugees couldn’t return was because they no longer had houses (which Israel had destroyed), then surely they could build some new houses. If he thought that an influx of refugees who “hadn’t been born there” would be disruptive, then surely he would remember the enormous aliyah of Russian Jewish immigrants in the 1990s who hadn’t been born there either, but nevertheless got apartments and absorption packages. The only response he could come up with was “Israel has a special purpose to protect the Jewish people.” Protect them at the expense of all others, apparently. Given all this, I wasn’t particularly impressed when Beinart started talking about the importance of having Palestinian speakers and writers in every American Jewish newspaper, synagogue, and organization. It seemed apparent that Beinart isn’t particularly interested in listening to what these Palestinians might have to say, but rather enjoys the image of himself as someone tolerant enough to invite a few token Palestinians to participate in what should remain an American-Jewish dominated discussion over the Palestinians’ own fate. I wasn’t the only person in attendance to feel rather skeptical; two audience members compared Beinart to MLK’s vision of the “white moderate” in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail:”
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
If Beinart had simply said “the fact that Jews lived in the land of Israel 2,000 years ago is more important than the fact that Palestinians lived there 65 years ago. Our connection to the land is more important than theirs. We won, they lost, get over it,” I at least would have appreciated his honesty. Instead, he chose to imply that Palestinians matter less while attempting to maintain an image of tolerance and liberalism. It was an ugly sight.