An Open Letter to American-Jewish Intellectuals View all 2 stories

Answering Said’s Call

While discourse on Israel-Palestine has shifted for the better since 1989, meeting Said’s challenge will require American Jewish intellectuals to recognize that Palestinian equality and Jewish safety are ultimately intertwined.

Peter Beinart
September 21, 2022

It’s easy to understand Edward Said’s rage. In his unpublished open letter, written in 1989, he describes American Jewish intellectuals “who possess, in other cases and for other countries, supremely fine critical faculties,” yet justify Israel’s behavior “no matter how overpoweringly cruel.” Said didn’t only watch these intellectuals betray their principles. He watched them do so in America’s most prestigious liberal publications: “The New York Review, The New York Times, The New Republic, Atlantic Monthly.” It drove him to the edge of despair.

The good news, more than three decades later, is that fewer such intellectuals exist. The number of American Jewish commentators who defend Israeli policy in elite progressive newspapers and journals has dwindled. This shift stems from ideological changes in both Israel and the US. In the years since Said wrote his letter, Likud and its smaller offshoots have come to dominate Israeli politics. Right-wing ascendance in Israel has coincided with the Christian right’s growing hegemony inside the Republican Party. As a result, fervent, unconditional support for Israel has become a more fundamental and uncontested feature of American conservative identity than it was in 1989. Said wrote during the presidency of George H. W. Bush, a Republican who tried to use US economic leverage to stop the growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank—an effort that would be unimaginable for a Republican president today. This ever-closer alliance between right-wing forces in Israel and the US—as exemplified by Benjamin Netanyahu, an Israeli leader who often sounds like a Republican senator—has opened a partisan chasm in American public opinion. When Said penned his letter, public opinion polls found that Democrats were almost as likely as Republicans to sympathize with Israel. Today the partisan gap over support for the Jewish state exceeds 50 percentage points.

As Israel and its support base in the US has moved right, the publications Said cites—The New York Review of Books, The New Republic, The New York Times, The Atlantic—have moved left. In recent years, Black Lives Matter and the MeToo movement have forced the liberal media to reckon, at least partially, with questions of representation: Who speaks and who is spoken about? During the fighting in Jerusalem and Gaza last spring, that reckoning finally trickled down to Israel-Palestine. Many liberal editors are now mildly embarrassed by the historic absence of Palestinian voices in conversations about Palestinian lives. American Jewish intellectuals still wield disproportionate influence in debates over Palestine and Israel but Jewish intellectual life is less hegemonically Zionist than it was 30 years ago and it has become more difficult for mainstream political discourse to exclude Palestinians.

Because of all this, the phenomenon that vexed Said—an ideological orientation sometimes referred to as “progressive except Palestine”—is waning in American intellectual life. The New York Review of Books, which once defined the left edge of mainstream American discourse by publishing dovish Zionists like Michael Walzer and Amos Oz, now publishes anti-Zionist Palestinians like Tareq Baconi. At The New Republic, where defending Israel was once an obsession, the change is even more dramatic. The magazine once owned by Marty Peretz—who tried to keep Said from being hired by Harvard—now publishes the Palestinian journalist Dalia Hatuqa, and one of Israel’s fiercest internal critics, Gideon Levy. Thomas Friedman, a veteran liberal Zionist, remains on The New York Times op-ed page, but Michelle Goldberg, who defends anti-Zionism and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement from charges of antisemitism, embodies the generational shift. The Times op-ed page still hosts Bret Stephens, one of America’s most prominent pro-Israel hawks. But that’s exactly the point. Stephens is not “progressive except Palestine”; he’s a conservative. So are most of the other prominent intellectuals who defend Israel’s behavior in American media today.

The bad news is that this intellectual shift hasn’t shifted the balance of power either inside the American Jewish community or, more importantly, in Washington. American Jewish institutions and American political institutions have grown so oligarchic and authoritarian that they have less need for intellectuals. Unconditional support for Israel is now maintained, for the most part, through brutish, doltish power. In 2000, the former Israeli cabinet minister Yossi Beilin observed, “The American Jewish community may be characterized as a sort of plutocracy, dominated by its most affluent members.” That’s even more true today. Over the decades, as American Jews have assimilated, many Jewish organizations have lost their base of small donors. To sustain themselves, they have become more reliant on the ultra-rich—who, in and beyond the Jewish community, control a larger share of the nation’s wealth. When Said wrote, the combined wealth of the poorer half of the American population was far greater than the combined wealth of America’s billionaires. Today, billionaires account for four times as much.

This shift to a small number of ultra-wealthy donors has insulated American Jewish organizations from political trends among American Jews as a whole. One quarter of American Jews now call Israel an apartheid state, but the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations won’t even admit J Street. The American Jewish establishment’s growing reliance on raw financial power is best exemplified by AIPAC’s creation of a super PAC earlier this year, which allows the organization to raise and spend seemingly unlimited sums in congressional campaigns. Five billionaires—Haim Saban, Paul Singer, Bernard Marcus, Robert Kraft, and Jan Koum—have each donated at least $1 million, and AIPAC, along with its sidekick, Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), has spent lavishly on advertising aimed at defeating candidates who support Palestinian rights. But AIPAC and DMFI’s attack ads rarely mention Palestine-Israel. They dwell on local, poll-tested issues. America’s most powerful Jewish institutions are not trying to shape public opinion on Israel-Palestine. They’re trying, through sheer financial muscle, to elect Democrats who will ignore public opinion on Israel-Palestine. That effort doesn’t require intellectuals.

Public opinion has grown easier for politicians to ignore because the United States government has grown less democratic. When Said wrote, it was difficult to imagine a candidate winning the presidency while losing the popular vote. Yet that is how America’s last two Republican presidents entered the White House. Said wrote before Citizens United v. FEC, the 2010 Supreme Court decision that enabled super PACs; Shelby v. Holder, the 2013 decision that gutted voting rights enforcement in the South; and Rucho v. Common Cause and Lamone v. Benisek, the twin 2019 decisions that blessed even the most egregious form of congressional gerrymandering. The result is an American political system that is now more insulated from what ordinary Americans think, whether on guns, climate change, or Palestinian rights. Which helps explain why more than 40% of rank-and-file Democrats think the US should withhold military aid from Israel, yet a mere handful of congressional Democrats agree.

In this moment of democratic crisis in the United States, mobilizing Americans to support Palestinian freedom requires linking it to the struggle for freedom in America. But entwining the two is harder when Palestinian political leaders aren’t fighting for freedom themselves. In his essay, Said described the First Intifada, then still underway, as a “momentous period in our postwar history” characterized by “generally non-lethal and principled resistance,” “the banishment of fear,” and greater “political vision.” Today, by contrast, the Palestinian Authority offers little resistance and no vision, and works alongside Israel to repress those Palestinians who do. By helping Israel subdue the kind of unarmed protest that largely characterized the First Intifada, Mahmoud Abbas helps keep the West Bank quiet—keeping the Palestinian people’s plight off of America’s screens and making it harder to create a popular movement in the US that can overcome the pro-Israel establishment’s entrenched power.

Said imagined a movement in which “Palestinians and Jews in America”—along with others—would “fight together, on the same side” for “the joint, politically equal survival of two peoples.” That principle remains crucial. Said wrote in the wake of the PLO’s historic 1988 decision to support partitioning Israel-Palestine along the 1949 armistice lines, which he supported. But after the Oslo process allowed the growth of West Bank settlements, making Palestinian sovereignty impossible, Said reconsidered partition and proposed a single binational state. For those contemporary intellectuals who already support the Palestinian freedom struggle, meeting Said’s challenge requires recognizing, as Said did, that Israeli Jews are members of a people, not merely adherents of a religion. Thus, one equal state must be binational; it must recognize that Jews, like Palestinians, have collective as well as individual rights.

For the kind of American Jewish intellectuals Said was addressing, those who still see Palestinian equality as a threat to Jewish safety, meeting his challenge requires recognizing that Palestinian equality and Jewish safety are ultimately intertwined. In the long run, trying to safeguard Israeli Jews by subjugating Palestinians is not only immoral, but foolish, since the violence of state-sponsored oppression sooner or later produces violence in response. The insight that safety for the privileged ultimately requires justice for the dispossessed is hardly novel. It is a point made repeatedly by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela, figures lionized by many of the same commentators who justify Jewish supremacy in Israel today. For American Jewish intellectuals, applying that principle to Palestine-Israel requires untethering ourselves from the anti-Palestinian racism that pervades both American politics and organized American Jewish life. It requires challenging the dehumanizing assumption that Palestinians are motivated not by a desire for freedom but by an innate hatred of Jews. It requires recognizing that discussions of antisemitism that consistently ignore anti-Palestinian bigotry are liable to become tools for perpetuating that bigotry. And it means realizing that one can oppose illiberal Palestinian parties like Hamas and Islamic Jihad without believing that their existence strips Palestinians of their right to individual and national freedom. If Jews don’t forfeit their right to political equality because they elect religious supremacists, neither do Palestinians.

Above all, a joint struggle for political equality requires that American Jews care. If there are fewer Jewish intellectuals willing to defend Israel’s behavior than there were in 1989, there are more Jewish intellectuals who ignore the issue altogether. That’s partly because assimilation has diminished the American Jewish attachment to Israel and partly because other crises appear more urgent or broader in scope. American Jews, like everyone, can choose their causes—and it’s hard to criticize political writers for focusing on fascism and environmental catastrophe at home and abroad. Still, American Jews with a public platform should recognize that their ability to ignore Israel-Palestine stems from their relative privilege. It’s easier to focus on other topics when your cousins live in Herzliya than when they live in Khan Yunis. This comfortable indifference makes American Jewish intellectuals silent accomplices to the cruelty Said decried.

If American Jewish intellectuals won’t openly support Palestinian equality, Said writes near the end of his letter, “they should say openly that they feel Palestinians are and should remain less equal than Jews.” The demise of the two-state solution makes the choice between equality and apartheid even clearer today. In a world where Israel models ethnocracy for authoritarian movements from India to Hungary to the US, this choice has implications for the entire world. Said asked American Jewish intellectuals to meet this moral challenge, not evade it. He hoped we could contribute to a political movement that liberated Palestinians from oppression and liberated Jews from our role as oppressors. We still have not answered his call.

Peter Beinart is the editor-at-large of Jewish Currents.