Letters to the Editor: Yavne

Readers respond to Peter Beinart’s call for an equal, binational state in Israel-Palestine.

Jewish Currents
July 13, 2020
Photo: Tanya Habjouqa

The following letters were received in response to Editor-at-Large Peter Beinart’s essay “Yavne: The Jewish Case for Equality in Israel-Palestine” (July 7th, 2020), in which the author declared the two-state solution dead and made an argument for a confederation or equal binational state in Israel-Palestine—contextualizing this move within a Zionist lineage. Beinart presented a truncated, more personal version of his essay in this New York Times op-ed, and elaborated on some of his thinking in this Q&A.

As a Palestinian, it is both heartening and frustrating to read Peter Beinart’s piece. On the one hand, I am glad to see Beinart reaching these conclusions. It truly is a testament to the hard conversations being had, and the Jewish activists who have pushed this debate in the right direction within their community. I understand the audience to whom Beinart speaks, and applaud him for his moral clarity in spite of the pushback he has faced and will undoubtedly continue to face. On the other hand, Palestinians have long been saying many of these same things. So much work and research has been produced, so much energy has been expended, making the same arguments: that a two-state solution can no longer be achieved, that Palestinians are living in worse conditions than ever before, that the status quo will breed an uncoordinated violence of despair. I myself have written on patterns of Palestinian mobilization, with a specific focus on Jerusalem as a model for where we can look for alternatives to the current impasse. While Beinart mentions a few Palestinian names, it is quite typical that Palestinian expertise is only validated when repeated by an Israeli or Jewish author.

I was also frustrated by the use of the legacy of South African apartheid and Southern segregation to quietly reassure Beinart’s audience that Israeli Jews will remain economically and politically dominant in a one-state system. While it is true, historically, that legacies of colonialism and exploitation are not immediately eradicated at the stroke of a pen, this is not information that should be reassuring to Beinart’s readers, nor is it an inevitability. I would hope that if a one-state solution is adopted—especially given these historical examples—Palestinians can expect more than to remain the underclass in their own country. As I have said previously, it almost feels like Palestinians are the extras in a drama the Jewish community is performing for itself. Perhaps the next iteration of this conversation can actually center Palestinians, the other party to this conflict.

Nevertheless, I was almost moved to tears when Beinart described, in his last few paragraphs, how a binational state would be a refuge for both peoples, how both Palestinians and Israelis would commemorate the Holocaust at Yad Vashem, as well as the Nakba at a future museum site in Deir Yassin. I am from Jerusalem, my family displaced from West Jerusalem in 1948. But, unlike many other Palestinians, we were able to remain in the city, and I had the privilege to grow up for some time in my ancestral home. When I moved away, the occupation meant that every trip back home became a risk. Because of the occupation, when my grandmother passed away, I was unable to say goodbye. Because of the occupation, my son has yet to visit his country. I sincerely hope Beinart is convincing, because I want my son to enjoy his country, his birthright, before it’s too late.

Dana El Kurd
Doha, Qatar

The letter-writer is an assistant professor at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies.

Like many young Palestinian Americans coming into their political identities, I quickly internalized the idea that any rejection of Zionism was beyond the pale. I learned that “Palestinians” were an invented people who had coalesced only for the purpose of committing genocide. Having failed, their continued peoplehood was evidence of an undying hatred, their very existence was a threat to someday try again. I never believed that I was “Antisemitism Incarnate,” but I understood that the Palestinian story was dangerous—not to be shared lightly. I took full advantage of the ability to hide, which my light skin and non-Arabic name allowed. 

When I first read Peter Beinart’s work, I found a Jewish voice that spoke about Palestinians with unqualified empathy. It caused something in me to relax. Liberal Zionists like Peter can give us something that anti-Zionists can’t: They can build a new Zionism that includes Palestinians in its mythology and mission. 

Dylan Bowne
Atlanta, GA

While on one level “Yavne” represents Peter Beinart’s own significant personal and political transformation, it also reflects the listening he’s done. Beinart serves as a messenger: A Palestinian-led campaign for “one person, one vote” is on its way. It’s time to get ready, because as soon as there is a tangible, Palestinian-led campaign for “one person, one vote” and a request for allyship, it will be our job as progressive American Jews to show up.

It is not our role as American Jews to lead the campaign, and it’s crucial to acknowledge that Palestinians have been calling for equal rights for longer than Beinart (or I) have been alive. We can and should interrogate why a message from Beinart, an American Jew, comes with such weight. But Beinart has consistently been one step ahead of the liberal Zionist “consensus,” and it behooves us to listen to him. 

Ilana Sumka
Leuven, Belgium

The letter-writer is the founding director emeritus of the Center for Jewish Nonviolence.

I have high hopes that Peter Beinart’s new article reflects a changing consensus that will help move the mainstream discourse forward. And I appreciated his tracing, in the article and in an accompanying Twitter thread, of the influence of Palestinian intellectuals on his thinking, which sadly is itself somewhat unusual within the Jewish mainstream conversation. 

But I was struck that he credits his call for equality entirely to Israel’s actions entrenching occupation and annexation without acknowledging the ongoing movement for Palestinian rights that has existed since before Israel did. During the time that Beinart has been a public figure on this issue, that has included not only resistance and co-resistance on the ground, but a robust network of global solidarity. In recent years, it has mostly centered around the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement—whose tagline “freedom, justice, equality” is echoed in Beinart’s call, and whose clear principles and smart campaigns have played an enormous role in shifting the political landscape in recent years. I wish that dynamic process had been part of his reflections. 

Over the years, Beinart—and even more so, liberal Jewish institutions—have acted as gatekeepers, making the two-state solution a litmus test determining who is inside the Jewish communal tent and can be taken seriously as a political player. It is a watershed that Beinart has now made this statement, but I do wish he had in turn acknowledged how late he, and by extension the establishment, have been to do so, and how much damage that has caused in slowing down calls for justice. Palestinians, of course, have remarked with understandable frustration on the racism inherent in the lack of attention, not to mention attacks, they have received over the years for the very same positions. Since the piece was pitched to a specifically Jewish audience, I also wish he had acknowledged that there have been Jewish people and Jewish organizations, notably Jewish Voice for Peace, that have taken these positions for many years, and have paid a high price for it, while undeniably helping to shift the communal conversation. 

Beinart himself has been one of the few mainstream figures who has engaged in respectful conversation with those to his left. But the thrill of understanding the significance of his dramatic shift also reminded me of my own hurt in the way this conversation has played out. It is far from the most important point, but I do wonder: Will there ever be any self-reflection and teshuvah within the Jewish community about the ways that those of us who have articulated these very positions for years have been attacked and excluded by our families, friends, teachers, rabbis, and institutions?

Rebecca Vilkomerson
Brooklyn, NY

The letter-writer is the former executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace.

As a Black Jew, I was disheartened to read Peter Beinart’s latest piece in Jewish Currents. In it, he writes—in a line the editors chose to highlight in big, bold font—“It is time for liberal Zionists to abandon the goal of Jewish-Palestinian separation and embrace the goal of Jewish-Palestinian equality.” Beinart grew up in an American left-leaning community and, like me, has an Ivy League background. Surely this means he has long been familiar with the arguments for why the “separate but equal” doctrine is nonsense and has been outlawed in the United States, at least on paper, for almost 70 years. Why then, when it comes to Palestinians, has it taken Beinart decades to recognize this simple fact?

There is no excuse for American liberal Zionists’ refusal to apply this lesson to the rights of Palestinians. It is long past time to question the doublethink required to imagine that a separate Palestinian state, side by side with one in which Palestinians are second-class citizens, could ever be a just outcome. Beinart says the liberal Zionist project has failed. But it could never succeed without accepting segregation as an organizing principle in the first place. As a Black Jew, I cannot accept segregation anywhere, and neither should any other Jew. The Jewish case for equality is a commandment in the Torah: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
New Hampshire Seacoast

In “Yavne,” Peter Beinart acknowledges the ostracization of anti-Zionist Jews, and yet refuses to acknowledge his part in this. Now that he too has finally come to oppose a Jewish state, he does not want to face the same outrage and exile that we have for decades—one he helped foment. Instead he desperately clings to the title “Zionist,” claiming that Zionism means not a Jewish state, but merely a Jewish home in Palestine, and pretending that this was what Zionism used to mean. This is historically inaccurate and intellectually disingenuous. One cannot pick up the mantle of Ahad Ha’am while ignoring what Zionism has been for over a century, or the reasons why Ahad Ha’am himself split from the movement in his time. In calling both a Jewish state and opposition to a Jewish state “Zionism,” he helps to normalize actual Zionism, an ideology he now ostensibly opposes and recognizes as a threat to Jews. If the countless liberal Zionists fleeing Zionism latch onto such a definition—in part because they have no clear model for Jewish identity outside of Zionism—that spells disaster. 

This redefinition of Zionism is no less dangerous than the Zionist redefinition of antisemitism. In defining Zionism as a Jewish presence in Palestine, he is insinuating that opposition to Zionism will be tantamount to support for ethnically cleansing Jews from the region. Even minor success for such a definition could have a horrific impact on BDS fights on college campuses and the continuing criminalization of anti-Zionists (and especially Palestinian anti-Zionists). 

Leftist Jews have already reimagined Jewish identity outside of Zionism. It is time to be loud and joyful about that—to build something of our own, instead of waiting for liberal Zionist gatekeepers to let us back in the house they have kicked us out of.

Tali David
Los Angeles, CA

I was raised on Long Island, in the “broad center of Jewish life” that Peter Beinart identifies in his article. I am in my early twenties, and in recent years I have come to the conclusion that the Jewish education I received was morally reprehensible. I can honestly say that I did not, in any meaningful sense, understand Palestinians as human beings until I left that environment. Though I attribute this failing in part to my own foibles, I cannot help but feel that my educators abdicated their responsibility to teach me the Jewish religion, and instead imparted to me a warped ideology of supremacy.

Despite having reached this realization, I always felt that a one-state solution would mean certain death for Israeli Jews, a fear unquestionably shaped by inherited Jewish trauma. Beinart’s analysis helped me understand the legitimacy of the one-state option as a (comparatively) viable construct. I thank him for that, and it is my sincere hope that other young Jews who feel as I do are similarly compelled to realign their principles. It isn’t just the older generation who needs the push; progressives in the younger generation raised in the “broad center” need it, too. 

Noah S.
New York, New York

I agree with Peter Beinart’s central claim: “Belief” in a two-state solution serves the political right better as a tactic for delaying and obstructing progress than it serves the left as a realistic political solution. Nonetheless, ending the military occupation and granting formal political rights to Palestinians in a binational state doesn’t guarantee any improvement in the social, economic, or political condition of those currently oppressed. Why should we expect a binational agreement between Israelis and Palestinians to produce a system akin to that produced by the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland or the negotiations between the de Klerk government and the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa? Does Beinart truly see Palestinians as having the bargaining power of either the ANC or any coalition group present in the Good Friday Agreement negotiations?

Instead, the political reality created by any sort of binational agreement may be much more akin to the political system created in the American South by the passage and subsequent lack of enforcement of the 14th and 15th amendments. Political rights were formally guaranteed but in practice ignored until the federal government could no longer resist the growing tide of the civil rights movement nearly 100 years later. Until the Civil and Voting Rights Acts, the formal right to vote meant little to Black citizens barred from the ballot box. Formalized equal protection under the law meant little in front of all-white juries and racist judges.

I fear that this article puts the cart before the horse; a political solution without the popular will to fulfill its promise will simply create a new status quo that does little to ameliorate the political realities of Palestinians. Do our squabbles over particular political solutions obstruct the harsh reality that Jewish-Israeli society is far from accepting any sort of legitimate form of Palestinian political power? 

Michael Greenberger
Durham, North Carolina

I agree with Peter Beinart that the time has come to explore outside-the-box solutions that would preserve Israel as a Jewish home while also protecting the rights of Palestinians. However, I fear that Beinart has underestimated the potential risks involved. The South African example offers a hopeful possibility, but the experiences of Yugoslavia, Lebanon, and Iraq counsel caution. 

In the early aughts, experts and pundits debated whether replacing an oppressive Middle Eastern regime would lead to a flourishing, multiethnic liberal democracy based on civic nationalism, or whether the country’s sectarian divisions would cause it to collapse into civil war. One prominent liberal journalist supported the war based on his relationship with Iraqi exile Kanan Makiya, who had seen his country brutalized and hoped for a better future. Makiya reminded the journalist of South African exiles from apartheid. Years later, in explaining his regret for supporting the Iraq War, the journalist wrote: “Made desperate by Saddam’s horrors and his resilience, [Makiya] was willing to gamble. I was willing to gamble too—partly, I suppose, because . . . I wasn’t gambling with my own life.” That journalist’s name was Peter Beinart. 

Joshua A. Brook, esq.
Weehawken, New Jersey

The letter-writer is a former aide to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Thank you, Peter Beinart, for this fabulous article. In “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” you argued that American Jews were going to lose the next generation if we persisted in prioritizing Israel as a Jewish state rather than a democratic state. At the time, it crystalized my fairly incoherent thoughts about the whole problem. Now, with “Yavne,” you have made the argument, clearly and compellingly, that I’ve been struggling to make as I confront my outrage at Trump/Bibi.

To be fully honest, I already believed in the proposal for one equal state, but hadn’t fully worked it out, and would not say so publicly. The last time I did that, writing about my decision to boycott Israel (in the pages of Jewish Currents, no less), I was slammed by a number of Jewish Studies scholars and by some local political leaders who did not want me to run . . . for school board. I was disinvited from several scheduled speaking engagements about Jews and the newly formed Black Lives Matter organization and for a time the local Jewish newspaper refused to publicize my events. But you have given me the courage of my convictions. I wanted to thank you for both times you have done this.

Cheryl Greenberg
Hartford, CT

The letter-writer is the Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of History at Trinity College.

Beinart attempts to root his argument and vision for “equality in Israel-Palestine” in his well-worn liberal Zionism. He claims that early Zionist thought encompassed visions of Jewish and Palestinian coexistence, and that, as a result, the “essence” of Zionism can be realized without “separation” or “subjugating another people.” But he misrepresents the early Zionists, who viewed Palestinians’ presence on their land as an obstacle to overcome rather than a reality to respect. In fact, all forms of Zionism, in both theory and practice, have depended on the expulsion of Palestinians and theft of their land. There is no “essence” of Zionism apart from its historical manifestations, and none of those manifestations are compatible with justice or worthy of revival.

Without reparations, land and wealth redistribution, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees, the political equality that Beinart proposes would yield only nominal “freedom” and limited material improvements for some Palestinians. He admits this himself, reassuring the (presumed Jewish) reader that Israeli Jews would retain their “economic privilege” and be “so well positioned as to inhibit fundamental transformation.” 

While many readers thought Beinart’s essay was derivative of Palestinians’ work, we believe he has much to learn from one-state visions that honestly confront Zionism, repair deep material harm, and advance the “fundamental transformation” required for justice.

Rachel Praschker and Tal Frieden
Los Angeles, CA and Providence, RI