Stray Thoughts on This Week’s Peter Beinart To-Do

1) I don’t know why I’m writing about this tonight and not Dr. McCoy’s technophobia.  Probably because I’m a masochist at heart.

2) I haven’t read The Crisis of Zionism.  Neither the university nor the local public library have it, and the League doesn’t yet cover book review expenses.  So I’m not pretending to comment on the contents of the book per se.  Perhaps, once one of these libraries does acquire a copy, I will read it, if I have the time.  It’s practical, not personal.  I have, however, read the recent New York Times op-ed.  And an ungodly number of missives in response (and in response to response), most of which I don’t care to link to because I don’t want anyone else to suffer.

3) Writing an opinion piece for the Times in which you make a point of including your plan under the category and title of “B.D.S.” is a fantastic way to get attention among internet-dwelling Jews.  It is a fantastically horrible way to convince anyone who didn’t already agree with you — this is a matter of style more than substance, lobbing a rhetorical hand-grenade that will immediately alienating those who, maybe, don’t read Commentary but who still are aware that this B.D.S. thing is connected with those perceived to be anti-Zionists, so what on God’s green earth could this Beinart be talking about?  Unfortunately, if his settlement-boycott plan is ever to have legs, these are precisely the people he needs to persuade.  Persuasion will require getting them to pay attention past the third paragraph — and if this means playing nice, rhetorically, then that’s the price one sometimes has to pay.  Cicero always waited until after he felt he’d won the audience over before punningly accusing his opponent (or his sister) of sexual malfeasance.

4) Unfortunately, I have yet to be persuaded that a settlement boycott by American Jews would make a significant difference toward resolving the crisis.  (If you have a case that seems genuinely persuasive, give me a try!  I’m open to being proven wrong, after all.)  A primary reason for this is that I’m effectively already boycotting the settlements.  I don’t donate money to groups that support them.  I’ve never visited one — tour groups tend to take you places that are “safe”: this means inside the Green Line.  (Yes, even the most evangelical of Birthright tour guides, too.)  And, so far as I know, I don’t purchase products made in the West Bank.  In this, I suspect that I’m not alone — and that “boycotting” settlements would be, for many young Jews, just another way to feel good about a cause without doing anything real.

5) This brings me to my major critique of Beinart’s advocacy.  (Perhaps I’ll be proven wrong, at a later date, by the books, but…)  Even including the publication of his NY Review of Books essay two years ago, very little of his writing has said anything I have found new; it has said very little that my friends and acquaintances, as informed, conflicted, Zionists (and some non-Zionists) who are skeptical (at best) of current settlement policy, have found new or insightful.  I, frankly, still can’t figure out why that essay was such a big deal — except for his professional biography.  I’d heard it all before, at Shabbos lunch.

6) His campus speaking tour, from personal experience and second-hand reports, was basically a rehash of the essay that was itself something of a rehash.  The guy sitting next to me was a rabid Greater Israel guy, who went on a rant during Q&A that should have been easily dissected; instead, it was only barely so.  His responses to critics have typically been disappointing, if strident.

7) Beinart also punted on a sincere question about de-legitimizing Israel.  In effect, “How do you propose we take the advocacy role you propose and avoid unintentionally aiding efforts to de-legitimize Israel?  It seems like it might be a fine line.”  This is a question that does concern the conflicted liberal Zionists Beinart’s proposal target; the only answer he could offer was, “It won’t.”

8) In effect — and why I included the above anecdotes —  I suspect that if there is a movement to “Ignore. Peter. Beinart.” it comes not from fear of his words than from the perception that he generates loud headlines and loud debates while contributing little of new substance to the discussion of what to do.  As perplexed as I was about why his 2010 essay was such a big deal, I was pleased that it seemed to open avenues for discussing the future of Zionism as practiced by American Jews.  I still find his passionate insistence that American Jews must do something, that the status quo is not sustainable, relevant and inspiring.  Nevertheless, two years later, I can’t help but feel that it has done little more than add to the polarization of the debate — in part because those on the right have grown more defensive.  But an equal measure of the blame falls on those who, like Andrew Sullivan, insist that any refusal to unquestioningly accept Beinart’s generally lackluster proposals indicates that one is on Bibi’s payroll.

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13 thoughts on “Stray Thoughts on This Week’s Peter Beinart To-Do

  1. I share your knee-jerk skepticism of the efficacy of a boycott. Can we identify settlement-produced products and boycott them if we decide we want to? What would Israel’s response likely be? Am inclined to think the answer is “no” and “not what you want”, so I’m skeptical about Beinart’s recommendation (though like you, I have more to learn about his argument).

    But I do think you’re selling his argument short.

    Jeffrey Goldberg has written that in about five years, “Either the Jews of Israel would grant the Palestinians the vote, at which point their country would lose its Jewish majority and its identity as a refuge for the Jewish people, or it would deny them the vote, and become an apartheid state.”

    Beinart is trying to focus our attention on this this crisis, and argues that Israel’s current course doesn’t fit long-term US or Israeli interests. It may be an old argument, but it’s still important.

    So, the policy question is, what, if anything, should the US do to influence Israel, a country that depends on US support? Should private groups consider boycotts? Should the US pressure the Israeli leadership in private? Should we stop vetoing UN resolutions? Should the US diminish or delay the $3 billion per year in aid Israel receives?

    I am not sure that Beinart gets the answer of “what to do” quite right, but obviously I’m not grappling with his full argument.

    In a US where our political discourse is about how there should be “zero daylight” between US & Israeli positions because (???????), it’s meaningful for a former New Republican editor to make this argument. He’s trying to get us to focus on the long-term policy questions here, rather than just ignoring them in favor of playing up our emotional connection to Israel.

    I don’t see how former Mossad head Meir Dagan is wrong: Israel ”must present an initiative to the Palestinians. We must adopt the Saudi initiative. We have no other way, and not because [the Palestinians] are my top priority, but because I am concerned about Israel’s wellbeing and I want to do what I can to ensure Israel’s existence. If we don’t make proposals and if we don’t take the initiative, we will eventually find ourselves in a corner.”


    • Yeah it’s a pickle. The people who live in the settlements do it for a broad variety of reasons but one major one is that there is a massive edifice of government subsidy and support built into Israel to incent them to live there and make it easier for them to do so.

      My own two cents: a boycott is both too clumsy a strategy and too ineffectual. Best case scenario; it’d land on some settlement produced goods and in response the current settlement friendly Israeli administration would simply increase the government gravy flowing to the settlements to compensate. Worse case scenario; it’d spin out of control turning into a Israeli wide boycott driving a wedge between the US and Israel and doing genuine economic harm to Israel while strengthening their right wingers and increasing the sense that Israel in general is under attack from the left. That would further bury the peace movement within Israel and further delay the time when the Israeli polity is going to have to ask itself what exactly it proposes to do with the Palestinian territories and peoples they are currently occupying.


    • I am probably not giving Beinart enough credit for actually making substantive proposals for what to do — I mean, my proposal is roughly, “Criticize, but then go cry in an armchair while waiting for everything to get worse and worse.”  Not even I would say this is necessarily a superior proposal to “Everyone scream at the top of their lungs.”  And I suppose that it’s possible that people who don’t sit around and read political and foreign affairs blogs might not have found his essays so common knowledge.

      Because of how rapidly I think we’re approaching the point of no return, I’d rather see the U.S. government actively pressuring, publicly and privately, than minor boycotts.  Boycotts lead to vicious debates about whether we ought to purchase Sabra hummus (made in the U.S., so I still don’t get this one at all) or ban Israeli flatbreads.  Because we all know that the organic flatbread industry is the linchpin of the Israeli economy.  This is all in addition to the foul, terrible taste boycotts leave in my mouth.

      The problem with Beinart’s proposals is that they end up becoming about Peter Beinart, rather than anything else.  I don’t think he wants this — his “Zion Square” blog at the Daily Beast seems to be an attempt to foster reasoned discussion — but that op-ed seemed almost designed to introduce his book to the world via a shouting match with Commentary, rather than through calm, if tense, dicussions with those he can and needs to persuade.  I’m sure his publisher loves what this might do for sales figures, but I think it misses the bigger point.


      • Boycotting, in and of itself probably won’t be effective, however that isn’t really it’s strength or purpose. What it is, is a signalling device that will provide cover for politicians to make hard choices and to do more than scream at the top of their lungs, or cry in the corner. There is a tremendous amount of pressure applied to congress on these issues and thee will be no change in policy without countervailing forces.

        To be honest I don’t think there is going to be much persuasion of anyone on this issue. Having said that, the majority supports a reasonable solution but is drowned out by a vocal minority. The way out of this pickle is to demonstrate that there is a constituency for reasonableness and show that there is apolitical price to be paid for ignoring that majority.


      • J.L. my fear is that even if the US put serious weight behind pressuring Israel the domestic Israeli situation is as you aptly observes, approaching a point of no return. The Israeli peace movements and to a lesser degree the Israeli settlement divestment movements were respectively killed stone dead and severely damaged by the Palestinians behavior after the Gazan withdrawal. This isn’t to say the Israeli’s have or are behaving like angels but if the Gazan withdrawal had gone down with relatively no bad fallout then Kadima would have been able to replicate the manuver in the West Bank starting with the more marginal and far flung settlements and then gaining momentum to address the big blocs. In terms of real domestic politics though Israels posiion on the settlements is stuck now. A broad majority vaguely wish they weren’t entangled with them. A smaller majority of them want to be rid of the settlements but also want to get things in return for removing them (recognition, pretty words from the Palestinians, concrete assurances, etc etc). Then there’s a passionate minority that very violently and intensly wishes to retain them. In this case the passionate minority outweighs the inclinations of the depressed majority.


        • The sad truth IMO is that we are already effectively past the point of no return.  Goldberg’s position – I assume from the direction of his thought, he certainly wouldn’t ever say this publicly – is that we’re already facing a stark choice of supporting an apartheid (or worse) Israel or not supporting Israel at all. It’s clear where Goldberg will jump when that choice has to be made, and it is clear he is already getting ready for that move. And I think he correctly senses that people like Beinart and Sullivan are going to jump in the other direction. But he can’t admit that these guys are true supporters of Israel historically and in the abstract, who simply won’t countenance certain practices. So he needs to demonize them.



          • I’d say that’s an extremely uncharitable readong of Goldberg. It also overlooks his frequent and adamant denunciations of the settlements. Were he actually preparing to throw his weight in support of an apartheid or ethnic clensing Israeli state Goldberg would not want to be making enemies in the settlement movement by very visibly opposing settlements.


            • Uncharitable yes but IMO fair. To be clear, though, I think Goldberg sincerely would like to see a non-apartheid Israel and opposes many (but not all) settlements. But he’s aware that such opposition is not going to succeed, he sees where Israel is headed, and he is sticking with his “side” despite that. How else to account for his increasing stridency at the very time that Israel is slipping further along a path that Goldberg disapproves of?


              • I would like to argue against LarryM’s point, but it seems to accurately capture Goldberg’s behavior lately.

                Like I said, I am predisposed to disagree with Beinart. But if you’re a guy like Goldberg, who’s written that Israel is about 5 years from, his term, “South Africanization”, you’d think that he’d respond to Beinart by saying, “the boycott is a bad idea because of x, y, and z, but here are a, b, and c that we might consider instead.”

                Instead, he’s been relentlessly substanceless and ad hominem.

                Beinart argues that sanctions might be worthwhile, so Goldberg accuses him of supporting “economic warfare targeting Jews.” Sullivan asks for some engagement with Beinart’s argument & with the facts on the ground in the West Bank, so Goldberg calls him  “a scapegoater of Jews.”

                Either LarryM is right, and Goldberg is thinking long term here & lining up behind “my country, right or wrong”; or Goldberg is incapable of rational thinking, and lashes out at people who make arguments that make him feel negative emotions. Not sure which view is more or less charitable, nor which is more accurate.

                Not sure, North, if it’s more accurate to say that Goldberg is “very visibly opposing settlements”, or to say that he is “occasionally noting that settlements are producing immoral consequences.” There’s a difference between granting a point, and what one’s role in the discourse is. I always think of Instapundit, who’s nominally pro-same sex marriage– he even wrote so, a couple times– but spends all his time supporting folks who oppose same-sex marriage. The nominal policy position doesn’t capture what he does day to day. Not sure if it’s fair to apply that standard to Goldberg.


  2. Thanks for a very good critique of the entire issue — from Peter’s op-ed piece to the reactionary Andrew Sullivan comments.  I do not personally support a boycott, at this time, but will not personally patronize any settlement produced goods or services.  I also see nothing wrong with efforts to pressure sponsors/patrons/investors from participating in settlement economies while remaining in Israel.  I agree with you that Beinart does a great service by articulating his positions and placing them in the public sphere for discussion and action.  You may be correct that much of what he writes is is not purely original; but then, what is?

    While I will have my own differences with Beinart, I will continue to honor him for his courage, integrity and open-minded approach to the issues confronting Israel and Zionism.  His new blog site is the most inclusive I have seen, and allows for disagreement without rancor or adolescent name-calling.  For that alone, Peter deserves recognition.


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