The important message of Peter Beinart

Published on Haaretz

Peter Beinart has been pilloried because of his call in a recent New York Times op-ed and in his newly published book, “The Crisis of Zionism,” for a Zionist boycott of West Bank settlements. Beinart, former editor of the New Republic and founder of the new online forum “Open Zion,” is tackling the concealed heart of our government’s strategy: its campaign to erase any distinction between the occupied territories and Israel. Beinart has staked out a brave position, particularly in today’s Zionist landscape.

Israel’s government uses its rhetoric and talking points to normalize attitudes to the territories, attacking anyone who attempts to maintain the distinction between Israel and the territories as disloyal, and passing legislation that seeks to ensure that Israelis will no longer be able to say, this is Israel, and that is not.

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Many Israelis appear to have bought in to the new map of our state. Young people, so quick to enlist in the social protest, shy away from the seeming insolubility of the conflict over the territories or choose to dissociate it from other battles because of its polarizing toxicity. What’s left of the left is portrayed as a group of impotent nudniks who won’t let go of the old squabbles, or as radical post-Zionists ready to dismantle the state.

As an Israeli citizen, I’m forbidden by law from supporting the Zionist boycott of the West Bank – and in fact, I don’t endorse it, although I couldn’t equate boycotting settlements with delegitimizing Israel. But the very existence of a law limiting freedom of speech and dissent should trouble American Jews concerned about Israel’s democracy at least as much as any challenge to settlement supremacy.

Critics of Beinart’s boycott call complain that a Zionist boycott – one focusing exclusively on West Bank settlements while encouraging investment in Israel proper – would be ineffective or exacerbate the divides in Israel or between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.

Perhaps, although I also cannot imagine anything more divisive than expanding and building new settlements, actions that many Jews in Israel and the Diaspora oppose, and an occupation that does so much damage to our neighbors and our own moral being. I fear a backlash, however, with Beinart’s plan being blurred with the more general “boycott-divestment-sanctions” movement, consolidating right-wing hegemony even further.

The Zionist boycott is a proposed wake-up call designed to counter the subliminal campaign to erase the term “occupied territories” from our lexicon. Even those who would never sign on to a boycott should resist this campaign, and should read Beinart’s book.

Beinart argues persuasively that Prime Minister Netanyahu, despite his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech endorsing a Palestinian state, has never wavered from his vision of a Palestinian entity as a series of cantons easily controlled by Israel. Beinart’s critique extends to the official leadership of American Jewry, documenting how right-wing Likud supporters came to dominate AIPAC, and how that lobby has achieved disproportionate status and celebrity among American Jewish institutions. Beinart’s dissection of the Obama-Netanyahu dance and AIPAC’S role in it, provides enlightening insight into how Bibi has consistently outmaneuvered the American president.

Like Israel’s current government, AIPAC leadership conflates support of Israel with support of settlements, and seeks to quash voices that suggest otherwise. Just look at the vitriolic response to Beinart’s message.

Rather than engage the rest of the Zionist spectrum, critics on the right prefer to belittle a “leftist” straw man of their own creation – a deluded and self-hating Jew who blames only Israel for all that has gone wrong in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is as if by demanding accountability of ourselves and criticizing our own crimes, we are excusing Palestinian atrocities, as if leftists do not lose loved ones to Palestinian terror, or haven’t noticed that Hamas controls Gaza. It’s as if we haven’t realized that a final-status agreement will include keeping some settlement blocs, or that we don’t feel threatened by Iran.

We know there will be no easy resolution to the conflict, but that doesn’t mean we must allow our urgent security needs to be twisted to justify land grabs and the daily intimidation of Palestinians. Nor must we ignore construction of outposts, which are illegal even under Israeli law, or provocative settler incursions into Palestinian neighborhoods.

The truth is that, for decades, alongside a small organized effort, Israelis found ways to privately boycott the territories: by refraining from visits to family and friends in settlements, avoiding West Bank roads or settlement-produced goods, and forgoing government subsidies to live over the Green Line. This largely silent protest has been more symbolic than effective.

Although I doubt a “Zionist boycott” is the right tactic, “The Crisis of Zionism” is a remarkably articulate and compelling statement about what has gone haywire in Israeli politics and at the top of some American Jewish organizational leadership. Refusing to accept the settler map, calling for an honest debate, on both sides of the Atlantic, about the occupation, and demanding accountability of ourselves – these are Jewish and Zionist acts of the highest order, the acts of “free people” who have left the slave mentality of bondage behind.

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