How a leading North American Liberal Zionist came to reject the Apartheid regime. Full article below, original article here: https://www.newyorker.com/news/annals-of-populism/a-liberal-zionists-move-to-the-left-on-the-israeli-palestinian-conflict
Peter Beinart, once a staunch defender of Israel, is arguing for the Palestinians’ right to return. By Benjamin Wallace-Wells. May 23, 2021
In the fights over the future of Israel and Palestine, in which enmities are often understood to be both ancient and eternal, Peter Beinart is the rare figure to have come unstuck. Having made his name as a stalwart of liberal Zionism and a prominent center-left supporter of the Iraq War, both as an editor of The New Republic and a familiar face on cable news, Beinart has spent much of the past decade reconsidering those positions. Last summer, he made a clean break. “The painful truth is that the project to which liberal Zionists like myself have devoted ourselves for decades—a state for Palestinians separated from a state for Jews—has failed,” Beinart wrote, in a long essay for Jewish Currents. He called on interested parties to work toward a single state in the Middle East that would protect the rights of Israeli Jews and Palestinians alike. On May 11th, as violence escalated in Israel and Gaza, Beinart published a second essay, arguing that the Jewish right to return home should also apply to Palestinians. “If Palestinians have no right to return to their homeland,” he wrote, “neither do we.” Two days later, Rashida Tlaib, the left-wing Palestinian congresswoman, quoted Beinart when she led several of her progressive colleagues to the floor of the House to denounce Israel’s latest actions. No one involved in these debates missed the implication: the most influential liberal Zionist of his generation no longer believed in an exclusively Jewish state in the Middle East. Peter Beinart had switched sides.
Beinart, who turned fifty this year, has lived for a decade within a well-defined Orthodox Jewish community on the Upper West Side. He looks similar to how he did when he first became a public figure, around the turn of the century—the same close-cropped black hair, smooth skin, and wide-set features—and he’s retained the earnest, slightly formal manner of a person who has been debating very serious matters from a very young age. Because he is saying Kaddish for his father, an anti-apartheid South African Jew, who died not long ago, Beinart visits a synagogue twice a day, and spends an hour each morning studying the Talmud. Within this community he is a better fit religiously than politically. One day not too long ago, he was walking to shul when a man came up to him and asked if he was Peter Beinart. “And like a complete idiot, I thought, ‘Oh, yes, how nice of you to recognize me.’ ” The man said, “Your politics are shit.”
For a couple of years, Beinart had been a scholar-in-residence at a Passover program—elaborate affairs in which mostly Orthodox Jews travel to hotels in places like the Yucatán or Whistler that have been rented for the occasion, with lectures and religious ceremonies. “It’s like Jews gone wild. All people do is pray, and eat, and talk about what they’re gonna eat,” Beinart said. “I loved it so much. It’s fabulous.” At one event, there were rumors that Ivanka Trump was present. Another year, a book of Beinart’s was published, in which he detailed what he saw as a crisis within Zionism. Word got around. Eventually Beinart learned that someone had raised an alarm. “He said, ‘If Beinart’s going to be there, and you want me to not withdraw, you’ve gotta insure that I never lay eyes on him.’ Literally I was such a turnoff that people wouldn’t come.” Beinart became slightly sentimental. “They can hate me if they want,” he told me. “They’re still my people.”
Even by Israeli standards, the latest escalation of hostilities has taken place across an unusually intimate geography. The crisis began in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, over a court case which threatened the eviction of six Palestinian families, but it spread not just outward, to the skies and to the occupied territories, but inward, to Israel’s mixed cities. In Lod, a suburb of Tel Aviv, Israeli Arab protesters threw stones and set fires at a Jewish school, a synagogue, and other businesses; a Jewish man was killed when he was hit by a rock while driving, and an Arab Israeli was shot to death. The city’s mayor called for a state of emergency, saying that the country was on the brink of a civil war. In Bat Yam, a mob of Jewish extremists beat an Arab motorist whom they had pulled from a car, an incident captured by an Israeli news crew. There were other incidents, in Ramla and Hebron. Mobs attacked civilians, or police, or, in one case, a news crew of the public broadcaster. On Friday, a ceasefire agreement, brokered by Egypt, put a stop to the violence, at least temporarily. But the fact that the fighting was not contained in Gaza or the West Bank, that it spilled so fluidly into Israel proper, made all the decades of political effort to delineate two states, with a green line between them, seem suddenly far-fetched. “The fact that this violence breaks out in all of these mixed cities inside the Green Line, I think, has been shocking to a lot of Jews,” Beinart told me the other day, via Zoom. “But probably less so to Palestinians, because its just a reminder that there is a Palestinian people.”
Giving up on the two-state solution is a pessimistic proposition. It means deciding that a project that has created the government for one people (the Palestinians), and directed the history of another (the Israelis), in which millions of people and many nations have spent decades invested, is a lost cause. In Beinart’s telling, he only came to the position this past spring, in the stasis of the 2020 pandemic. He was already questioning the feasibility of a two-state solution, but he couldn’t get his mind around an alternative. “So I started reading,” he told me, many Palestinian writers and historians: Ali Abunimah, Mahmoud Darwish, Edward Said. He came across an interview from 2000 in which Said, who was born in Mandatory Palestine, more than a decade before the establishment of Israel, had declared himself the last Jewish intellectual, distinguishing himself from the satisfied suburban squires in Israel and America who had lost the feeling of statelessness and marginalization. (“Such a mindfuck!” Beinart said). These Palestinan intellectuals, he thought, turned out to be “deep readers” of the conflict, similar to the insights that Black American writers brought to U.S. history. “Just in this clichéd way that white liberals thought we could never elect Trump, and Black Americans thought we could—it’s exactly the same way, if you talk to many Jews about the idea of another nakba [when seven hundred thousand Palestinians were driven from their homes in 1948], they will say, ‘What kind of slander is that?’ You talk to Palestinians, and they’re like, ‘Uh-huh. Sure.’ ”
Holed up on the West Side with his books, Beinart could encounter the Palestinian case in a more dispassionate setting. He noticed the “generosity” of these writers, and the empathy they showed toward the Jewish experience. But he also noticed that these writers’ account of Palestinian history had a deep continuity to it. “They say the nakba never ended,” Beinart said. This summer, he was praying during Tisha B’Av, a holy day during which Jews are invited to imagine themselves leaving Jerusalem when it was in flames, and to imagine hoping to redeem it through return. The experience made him think of how hypocritical it seemed for a Jew to tell a Palestinian to give up on returning home. On the one hand you had the temple, on the other the nakba. In Gaza, no one needs to cast his mind thousands of years into the past to imagine himself as a refugee. Beinart said, “There’s just something kind of absurd about the idea that we think so little of Palestinians that we don’t think that they know how to teach their children to remember things.”
There is sometimes a totalizing strain in Beinart’s thinking. Too few American Jews, he said, recognize what a service the Palestinian Authority provides for Israel, by keeping relative order at a relatively low cost. “I do think we may be entering an era where eventually the Palestinian Authority is going to collapse, and the cost for Israel of controlling millions of people who lack basic rights goes up, and that fills me with some dread.” He mentioned a close friend from college who had been killed in a Hamas bus bombing. “The last thing I want to see is for Israelis, Jews to be killed. But I think it is unrealistic to think that you can maintain control over millions of people who lack basic rights at a low cost forever. The cost has gone up. And I think one possible scenario is that it never goes back down to where it was before.” He recalled that, in 1985, South Africa declared a partial state of emergency because of the anti-apartheid resistence. Beinart said, “So it was basically a kind of intifada in South Africa, but it never ended. And so I’ve mostly just been thinking about, What happens if this never ends?”
Beinart’s writing, thematically, has often orbited political power. So has his life. Though he frequently visited Cape Town, where his family was from, in childhood and adolescence, he grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his father was an architecture professor at M.I.T.; after his parents divorced, his mother, whose family were Sephardic Jews from the Mediterranean, married Robert Brustein, who founded both the Yale Repertory Theatre and the American Repertory Theatre. Even by the standards of tenured Cambridge, Beinart’s academic path was incandescent: Buckingham Browne & Nichols, then Yale, then a Rhodes scholarship, after which he moved to Washington to take a job at The New Republic, whose combative eminences, Marty Peretz and Leon Wieseltier, were both deeply devoted to the Jewish experience and the cause of Israel. Within a few years, Beinart, still not yet thirty, was made the editor of The New Republic and the heir to its particular negotiation between universalist and tribal causes. “It was in some ways a Jewish magazine—you could analogize it to the way that National Review has always been a Catholic magazine,” Beinart said. “And yet it was, of course, also an important general magazine of arts and politics, and the fact that you could have those two at the same time, with Jewish identity as front and center, as it was for Marty and also for Leon, to me just showed how much Jews had arrived.”
But as the Clinton era gave way to the Bush Administration, both the magazine and Beinart himself occupied a more specific niche, as prominent liberal interventionists who supported the Iraq War. In 2006, when Beinart published “The Good Fight: Why Liberals—and Only Liberals—Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again,” he recalled, “both Bill and Hillary Clinton came to the book party. And that was not because it was a great book. It wasn’t. It was because, at that point, I was saying something useful to Democratic politicians.” Those politicians, he said, “were worried that the Democratic Party had this Vietnam syndrome where it was on the defensive on foreign policy, and my book was about reclaiming Cold War liberalism.”
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In his newsletter this winter, Beinart noted that several of his contemporaries from this time, most of them well-credentialled Gen X liberals, are now running American foreign policy. Tony Blinken, who started at The New Republic a couple of years before Beinart, is now the Secretary of State. Jake Sullivan, who was also a Rhodes Scholar, is the national-security adviser. Beinart once interviewed for a position at the Center for New American Security, the think tank founded by Michèle Fluorney, who was a candidate to be Biden’s Secretary of Defense. Beinart’s departure from a similar trajectory wasn’t fated—he applied to work in the Obama Administration and might have stayed in Washington. But the timing wasn’t right. As the Iraq intervention deteriorated, during George W. Bush’s second term, Beinart decided that his whole framework for thinking about American foreign policy “had basically run aground.” On Israel, the situation wasn’t much better. Barack Obama’s early efforts to challenge Benjamin Netanyahu on settlements were not effective, even within his own party, and the nascent left-wing Jewish lobby around J Street was not strong enough to back him. “Obama threw in the towel pretty early,” Beinart said. He was working at the time on a book about the hubristic traits in American foreign policy in which he was critical of his own position on the Iraq War, which was itself a quiet split with Washington. In 2009, Beinart secured a tenure-track position in CUNY’s journalism department and moved his family to New York. Among the young Washington liberals who seemed poised to run the world, he was one who left.
Political actors of Beinart’s type, who were made in Washington institutions, are often denounced for their variability. But, up close, they tend to have virtues, too. They can take heat. Beinart’s alienation from the mainstream American Jewish establishment began with the publication of “The Crisis of Zionism,” in 2012, in which he predicted a coming split between an increasingly hard-line Orthodox community, its numbers swelled by high birth rates, and more assimilated liberals who were becoming less and less attached to Israel. (Beinart, communally Orthodox and politically progressive, was the rare Jew of his generation with a foot in both camps.) But his willingness to publicly change his mind about Iraq also earned him some credibility in the Obama Administration. Ben Rhodes, a longtime foreign-policy aide to Obama, told me, “When I was in government, the totality of Peter’s world view certainly led me to question the relevance of the type of language we are using to describe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the efficacy of putting faith in negotiations with someone like Bibi Netanyahu, who has no interest in resolving this conflict, and the ethical questions raised by U.S. assistance that can be used for purposes we should be increasingly uncomfortable about.” Rhodes told me that he had recently gone on Beinart’s podcast and made some comments critical of Israel, which led Mike Pompeo, Trump’s Secretary of State, to accuse Rhodes, who is half Jewish, of holding anti-Semitic views. Rhodes got in touch with Beinart. “He wasn’t overly sympathetic,” Rhodes said. “He was kind of like, ‘This is the price.’ ”
In the current conflict, Beinart is, in some ways, in a predictably Gen-X position, looking up at the baby boomers who defined the American Jewish establishment’s commitment to Israel and down at the millennial progressive Jews who see the Palestinian cause as a matter of human rights. Rashid Khalidi, a historian who is the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia, told me earlier this week that he saw Beinart’s evolution in relation to an interest among young leftists and some progressive politicians in thinking differently about Zionism. Khalidi’s own undergraduates, especially those with Jewish and Muslim backgrounds, he said, were “more critical of Israel, more open to Palestinian perspectives,” than he had ever seen before. (Khalidi is in his early seventies.) “They’re not reading Jewish Currents,” he said. “It’s the images.” He mentioned a brother and sister from Sheikh Jarrah, whose videos of their community’s plight had been shared around the world. (“They’re very effective communicators,” he said.) According to Khalidi, what Beinart signified was that older liberals had taken notice. “A lot of the bromides, a lot of the chestnuts that Israel has managed to steel itself with, as far as older generations are concerned, don’t land anymore, and Peter’s shift reflects that.”
A few minutes after Khalidi exited my Zoom, the Israeli political pundit Daniel Gordis entered it, looking just as wiped out as the historian had, and positioned in front of an equally imposing library. (Alongside the hot war in Israel this month there has been a cold one, contested by exhausted intellectuals in book-lined home studies.) Gordis, who is politically to Beinart’s right, had co-hosted a podcast with him in 2017, duelling over the conflict and Israel’s future, before denouncing Beinart’s recent turn. “We can debate policies and we can debate whose fault it is, but the minute you cease saying that a Jewish state is a legitimate project, then you’ve crossed the line,” Gordis told me, giving a decisive little shrug. Nevertheless, he had a sense of humor about Beinart. “In every little community if you want to have a few drinks you talk about the imponderables of the universe—is there a God?” Gordis said that, in his community, “People will say, ‘Does Peter Beinart really believe that? ’ ” Gordis believes that Beinart could be anticipating a political change—call it the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez effect—and adjusting his views for that market. “I think Peter’s banking on a deeply invested, very progressive world,” Gordis said. “But I don’t think that world actually exists.” Gordis’s own kids are in their thirties. “If I look at the generation of my kids, or people younger than them in America, they just don’t care that much anymore.”
When I reached Beinart on a recent Friday afternoon, he looked a world away from these tense studies. He was in his Upper West Side guest room, with his wife, an attorney, who was working on the other side of the apartment. The room was bright, a window was open, and the breeze murmured through some luxurious-looking drapes. Beinart was preparing to be offline for two days, for the holiday of Shavuot. It occurred to me that, over the past year, he had been working in a new mode as a writer: his two Jewish Currents pieces were not detailed policy arguments for how one state might work, which seemed an incredibly long way off, but a case that it was morally essential. Beinart seemed comfortable with this. He said that Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations,” in The Atlantic, had not gone so far into the details of how reparations would be paid, or how white Americans might be persuaded. “That’s not his lane,” Beinart said. “He just makes the case about why it’s right.” It had been heartening to him to discover that Edward Said, late in his life, had envisioned a binational state in which Jewish identity was important. “I’m not writing anything about the conflict or the situation that many, many Palestinians have not been writing about for a really long time,” Beinart said. “I think if there’s something different about what I’m doing, it’s trying to find a Jewish idiom in which to tell these stories and deploy these facts.” Most Israeli Jews, Beinart said, have little time for ideas like his. If they were to have an effect, it would likely be on how younger, more progressive American Jews organize around Israel.
On the surface, prospects for such a transformation look dim. The nationalistic images of the conflict that he has recently seen on social media are, perhaps, a foreshadowing of a more right-wing American Jewish future, with its institutions led by “all these Ben Shapiros.” President Biden himself, reacting to the violence this past week, has emphasized Israel’s right to defend itself. That didn’t especially surprise Beinart. During the 2020 Presidential primaries, Beinart argued that Biden had an “alarming” record on Israel, from a progressive perspective. (Only Michael Bloomberg troubled him as much). “Biden basically just sees Israel as a domestic political issue,” Beinart told me. He had been a little more disappointed in Blinken and Sullivan. (Rhodes told me that he thought that some people working in the Biden Administration had different private views but were following their boss.) Of his peers who were now the President’s aides, Beinart said, “I don’t know whether they wrestle with this or whether they feel guilty. I do think that, one day, they will be judged harshly for helping to keep Palestinians oppressed.”
From afar, Beinart said, the American Jewish establishment could look like a citadel. He summoned an image from the annual aipac policy conference: “half of Congress is there, and they give basically the same speech, and they’re all eating kosher food, and it’s like this way of celebrating our arrival.” Beinart had been behind enough closed doors in the major American Jewish organizations to believe there were endemic private doubts about the morality of Israeli behavior. “The citadel, which looks so formidable from the outside, I actually think is a lot weaker than people sometimes recognize,” he said. What still held it together, in Beinart’s view, was a feeling of eternal fear. He recalled the certainty with which his maternal grandmother, who had been born Jewish in Alexandria and ended up a South African Jew in Cape Town, told him that there was only one safe place in the world for them: Israel. “There are many things I really think are tragic about that narrative,” he said, “that both the Holocaust and Israel for American Jews are vicarious experiences.”
What defined the older generation was an emotional argument about power, one which Beinart thought derived from the Old Testament Book of Esther. “Esther happens to be the queen in the king’s palace, and so she has access to power. And her people are faced with genocide, and she then uses her power and her privilege to save her people. And so I think the dominant Jewish narrative is that we are Esther, close to power, with the ear of the king, the American superpower. And we give meaning to our success in the United States through using our power to insure there’s not another Holocaust.”
Those emotions had outlasted the crisis which had created them. What was left, Beinart said, was “this situation in which we’re always in 1938.” The problem with this is, he went on, “if basically we’re always on the precipice of the Holocaust, then your only obligation is to survive. You don’t have to deal with the moral obligations of how you treat other people. So it gives you tremendous license to do whatever, because, basically, the Palestinians are just proto-Nazis.” Beinart, who has spent much of his life wrestling with these emotions, saw how hard they could be to subdue. “There is this deeply entrenched narrative, where you give up power and fall into the abyss,” he told me. “I feel those fears, too.”
Benjamin Wallace-Wells began contributing to The New Yorker in 2006 and joined the magazine as a staff writer in 2015. He writes about American politics and society.