Open Zion

09.04.13

What Beinart Overlooks in His 'American Jewish Cocoon' Article

A decade or so ago, as Palestinian suicide bombers and snipers were destroying the hopes for peace that were launched by the Oslo peace process twenty years ago, I visited a Hillel in the Midwest. The students were upset because they had recently been attacked for a program called “A Piece for Peace.” Trying to appeal to other students’ hearts through their stomachs, the activists distributed a piece of cake with a list of Israeli attempts at peace—which Palestinians had spurned repeatedly, culminating with Oslo. Campus Progressives attacked the stunt as “one-sided,” accusing the students of ignoring the Palestinian narrative. I replied: “Do gays give out literature justifying homophobia? Do feminists make the argument for sexism?  You are doing activism not academics. It’s legitimate to give your pro-Israel narrative—just as most Palestinians activists give their narrative without ever feeling guilty about ignoring our narrative—or even denying our legitimate national rights.”

I thought of those guilt-ridden activists while reading Peter Beinart’s recent essay critiquing the "American Jewish Cocoon” and calling for more “information” and “empathy” in approaching Palestinians.  It is thoughtful—detailing some intellectual and moral blindspots in the mainstream American Jewish mentality. He is right that learning more about the Palestinian perspective and establishing dialogue with Israel’s critics can be informative and constructive. It is challenging—calling out some Jewish intolerance and insensitivity. But, the essay is also myopic—once again exaggerating Jewish guilt and minimizing Palestinian blame and responsibility.

Beinart writes: “One can understand Palestinians’ reluctance to participate in events that make them appear to consent to an unjust occupation.” Why is it so difficult, then, for him to understand Jews’ reluctance to host events that make them appear to consent to an unjust repudiation of their most basic national rights? The widespread, systematic delegitimization of Israel and the less popular yet still prevalent genocidal agenda of many anti-Zionists, remain the proverbial elephants in Beinart’s room, and the mostly overlooked phenomena in his essay.

The hatred against Israel is so great, so intense, so bracing, that there are weeks on campus comparing Israel to South Africa, syllabi on campus that one-sidedly demean Zionism and caricature Jews as oppressors, and an entire network of haters devoted to repudiating the Jewish State. This widespread aversion to Israel, sours even the most innocent of interactions—as Richard Behar of Forbes learned when he recently wrote a story about Palestinian-Israeli hi tech cooperation, and the Palestinian heroes forging a modern path toward peace and progress for their people pilloried him for making them appear to be “collaborators”; as I learned when I participated in a successful Jewish-Muslim dialogue, which the Muslims insisted remain secret, because they feared their own community critics.

This epidemic of bigotry and hatred plays on a Jewish culture of guilt and a Palestinian culture of blame, that feeds one-sided Palestinian narratives, and tortured Jewish responses when we admit that we are being hated, targeted, repudiated. Given that context, and judging Jews by the standards applied to everyone else, I ask what I asked those students:  how many Muslim organizations invite settlers? Grading on that standard, two Palestinian voices at AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby is revolutionary. Similarly, the many Birthright groups that hear Palestinian speakers and devote time to learning something about the “other side” is truly remarkable, as is the recent American Jewish Committee Global Access Forum for younger activists that focused on Muslim-Jewish dialogue.

In fact, the American Jewish community does more to welcome critical voices than most—note Beinart’s rise to pop star status and the many Jewish community invitations he receives now annually.  I acknowledge that Beinart’s essay noted some of the anti-Zionist animus, and I admit that the American Jewish community nevertheless should stretch, but his analysis needs to be more generous in acknowledging American Jewish trauma and efforts.

Similarly, this sentence struck me as unfair: “Now, I fear, because Jews enjoy power in Israel and America, especially vis-à-vis Palestinians, we’ve forgotten the importance of listening. “ I have already suggested that perhaps Beinart is not hearing all that is going on. Much of what he sees as American Jewish and Israeli closemindedness comes from very rational fear, justifiable anger, true anguish.

Most important in understanding American Jewish "reluctance" is that fact that the pro-Israel community remains traumatized by the collapse of Oslo and the rise of the suicide bombers, especially when those phenomena overlapped with 9/11. That's not about "Islamaphobia" or power politics. The feeling of being burned after hoping for peace and the feeling of being hunted down, victimized and targeted is real. One benefit of the dialogue Beinart advocates and of humanizing Palestinians would be to get beyond the victimization sweepstakes, wherein each side tries to outdo the other in its claim to having suffered more. But that kind of dialogue will only work by balancing Beinart’s empathy for Palestinians with empathy for Jews.

Still, despite my desire for more balance and more sensitivity to the toxic context anti-Zionists foster, I salute Beinart’s vision of hope and his call for true dialogue. I would challenge him in a follow up to give some examples of successful interactions, examples of actual successes that are not off-the-record and didn't just degenerate into food fights or blame games. I’d like to know what elements were most essential in making those events succeed. We need to learn how dialogues can be encouraged, what kinds of formats work. A major push for American Jews to change their approach to Palestinians needs more concrete suggestions and less finger-wagging.

For example,  a central question in Muslim-Jewish dialogue is: do we start with the conflict or do we start with commonalities?”  I have heard arguments on both sides. I'd like to know where Beinart stands, why, and if he can back up his examples with evidence. I think it would also help to acknowledge the distinctions between Muslim-Jewish dialogues, Palestinian-Jewish dialogues, and Arab-Jewish dialogues. They overlap but are also distinct.

In 1999, the first article I ever published in the Canadian Jewish News chided the Jewish community for not using Oslo as an opportunity to open channels of communication with Muslims and Arabs in Canada. I said that if the process ever breaks down, we will not have build up any relationships that could possibly cushion the blow.

So I agree with Beinart in principle. Unfortunately, until recently, I had only experienced disastrous interactions when I attended formal Palestinian-Jewish dialogues, because the Palestinian culture of blame—and the self-defeating boycott Beinart himself denounced in his essay—played on the liberal Jewish culture of guilt.  On the whole, the Jews tried accommodating, the Palestinians kept pushing, and the whole thing felt one-sided.

I have heard that open-minded religious Israelis do better in dialogue frequently because they hold their ground but do it substantively, respectfully, rather than the frequent mass American Jewish liberal cave-ins.  I, for one, learned in the recent off-the-record dialogue I attended, that my new Muslim friends were tired of just hearing from radical Jews who tell them exactly what they want to hear. They wanted to hear from mainstream Zionists like me who were open enough to engage in dialogue but not willing to abandon our own pro-Israel narrative.

In short, I agree with Peter Beinart that it is suffocating to live in a closed intellectual space. It threatens us intellectually, ideologically, morally, psychologically, and diplomatically. But what he calls a “cocoon,” with its implications of indulgence and self-control, I call a “bunker,” with its implications of unhappy necessity due to unreasonable and dangerous enmity.  A more honest acknowledgment of why this bunker exists will ultimately make it easier for all of us to leave it.