Open Zion

12.09.13

'Is It Good For The Jews?' Is Not The Question

Even though Peter Beinart mischaracterizes a great deal of what I said in my TNR article last week, he captures with perfect accuracy the most important part of my argument. He writes, “Mor accuses me of never defining a standard of openness against which the organized American Jewish community should be judged.” But Beinart never actually does define any standard. Instead, he tartly offers, “Is it good for the Jews?” But that is no standard at all, and if we are to determine that the Jewish community in America is a closed intellectual space, I think it is fair to ask compared to what?

In my initial essay, I suggested three possible paths: comparing it to American Muslims or Arab-Americans or the broader pro-Palestinian community; comparing it to partisans of other emotionally resonant distant conflicts with ideologically invested diaspora communities; or defining a standard that can stand alone. I challenge Beinart to do this because it is the only way to make sense of his argument at all. He owes it to himself as much as he does to the people he is so keen to criticize, or at least patronize.

It is silly that such a serious topic has descended into furious discussion about the Hillel campus guidelines, but it is worth revisiting them once more, as Beinart returns very partially to them in his post, in a manner that says more about his method than about any intellectual climate in the Jewish community.

Recall that Beinart had three objections to the Hillel guidelines, which I demonstrated were all absurd. First, he argued that they could ban anyone who doesn't agree with a maximalist notion of secure borders. But I showed that this was a category error, deliberately confusing the right of Israel to exist at all in secure borders with an argument about what secure borders constitute. He argued secondly that they could be used to ban someone calling for a settlement boycott, but this argument fails by blurring a distinction between boycotting settlements and boycotting Israel that was made most compellingly by Beinart himself in The New York Times in 2012. And thirdly, he argues that the guidelines could even conceivably be used to ban an Arab Member of Knesset (MK) who believes in erasing Israel's Jewish identity, though, as in the previous two arguments, no such thing has happened. It takes a particularly uncharitable reading of the guidelines—which no one but Beinart has made—to come to that conclusion.

Beinart made no effort to defend his first two objections in his response to my piece, which I can only read as a concession on his part of the weakness of his initial argument. Regarding the third claim, he and his more excitable Twitter followers believe they have found the incident that proves how wrong I am. But in the eagerness to have a gotcha moment, they elide key facts and overlook how much they are weakening Beinart’s own argument. Of Beinart’s objection that the guidelines could be used to ban an Arab MK, I asked if anyone could imagine such a thing happening. “Actually, yes,” he answers.

The incident in question involves Avraham Burg, who was an MK before leaving political office a decade ago. He was invited to a Hillel event at Harvard, and was also invited to speak by a campus group at an event co-sponsored by the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee, an organization that supports boycotting all of Israel and leads a BDS campaign at Harvard. Hillel, in line with its guidelines, objected to that event being held on its premises, and it was held elsewhere. The dinner with Burg was not cancelled and Burg was a welcome guest at the Hillel. With the drama of Beinart’s “actually, yes” since my article came out, you might expect a charge about Arab MKs being turned away from a Hillel to be backed up by an incident involving (1) a Member of Knesset who is (2) an Arab being (3) turned away from a Hillel, rather than someone who is (1) not a Member of Knesset and (2) not an Arab (3) not being turned away from a Hillel.

And what was the name of the organization that tried unsuccessfully to hold the event at Hillel? The Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance, a Jewish group in the sanctum sanctorum of the American establishment―one that is largely funded by Hillel and regularly co-sponsors events with the Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC). In his haste to expose me, Beinart has unwittingly demonstrated another example of the abundance of groups in the American Jewish establishment who are eager to hear critical voices, and even to partner with the most hostile Palestinian voices to do so.

Beinart writes of the controversy that Hillel wouldn't host the event "because he [Burg] has questioned whether Israel should remain a Jewish state." This is false. It wasn’t Burg’s views, but rather the co-sponsorship of the PSC that was the problem. The side-by-side invitation of Burg and the rejection of an event co-sponsored by a BDS movement shows that the Hillel guidelines, for all their other virtues or faults, are certainly not vague, as Beinart wrote in his original essay.

Beinart is upset with me for asking "what is the point of this datum?" regarding his noting of a poll showing that American Jews are unaware of the separate school systems in Israel. In Israel there are, roughly speaking, four school systems―a state Hebrew system, a state-religious system, an ultra-Orthodox system, and an Arabic system, serving most of the Arab, Druze, and Bedouin communities. Some diverse societies have had school systems that forced the majority language and culture on everyone through rigid republican public education. Others, like Israel, have tolerated a certain built-in diversity, particularly where large minorities have a different language or religious practice.

In Quebec, for example, there are English-language schools, but the choice to prefer the English over the French school is not freely available to everyone. In Israel, at any rate, Arab students can go to Hebrew schools if they choose to, and many do. It's not an easy choice to make, and the dilemmas involved are a long-running subplot of a popular Israeli television series about an Arab family living amidst a Jewish majority. Is any of this complexity captured in Beinart's presentation of a nearly 25-year-old poll? Surely he appreciates how provocative the term "separate schools" is to an American audience used to hearing it in a radically different and historically painful context. He uses this factoid, which doesn't even deal with issues relating to the Occupied Territories, not to advance a serious discussion, but to serve as a hint of further Israeli racism and American Jewish indifference.

Beinart quotes me accurately as criticizing him for showing "absolutely no expectation of any self-criticism or reflection by Palestinians or Arabs or their supporters," and then writes ominously, "Unfortunately for Mor, my essay is still available online." But then Beinart cites in rapid succession five passages from his essay that do deal with the Palestinians, but not one of which actually evinces any expectation of self-criticism or reflection by Palestinians or Arabs or their supporters. He concludes high-handedly, "that's a lot for Mor to ignore. But he does."

What's more amusing than the fact that none of the passages contradict even slightly what I have said is that, of the five he cites, I refer to three directly in my article. I praise him for "correctly not[ing] that Palestinian anger doesn’t justify suicide attacks." I cite his "gentle condemn[nation]" of some Palestinians' refusal to meet Jewish groups. And not only do I mention his opposition to boycotting Israel, but I use the careful distinctions he made on this topic in the Times op-ed as the basis for my argument against his second objection to the Hillel guidelines (which he never bothers to answer). Who here is ignoring who?

Beinart also mischaracterizes what I say about Birthright and other organized trips to Israel. He has me claiming that meeting Palestinians is "impossible on security grounds even though groups like Encounter do it all the time," when this is not at all what I say. I note that the situation is not as simple as he believes and that Birthright trips avoid settlements too. I also note that while security is certainly a consideration for the participants as well as their parents, I'm not convinced that every trip to Israel and its beaches and holy sites necessitates a trip to the West Bank or Gaza too, because I'm not sure that the only reason to see Israel is the conflict. To people who are convinced that Israel's existence is tainted, any visit that doesn't include a Palestinian excursion must appear like deliberate blindness.

Based on their website alone, I can only conclude that Encounter is a lovely organization and I have no compunction encouraging people to take their trips too. I only say about them what I said in my earlier piece about other more political trips that do include visits to Ramallah―that what is extraordinary here is not the "cocoon" but the effort of various Jewish organizations to face head-on both our enemies and less-than-pleasant images of ourselves. I know of no other group in such a conflict that behaves this way, and that is why I opened by asking compared to what? I offered three ways of answering this question that, far from being "pretentious" as Beinart contemptuously scoffs, are essential first steps to make the very argument he wants to make.

I could go on, but I won’t. Peter Beinart is right on all the big issues. There should be a Jewish state; Israel should leave the territories; Jews and Arabs everywhere should hear each other’s views more. But his manner, method, and focus on the small issues that are usually the purview of cranks are so infuriating he might as well be wrong.