Objectifying Palestinians in Beinart's 'American Jewish Cocoon' Essay

Peter Beinart's NYRB essay initially reads as a progressive call for deeper understanding of Palestinians, but it still reflects the damaging assumptions of the mainstream Jewish community, say Donna Nevel and Rebecca Vilkomerson.

Majdi Mohammed/AP

Peter Beinart’s recent New York Review of Books piece, “The American Jewish Cocoon,” makes an important point about the Jewish community’s lack of understanding of Palestinians. However, while it initially reads as a progressive call for deeper understanding, at its core it continues to reflect many of the damaging assumptions of the mainstream Jewish community that he claims to assail.

One of Beinart’s central theses is that Palestinians need to be listened to—but primarily so that Jews in the U.S. can better articulate their own positions. He says: “The American Jewish community is hamstrung in its ability to respond by its own lack of experience with Palestinian life under Israeli control.”

While Beinart mentions many examples of the ways that ordinary Palestinian lives are constrained, he does so without the crucial context of the Occupation or the constant degree of violence perpetrated by the Israeli government. Without challenging his readers to recognize this overarching framework and by asking only that American Jews listen to Palestinians—not challenge and change their positions—he avoids the deeper issues of injustice.

Without any serious consideration of BDS as a legitimate and growing tool to address the very violations of rights he mentions, Beinart attacks BDS in sharp terms, calling the analogy with South African apartheid “dangerous and inaccurate,” despite the fact that many from within Palestinian society and outside, including public figures as diverse as Ehud Barak, Desmond Tutu, Shulamit Aloni, and Jimmy Carter, have all explained why the analogy is apt. Further, he makes accusations about anti-Semites in the BDS movement in a way that feels like a cheap shot, rather than taking seriously that—like other uses of boycott throughout history—BDS is based on demands to a state by a people who are being denied their fundamental rights. To suggest that is anti-Semitic is both wrong and distorts and minimizes the meaning of anti-Semitism. He also fails to mention that BDS has been called for by the majority of Palestinian civil society organizations—presumably made up of the same Palestinians he is asking us to listen to—and that it is a specifically non-violent response to Israeli aggression and control.

His overall perspective is that they (Palestinians) do some bad things; we (Israelis) do some bad things. To take one example, he talks about anti-Semitism in Palestinian schools—without providing any evidence—but doesn’t criticize the Israelis at all in this regard even though racism in Israeli schools has been well-documented (see Nurit Peled-Elhanan’s Palestine in Israeli School Books: Ideology and Propaganda in Education). This consistent equalizing of both “sides” denies the power imbalance and the profound and daily impact of the occupation on Palestinians.

The lack of context that Beinart offers plays out as well in the odd way that he describes anti-normalization calls by Palestinians and his treatment of the Nakba. Anti-normalization principles—which are based on political, rather than racial or ethnic considerations—are a way to force recognition of the overarching power differential between oppressor and oppressed, rather than equalizing the narrative of the two sides. Especially in a piece that calls for dialogue with Palestinians for its own sake, Beinart should have seriously considered the argument by Palestinians about why dialogue alone is so often counter-productive. His failure to do so indicates that he may not be listening to Palestinian voices closely enough.

Beinart says he is “repeatedly struck by the central place they assign the Nakba in Palestinian identity, and by their deep insistence that those Palestinians whom the Nakba made refugees, and their descendants, have the right to return to their ancestral homes." But we are struck by his surprise, as this has been a central tenet of the Palestinian narrative ever since 1948, when more than 700,000 people were displaced from their homes. Beinart could have instead engaged in the question about why the Jewish and Israeli narrative, so deeply steeped in historical and religious memory, has tried to so completely suppress the past sixty years of Palestinian history.

While Beinart’s piece focuses on the American Jewish relationship with Palestinians, we also note that throughout his piece he erases entire portions of the Jewish community in the U.S. as well: He does not, for example, acknowledge the existence of American Jews who support BDS (and the numbers are surely growing) or that Jewish groups like Jewish Voice for Peace are also excluded by the Hillel guidelines that claim to govern Jewish life on campus.

Finally, Beinart seems to still objectify Palestinians, seeing them as a means to an end, whether that is greater knowledge (“How effectively can you defend Israel’s legitimacy if you don’t even understand the arguments against it?”) or re-connecting with Jewish history. He says at the conclusion of his piece: "By seeing Palestinians—truly seeing them—we glimpse a faded, yellowing photograph of ourselves."

While calls to understand Palestinian realities are encouraging, they need to be seen to exist beyond the prism of Jewish and Israeli needs and expectations; instead, the focus must be centered on the human, civil, and national rights of Palestinians and on what is just.