There are perhaps few individuals in the United States more identified with liberal Zionism than Peter Beinart. At least that was likely the case until last month when Beinart published a lengthy essay in Jewish Currents, followed by a more concise version on the editorial pages of The New York Times, arguing for a single state with equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians alike. Beinart’s writings elicited many responses. An Associated Press article described his argument as an “earthquake” that “sent shock waves through the Jewish establishment and Washington policy-making circles by breaking a long-standing taboo” and, in doing so, “challenged a core tenet of Western foreign policy and of discourse among many Jews around the world of needing to ensure the existence of Israel as a Jewish state.”
Beinart’s proposal, however, is not particularly original, even if presented as a unique voice. Countless arguments have been previously put forth publicly for equal rights in a single state, both historically and more recently as Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem has only intensified. So why has the response been so different this time? The answer is that it has everything to do with who is making it.
Who is Peter Beinart?
Today, Peter Beinart is a professor of journalism at the City University of New York, a contributor to CNN and The Atlantic, as well as an editor at large at Jewish Currents, where he published his lengthy piece making the argument for equal rights. What is perhaps most important about who Beinart is in relation to the fallout, however, is not what he is doing today but rather the intellectual and career journey on which he has embarked. Beinart, a modern Orthodox Jew with strong connections to Jewish institutional and communal life, has written at length about the importance of Judaism to himself personally. A Rhodes Scholar with an Ivy League pedigree, in 1995 Beinart became the managing editor of The New Republic at the age of 24. The magazine was then owned and run by Martin Peretz, a preeminent stalwart American Zionist whose tenure at the magazine was characterized by unwavering and unquestioning support for Zionism. To be anointed by Peretz at the time surely required impeccable pro-Israel bona fides. Beinart also presided over the magazine as it supported the American march to war on Iraq. In addition, it was during this time that the prolific historian Tony Judt, who was a member of The New Republic’s editorial board, was removed from the masthead after he made an argument for equal rights within a single state in a seminal article in the New York Review of Books (NYRB). Beinart and Peretz’s magazine tolerated no dissent when it came to the Zionist line.
Over time, Beinart’s views on the Middle East, American power, and particularly the plight of Palestinians began to shift. He credits this in good part to seeing the Israeli military occupation firsthand.
Over time, Beinart’s views on the Middle East, American power, and particularly the plight of Palestinians began to shift. He credits this in good part to seeing the Israeli military occupation firsthand. As an active member of the American Jewish community as well, he began to take note of important tectonic shifts starting to take place across generational lines. In 2010, he published “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” in the NYRB, a critique of the institutional Jewish community’s die-hard commitment to the Israel-right-or-wrong approach—one he viewed as creating unsustainable tensions between liberalism and Zionism and that would alienate a younger generation of American Jews. Beinart then developed this essay into a book entitled The Crisis of Zionism which, along with the original article, set off a firestorm of responses in the American Jewish community as well. In the decade since his article on the American Jewish establishment’s failures, the trends to which Beinart pointed only seem more pronounced. Now, he—like Judt before him—had come to the conclusion that the tension between liberal principles and Zionism is so great that it is time to make a choice. Thus he “no longer believes in a Jewish state,” as his NYT essay is titled.
To be sure, Peter Beinart did not come to a new conclusion that readers had never seen before. However, because of who he is, his connections to the American Jewish establishment, and his history of support for Israel, Beinart’s voice is much harder to dismiss by the gatekeepers of the conversation on Israel; he has long resided within the prescribed gates.
Reactions to Beinart’s latest pieces began to pour in immediately and from various parts of the spectrum. They ranged from the supportive to the unconvinced and the unhinged. Although there are many ways to view and dissect the responses to the argument, they are grouped into the general categories below.
Palestinian and Arab reactions. Palestinian responses to Beinart’s pieces have included some support but also plenty of criticism. While those in the Palestinian community who have long called for equal rights in a single state welcomed Beinart’s conclusion, there was resentment over the fact that it took so long to get to this point and that their voices, which had been making a similar argument, were silenced because they are Palestinian. There has also been criticism of how Beinart’s argument was made, centering Jewish interests and without a focus on what Zionism has meant for Palestinians. Dana El Kurd, a Palestinian scholar, responded to Beinart’s article in a letter to the editor of Jewish Currents, summing up what are likely widely shared sentiments: “[I]t almost feels like Palestinians are the extras in a drama the Jewish community is performing for itself. Perhaps the next iteration of this conversation can actually center Palestinians, the other party to this conflict.” Similarly, Lana Tatour perceptively explained that Beinart’s call misses the mark because it fails “to acknowledge that Zionism itself is the real problem.”
While those in the Palestinian community who have long called for equal rights in a single state welcomed Beinart’s conclusion, there was resentment over the fact that it took so long to get to this point.
Striking a very different tone, Nasser al-Qidwa, a long time Fatah cadre, nephew of the late Yasser Arafat, and who has served as a Palestinian diplomat in various capacities, wrote disparagingly, seemingly in response to Beinart’s recent pieces. Qidwa argues at Masarat,1 a Palestinian center for research and strategic policy studies, that one state with equal rights is a moral idea that is undone by an Israeli unwillingness to support it and thus only sidetracks the Palestinian national struggle.
Then, in comments that raised eyebrows, Jordanian Prime Minister Omar al-Razzaz expressed his approval of the idea of one state with equal rights. Jordan has been perhaps the most active ally of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the PLO in their regional and international efforts to hold the line on the two-state solution. However, Razzaz made the comments in multiple interviews and seemed to be testing the waters to gauge how such comments might be received.
American officialdom. A slew of officials who are either currently serving the US government or were doing so in recent years have also felt compelled to respond to Peter Beinart’s articles. Just days after Beinart’s op-ed appeared in The New York Times, the US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, published a rejoinder in The Jerusalem Post. What is most interesting about this is not what David Friedman had to say—this is, after all, the man who, when last writing about Beinart, insisted that liberal Zionists were “worse than kapos” (collaborators with the Nazis)—but rather that the sitting US ambassador to Israel felt compelled to drop everything and write a response to address this particular issue.
Beinart has also managed to get President Barack Obama’s former ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, to line up alongside Friedman, the man who had previously insisted that Shapiro’s former boss was an anti-Semite. In an immediate twitter thread produced shortly after Beinart’s op-ed was published, Shapiro outlined his objections to Beinart’s argument. Shapiro, who provides plenty of criticism, offers no path forward other than continuing to “strive for two-states,” the Sisyphean task that only seems to produce more Israeli settlements. It is noteworthy that this former US ambassador stayed in Israel after his appointment ended and continued to work for an Israeli think tank. Shapiro is likely to play a role in a Biden administration should the Democratic nominee win this November.
Not all former Obama officials sounded the same tone, however. Ben Rhodes, Obama’s former national security advisor, tweeted that Beinart is “brave, thoughtful, and capable of evolving views” and that his article should be read carefully while remembering “that most of Peter’s critics are working off talking points that are dishonest and decades old.” Similarly, Rob Malley, a former special assistant to Obama and head of the International Crisis Group, tweeted praise for the argument as well.
Unsurprisingly, there was plenty of criticism from those most enmeshed in the two-state peace process, which has been an abject failure.
Unsurprisingly, there was plenty of criticism from those most enmeshed in the two-state peace process, which has been an abject failure. The doyen of peace process industrialists, Dennis Ross, along with David Makovsky, his colleague at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)-spawned Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote a disparaging response in The American Interest titled “Don’t Give Up on the Two-State Solution.”
American Zionist establishment and Israeli reactions. Within the American Zionist establishment there was also notable, if not unexpected, criticism. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) authored a letter to the editor in The New York Times effectively calling Beinart an anti-Semite. Similarly, the American Jewish Committee’s David Harris, through a tweet, sought to put Beinart and Qadhafi in the same boat. Noted pro-Israel attorney Alan Dershowitz likened Beinart’s call for equal rights to Hitler’s final solution.
Evangelical pastor John Hagee, whom the ADL once slammed for anti-Semitism, took the opportunity to respond harshly to Beinart’s argument with an article promoting the Trump peace plan of last January.
From Israel, many of the reactions could be characterized as an admonition to Beinart to “mind your own business,” with Israeli commentators suddenly concluding that American Jews should not have anything to say about the future of Israel—a state which, in recent years, passed a law declaring itself the state of the Jewish people. Shmuel Rosner, in an article entirely dedicated to responding to Beinart, states that “what Beinart writes is largely unimportant” but that he is compelled to respond because of a “fancy idea he [Beinart] has about Israel—a country in which he doesn’t live—he basically wants to dismantle it—the country where I live.”
Decoding the Cacophony
What are we to make of all of these responses? As noted above, there is not very much new in Beinart’s arguments or in many of the responses to him. What matters is who felt compelled to respond. Beinart, for all the weaknesses in his argument that Palestinian critics rightly identified, has undoubtedly touched a nerve that Palestinian interlocutors were incapable of reaching; his intervention has shaken spaces where the conversations on these issues have been stale for decades.
Beinart, for all the weaknesses in his argument that Palestinian critics rightly identified, has undoubtedly touched a nerve that Palestinian interlocutors were incapable of reaching.
As Israel continues to deepen its presence in the occupied West Bank, entrenching apartheid in law and in deed, and possibly moves forward with annexation, more and more conversations will begin to take place around alternatives to the models that have failed for decades. Beinart’s latest foray is a sign that that conversation is increasingly becoming unavoidable in the spaces that have done everything possible to avoid, downplay, and marginalize it: those in the American Jewish establishment.
When it comes to American policy-making toward Israel and Palestine, the American Jewish establishment plays an outsized role in shaping the parameters of the conversation, from the public debate to the policy deliberations. For evidence, one can just look at how many current and former officials felt the need to react to an idea that was not new but yet newly licensed by a once-anointed voice in pro-Israel America.
The likely reality is that for Israeli policy toward Palestinians to change, American policy toward Israel has to change, and for that to happen, the American Jewish establishment needs to rethink and amend its own discussions. For Palestinians, this is incredibly frustrating because it means that their voices are perpetually discounted. That frustration, however justified, does little to alter the fundamental challenge. Before there will be a shift in the US approach to Israel and Palestine, there will need to be more people in the American Jewish community who echo Beinart, thereby making the conversation he has kicked off a step toward a meaningful reshaping of American policy.
1 Source is in Arabic.