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Hannah Weisfeld is the Director, and one of the founders, of Yachad, a pro-peace, pro-Israel organisation based in the UK. She has previously managed campaigns on a wide range of social issues including the conflict in Darfur, climate change and Fairtrade and also chaired the Jewish Social Action Forum, bringing together leading Jewish communal organisations to develop the community’s social action agenda. She gained her MSc from the London School of Economics and has spent time working and living in Israel and Malawi.
Peter Beinart’s book ‘The Crisis of Zionism’ outlines a profound discontent with both the state of the American Jewish establishment and the political stalemate in Israel. It culminates in the suggestion that a Zionist boycott of West Bank settlements may be a way in which Jews can show the government of Israel that they do not support what Beinart calls ‘non-democratic Israel’ i.e. the occupied Palestinian territories. A Zionist boycott would entail investing heavily in the state of Israel itself (inside the Green Line), whilst boycotting that which is beyond. Beinart also outlined this proposed tactic in an op-ed in the New York Times in March 2012 for which he received an enormous amount of vitriol and outright condemnation from much of the American Jewish establishment. Whatever one thinks of Beinart’s tactical suggestion of a Zionist boycott, the contents of the book deserves careful consideration, which unfortunately has been lacking in much of the response to his New York Times article.
Beinart believes that the American Jewish establishment’s worldview is shaped by an outdated notion of powerless Jews at a time when Jews are anything but powerless. Global Jewry can claim a heavily militarised state, significant roles in the political, legal and financial worlds, and countless Nobel Prize winners to name just a few achievements. A nation that fell into the clutches of a tyrannical regime less than 70 years ago has accomplished something remarkable. Beinart argues that American Jews need to understand that today we are in fact “powerful”, and addressing how we use that power should be central to the conversation about Israel and our Jewish identity. Without seriously engaging with this question, the American Jewish community is at risk of losing a generation of Jews who have grown up with a Jewish identity built on positive expressions of Judaism, or who are so assimilated, they simply do not relate to this worldview. A shift to the right in the leadership of the American Jewish establishment, coupled with the Revisionist Zionist tendencies of the current Israeli administration – which believes in a Zionism that trumps all other values, including democracy – is resulting in the alienation of a generation of Jews from Israel.
Perhaps most importantly, Beinart challenges the assumptions that inform the debate about Israel in many Diaspora communities, including British Jewry. Members of Jewish communities seek to explain away, or justify problematic policies pursued by the state of Israel on the basis that Israel lacks a credible partner, that historical facts are on Israel’s side or that Israel’s actions are insignificant in the face of some of the world’s worst human rights abusers. An underlying feature in Beinart’s book is that he does not accept this negation of responsibility. Israel may have had less than ideal partners to negotiate with, it may at times be singled out for condemnation above and beyond other states, but the fact remains that, with power – and a state constitutes power – comes a set of ethical responsibilities which for too long we have ignored at our own peril by blindly supporting an occupation.
In some respects Beinart’s book could be accused of going ‘too far’ in its criticism. By focusing on the American Jewish establishment’s relationship to political power in the USA, his thesis does not address the many other players in Washington that affect or influence policy making in relation to Israel. He nods in the direction of the Christian right, but little is mentioned of the American security discourse, which hugely informs the debate on Israel. And so one could read the book and overestimate the power of a Jewish pro-Israel lobby. His proposal for a Zionist boycott, could, as Mick Davis has argued in an article in the Jewish Chronicle, be seen as divisive and counter-productive, alienating Israel and other Jews, when in fact, we need to bring people into a conversation.
But in other respects, the book arguably does not go far enough. Whilst it acknowledges the role of successive Israeli governments in growing the occupation, its focus is on the current Netanyahu administration and in particular Netanyahu’s total lack of interest in serious peace making. Beinart quotes Netanyahu’s father who commented after his son’s famous Bar Ilan speech that “He doesn’t support [a Palestinian state]. He supports conditions that they [the Palestinians] will never accept”. However, there are some hard truths that those on the liberal end of the Zionist spectrum need to acknowledge. For example, whilst it may have been Netanyahu who in his previous reign as premier built Har Homa, a Jewish suburb in East Jerusalem that is considered to be a major obstacle to a potential division of the city in a final status agreement, it was the peacemaker Rabin, who first conceived of it. There is a danger that Bibi and Lieberman are easy targets for those frustrated with the ongoing occupation, while, unfortunately, they are in a long line of successive Israeli administrations who have continued to develop the occupation. The danger in paying too much attention to the current Israeli administration is that it builds false hopes amongst supporters of Israel that all that is required is a change of administration, whereas the occupation and its impact, are, in fact, much more deeply engrained in Israel’s political system and its citizens.
Furthermore, Beinart suggests that the occupied Palestinian territories should be labelled ‘non-democratic Israel’ and we should now refer to them with that name. However, experience of mobilising the British Jewish community to engage in some of these conversations suggests that there are many people who could live with a ‘non-democratic Israel’ if they thought it meant protecting the Jewish state. On that basis, it is by no means clear that continual reference to ‘non-democratic Israel’ would really compel large numbers of Jews to sit up and take action. Moreover, implicit in this phrase is the idea that we should even consider the occupied Palestinian territories part of Israel, and that perhaps there is a way to make them democratic. It is clear that many British Jews are able to mutter the word ‘Palestinian,’ but the word ‘Palestine’ presents an entirely different challenge. It is one step too far outside their comfort zone. Perhaps a mass movement of Jews that only referred to ‘non-democratic Israel’ as ‘Palestine’ would do more to make it clear to the Israeli administration, our own government and to global Jewish communities, what we believe the legal status of that piece of land should be.
But the biggest challenge at hand, which Beinart’s conclusion does not address, and which liberal Zionist groups, Yachad included, struggle to find an answer to, is how we can respond to the very real political urgency of the situation. Beinart argues that state funding for Jewish day schooling would ensure more young Jews are educated in Jewish environments and would be taught a love for Israel through their education, and therefore be more likely to become active in the struggle for Israel’s character. But the reality is stark. By 2020 there will be one million more Palestinians than Jews within the greater land of Israel. The educational journey that Beinart is suggesting the American Jewish community attempts to embark on, would take a minimum of 25 years to reap any results. In the meantime, should the occupation not end, and a Palestinian state not be created, it would be far too late. Sadly the next generation of leadership of Jews. not just in America, but around the world, looks as if it may well suffer the consequences of Jewish leadership that chose to remain silent in the face of an occupation that grew by 500 times in just over 40 years, from 1000 Israelis over the Green Line in 1971 to over 500,000 today.
There are lessons to be learned by the British Jewish community. Luckily we have a vibrant youth movement culture that instils a love for Israel amongst young people. However there is a real desperation growing amongst the next generation of leadership, about how they can most sensibly teach about, and meaningfully engage with Israel, as they discover the Israel they grew up thinking they knew, is a different place in reality. And it is clear from the young people that have come out of some of our British Jewish community’s day schools, and who flock to engage with Yachad, that the Israel education they received at school did little to foster a strong sense of Liberal Zionism. Neither the influence nor the political persuasion of the British Jewish establishment is comparable to that of the USA. But there are many that seek, on behalf of the community, to define what it means to be a true supporter of Israel, influenced by that same worldview of the ‘powerless Jew’. They are at risk of emulating the alienation described by Beinart.
Whether one believes Beinart’s analysis is 100 per cent correct, or supports his call for a boycott of sorts, all those that are concerned about the health of Judaism and the Jewish people should be deeply concerned by the clarion call at the end his book. He states, “if Israeli democracy falls, it will fall for all of us. No matter where we live, we will spend our lives sifting the through the political, ethical and theological rubble”. Those who can justify a non-democracy with one million more Palestinians than Jews being ruled over by a Jewish minority, which is just seven years away from now, should take heed.