Peter Beinart: American Jews Willfully Ignore the Palestinian Perspective of the Conflict

In a controversial new article, the community’s enfant terrible lashes out at the American Jewish 'cocoon' that breeds insulation, lack of empathy and an inability to properly defend Israel.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

The American Jewish community’s enfant terrible, Peter Beinart, is in attack mode once again. In a scathing new 5,000-word article, Beinart accuses the Jewish establishment of willfully ignoring the Palestinian side of their conflict with Israel and of thus being “a closed intellectual space, isolated from the experiences and perspectives of roughly half the people under Israeli control.”

Returning to the respected arena of The New York Review of Books in which he published his original controversial 2010 article “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” Beinart accuses American Jewish leaders of living in a “cocoon” as far as the Palestinians are concerned. Palestinians are rarely invited to address American Jewish groups, he asserts, just as American Jews visiting Israel with Birthright and similar organizations hardly ever venture into Palestinian cities and towns.

The result, he says, is that American Jews have very little knowledge of the reality of Palestinian lives. Their isolation and insularity not only translate into an utter lack of empathy for the Palestinians but also to a basic misunderstanding of the conflict itself. This ignorance, he adds, is even detrimental to Israel’s most ardent advocates because American Jews “fail to understand the very behavior they seek to prevent.”

The article is sure to create the same kind heated discussion and to elicit harsh criticism similar to what Beinart experienced in the past. But Beinart, author of the 2011 book “The Crisis of Zionism” and editor of the “Open Zion” blog at the Daily Beast, told Haaretz on Monday that he was not seeking to grab attention or make headlines, as detractors have asserted.

“I'm critiquing the way the American Jewish community operates because I think we're hurting ourselves, and Israel, through our isolation from Palestinians. As Jews and Zionists, I want us to do better,” he said.

Beinart takes two of the most prominent of today’s American Jewish leaders to task for being “unfamiliar with the realities of ordinary Palestinian lives.” While he lauds their frequent “eloquent calls for human rights,” Beinart says figures such as the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman and Nobel Peace Prize winner Eli Wiesel often dismiss allegations of Israeli abuse of Palestinian rights because “they don’t know the degree to which Palestinians are denied those rights in the West Bank.”

“Because most American Jewish leaders have never seen someone denied the right to visit a family member because they lack the right permit, or visited a military court, or seen a Palestinian village scheduled for demolition because it lacks building permits that are almost impossible for Palestinians to get, it is easy for them to minimize the human toll of living, for 46 years, without the basic human rights your Jewish neighbors take for granted.”

Beinart says that the widespread ignorance about the Palestinian point of view causes many American Jews to assume that “Palestinian anger toward Israel must be a product solely of Palestinian pathology.” While he doesn’t belittle the corrosive influence of Palestinian television and textbook incitement, Beinart says American Jews fail to recognize that some of the hatred towards Israel “may stem not from what Palestinians read or hear about the Jewish state, but from the way they interact with it in their daily lives.”

For the same reason, American Jews fail to understand the motivation behind the world wide Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions efforts, ascribing it exclusively to anti-Semitism and opposition to Israel’s very existence. While these elements certainly exist in the BDS movement, Beinart says, they are not the sole reason for the growing international support for the movement. But by ignoring the influence of the Palestinian plight on the sympathy that they receive on the world stage, “the American Jewish community is hamstrung in its ability to respond by its own lack of experience with Palestinian life under Israeli control.”

Beinart says that the same is true of the overall American discussion of Palestinian life. He cites the over- 1000 Congressional delegations that AIPAC and other Jewish groups have brought to Israel since 2000, which, except for meetings with Palestinian leaders such as Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad, are hardly ever exposed to Palestinian hardships. A typical discussion of Israel on American TV, he says, includes “a liberal American Jew (Thomas Friedman, David Remnick) talking to a centrist American Jew (Dennis Ross, Alan Dershowitz) talking to a hawkish American Jew (William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer) – each articulating different Zionist positions.”

Beinart says that exposure to the Palestinian perspective won’t necessarily make American Jews more dovish – on the contrary: they will better understand the Palestinians’ ideological opposition to Zionism, their refusal to accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state and their attachment to the narrative of the 1948 Nakba. At the same time, however, by learning to empathize with the Palestinians, American Jews may also remember a part of their own identity, Beinart states.

“By seeing Palestinians – truly seeing them – we glimpse a faded, yellowing photograph of ourselves. We are reminded of the days when we were a stateless people living at the mercy of others. And by recognizing the way statelessness threatens Palestinian dignity, we ensure that statehood doesn’t rob of our own,” Beinart concludes.

Peter BeinartCredit: Center for American Progress (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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