Benjamin Netanyahu’s quick decision to distance himself from the detention and questioning of Peter Beinart at Ben Gurion Airport was telling. He understood, or at least was promptly told, that the “error of judgment,” which is how the Shin Bet described Beinart’s interrogation, was, in fact, an enormous blunder. In the immortal words of Pretty Woman Julia Roberts in a snooty Beverly Hills boutique, it was a “Big mistake. Big. Huge.”
Despite Beinart’s detailed account of his detention in the Forward, the fiasco seemed so fantastic, it was initially hard to believe. Beinart? Peter Beinart? The Peter Beinart? Best-selling author, popular pundit and sometimes CNN political analyst Beinart? One of the biggest names in contemporary American Jewry Beinart? Revered by young Jewish liberals as a demi-god and regarded by right-wingers as public enemy number one Beinart? That Beinart? Are you sure? Are the border police and Shin Bet operatives at Tel Aviv airport on LSD?
The answer, notwithstanding Netanyahu’s fast denial, was even more mind-boggling than the question. In August 2018 Israel, Beinart’s detention was not only possible, it could even be seen as predictable, logical and par for the course. It is completely consistent with the government’s closed-door policy towards suspected BDS activists, its compilation of Stasi-like black lists of suspected undesirables and the rising number of reported incidents of visitors with known sympathy for the Palestinians being questioned – and warned - about their subversive views. So, yes, theoretically, Beinart could have been just the latest front in Netanyahu’s escalating war on external and internal dissent.
After all, if you want to send a message to bleeding heart American Jewish liberals, what better vehicle than Beinart? If you want to put American Jews on notice that they should restrain their criticism of Netanyahu and his right wing policies or face the consequences, who is better placed to serve as a whipping boy than self-proclaimed boycotter of settlements, author of The Crisis of Zionism and all-around Netanyahu nemesis Beinart? If they can interrogate someone famous like Beinart and get away with it, hesitant lefties might surmise, what might they dare do to someone with less renown and clout?
The more you thought about it, the more conceivable it seemed. The detention of Beinart fits in with Netanyahu’s authoritarian drift and his open war on left-wing dissent, evidenced only 24 hours earlier by his inflammatory and potentially lethal incitement against Micky Gitzin, the Israel head of the New Israel Fund. It meshes well with Netanyahu’s ongoing efforts to redefine leftist dissent as tantamount to treason and bordering on anti-Semitism. The mishandling of Beinart would conform with the general disdain shown by Netanyahu and his cohorts for liberal American Jews overall, which manifested itself a year ago in their unilateral decision to renege on a signed, sealed and delivered deal with the Reform and Conservative movements over prayers at the Western Wall. Beinart’s embarrassment and discomfort in front of his wife and children at Ben Gurion Airport are awful, but Netanyahu’s abandonment of American Jews is worse.
Even the supposedly reasonable assumption that no one could be so stupid as to detain a celebrity like Beinart, of all people, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Netanyahu’s Israel has repeatedly proven in recent months that, with a benign Donald Trump in the White House, domestic politics reign supreme and Israel’s international image is expendable. Would a country that cares for its good name waste so much time, money and PR effort on locating, incriminating, listing and ultimately expelling naive BDS supporters, from Reform rabbis to Columbia University professors? Would it allow its secret policemen to interrogate young If Not Now activists or to grill an alter yid who happened to have a brochure with the word Palestine in his suitcase?
More importantly, would a sane and rational Israel insist on legislating a controversial nation-state law, knowing full well that the law would inflame passions, enrage Israeli minorities, pit Jew against Jew, place Israel in close company with ethnocentric Hungary and generally be seen as an arrogant expression of Jewish nationalism and even supremacy? Isn’t that just the kind of Israel that could detain and humiliate Beinart and walk away feeling like a million dollars?
The answer is: Of course it is. As far as its hasbara efforts are concerned, Israel has been gleefully cutting itself off at the kneecaps with a rapid-fire machine gun. The Israeli prime minister, government and Knesset don’t even try anymore to mask their growing disdain for democracy, contempt for the rule of law, intolerance for dissent, scorn for human rights, hatred of the media and condescension towards American Jews, especially liberal critics like Beinart. So planned ambush or “administrative mistake”, as Netanyahu termed it, for Israel to detain Beinart at the airport certainly seems like the most natural thing in the world.
But even if it was a tactical miscalculation, and even if Netanyahu’s disclaimer is genuine and not a post-factum effort to cover his tracks, Beinart’s detention was no mistake. From his account, it’s quite clear that his name appears on some kind of government black list that jumped up on the computer screen of the immigration official who first greeted him after his arrival and made him call for the Shin Bet cavalry. If his Shin Bet interrogators overreacted without waiting for specific instructions from headquarters, that is also no coincidence. Israeli secret service people are anything but stupid. They sense the clear direction of the prevailing winds of intolerance. In their line of business, taking the initiative and seizing an opportunity are encouraged. Their superiors, they could surmise, would appreciate their zealousness to smite Israel’s enemies or at least head them off before the arrival terminal.
This is where we are. Peter Beinart, an observant Jew and liberal American Zionist who loves Israel, or at least used to, is greeted as a suspect, grilled about his political views and warned to stay out of trouble. You and others of your ilk should keep their mouths shut, Beinart is effectively told, or they will no longer be welcome in our proud Jewish nation-state. In our new country, gun-toting, Palestinian-oppressing, democracy detesting religious zealots are the elites. Dogs and namby-pamby leftie pinko self-hating Jews will no longer be allowed, in the not-too-distant future.
The Beinart brouhaha, which it is sure to become, is symptomatic of the sad state of Israel today, whether his detention was intentional or not. It is a clear-cut indication that something is rotting in the state of Bibi. There will be lots of hand wringing over the next few days, as Netanyahu and others in the line of command try to pass the hot potato of Beinart’s detention to someone else. Don’t pay any attention: The mindset that led to Beinart’s detention is not an exception. It is now the rule.
Finally, on a personal note. I know Beinart well from our unfortunately aborted joint years at Haaretz. I like him. I admire his intellect, envy his writing and agree with most, though of course not all, of his views. I share his values and respect his willingness to stand up for them, often in the face of adversity and hostility. I view him as a valuable ally in the fight for Israeli democracy and Palestinian dignity. An Israel that stoops so low as to detain someone like Beinart, and implicitly threatens to brand him persona non-grata, is not my Israel. It is not the country I grew up in, and it is not a country that I would want my children to live in either.
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