Peter Beinart Proclaims He’s Still a Zionist, Though He No Longer Believes in a Jewish State

In an interview with Haaretz, the enfant terrible of U.S. Jewry says the ethos of Black Lives Matter will change the discourse on Israel-Palestine – and he even has a tip for Biden about Netanyahu

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Peter Beinart at the Haaretz Peace Conference in Tel Aviv, November 2015.
Peter Beinart at the Haaretz Peace Conference in Tel Aviv, November 2015.Credit: David Bachar
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Peter Beinart seems to be taking the avalanche of harsh opprobrium sparked by his controversial abandonment of the two-state solution and the concept of a Jewish state in stride. His continued support for both, he now says, became “morally indefensible,” leading him to embrace the concept of a non-Jewish democratic Israel-Palestine, with equal rights for all.

In a mostly friendly 40-minute interview with Haaretz, Beinart dismissed condemnation by some of his more prominent critics, including Daniel Gordis – who called him a “traitor” – and Alan Dershowitz, who claimed Beinart is advocating a “Final Solution.” “The jury on these debates takes a long time to play out. I am more worried by how I’ll be judged decades from now,” he said.

Beinart stands behind the headline of his July 8 article in the New York Times (“I No Longer Believe in a Jewish State”), the abridged version of his original, 8,000-word piece published a day earlier in Jewish Currents, where he is an editor at large, entitled “Yavne: A Jewish Case for Equality in Israel-Palestine.” Citing pre-state support by a small minority of Zionists led by Martin Buber for a binational state, Beinart asserted he still considers himself a Zionist.

The one-state debate: Chemi Shalev interviews Peter Beinart

Asked what his reaction would be if his children would want to make aliyah, either to current Israel or to his utopian “Israel-Palestine,” Beinart said: “I would be sad, but I would also be thrilled. It would show how connected they are. I would tell them to go and struggle to make it the best place it can be – and I would say that in any case.”

Beinart rebuffed claims that he seeks to naively impose U.S. values on the complex Israel-Palestine conflict, saying that Israelis have an unjustified “apocalyptic” view of Palestinians and of their ability to live in peace. Beinart explained that adamant opposition to his proposals by Israelis and right-wing American Jews is only natural, “because they are comfortable with the status quo” of ongoing occupation and denial of Palestinian rights.

Beinart claimed there is a “discourse of dehumanization” about Palestinians and what they’re capable of, despite the fact that the Palestinian liberation movement, in his assessment, has behaved no worse than others.

For the past 15 years, he asserted, the Palestinian leadership has been “unbelievably moderate.” He cited the Palestinian Authority’s willingness to fight terror and thus prevent attacks against Israelis, asking: “Do you think [the South African ANC’s] Nelson Mandela or [Sinn Féin’s] Gerry Adams would have done that?”

Two conversations

Discussing contemporary events and politics in the United States, Beinart said the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement “brings to the fore questions of privilege” in the American discourse on Israel-Palestine, which will inevitably lead to greater focus on Palestinian advocacy. Beinart acknowledged BLM’s embrace by most of the U.S. Jewish establishment, but noted that applying BLM principles to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict creates a “very serious problem” for them. “They are banking on the two conversations remaining separate,” he said.

Beinart, a professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York, also said “cancel culture” posed a major problem for American news outlets. He said the Republican Party’s embrace of “a bigoted president” blurred the distinction between “conservatism and racism,” sparking a “destabilizing debate” about differentiating between them.

He noted, however, that “there’s not enough spirit of forgiveness” in the current U.S. discourse, within and outside newsrooms. “People get frightened. They would rather throw people overboard and see them silenced” rather than debating their views. He didn’t spell it out, but Beinart seemed to indicate that he saw himself as a victim of such “cancel culture” as well.

Commenting on Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s strong endorsement of the two-state solution in a meeting with Muslim community leaders this week, Beinart said that if asked, he would tell Biden to focus instead on principles of rights, equality and justice. Beinart said Biden needs to “change the calculus” of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli leadership “who are convinced they can eat their cake and have it.”

As for the outcome of the upcoming November 3 election, Beinart said all indications are that Donald Trump is headed for a fall, which is also his own gut instinct. “But I was convinced Hillary Clinton would win in 2016 and I believed the New England Patriots would continue to be a good team even without [legendary quarterback] Tom Brady,” he noted. “So my gut is basically worthless.”

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