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On Listening to Both Israelis and Palestinians: Reflections on Peter Beinart's 'The American Jewish Cocoon'

09/17/2013 01:14 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2013

Peter Beinart is often branded as the bête noire of American Jewish establishment, an agent provocateur who keeps annoying mainstream Jews with theses that they do not want to hear. He is seen as a disturber of the peace who raises issues that the American Jewish establishment and Israel's governments want to leave below the radar, and as somebody who soils his own nest by providing Israel's enemies with ammunition. And he is seen as an outlier, a fringe phenomenon that disturbs the Jewish-American consensus.

This is in many ways a mischaracterization. Beinart may actually represent the silent majority of Jews in the U.S., who are mostly liberal leaning politically and reform or secular in their religious views. They are silent on Israel because they simply no longer know what to say or what to do. Most of them are repulsed by the continued expansions of settlements; most of them find the monopoly of the ultra-orthodox rabbinical establishment on issues of personal status like Jewishness, marriage or divorce an incomprehensible anachronism.

But most of them also don't want to fall into the basket category of being 'anti-Israel' or 'self-hating Jews' -- the curse words that conservative-leaning Jews often use against Jewish liberals who criticize Israel. So, for lack of an alternative, they are less and less concerned with Israel, and for most of them Israel is no longer a central element in their Jewish identity.

Beinart is therefore not exceptional in his views about Israel's policies, but rather in the fact that he voices them openly. And since he has been one of the U.S.' leading political pundits for years, he cannot simply be dismissed by the U.S. Jewish establishment. Now, three years after his controversial article on "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment" and one year after his book The Crisis of Zionism, Beinart strikes once again in the respected venue of The New York Review of Books with an article entitled "The American Jewish Cocoon."

Beinart's thesis is simple: the American Jewish establishment ranging from synagogues, Jewish communities and organizations like Hillel House systematically refuse to invite Palestinians to speak, generally avoid dialogue with them, and never bother to see what Palestinian's lives are like. His claim is that if they would, they would change their attitude towards Israel's settlement policies, because they would realize how deeply the occupation infringes on Palestinian human rights and their dignity. So far the article is basically an extension of Beinart's earlier positions, and the usual suspects will mostly criticize him for the usual reasons.

But 'The American Jewish Cocoon' also contains a striking paragraph I consider to be a distinct change in Beinsart's position:

To say that American Jews need to hear from Palestinians is not to say that doing so will turn them into doves. To the contrary, in some ways a truly open conversation with Palestinians may be more discomforting to American Jews like myself who are committed to the two-state solution than to those skeptical of it. (...) In my own interactions with Palestinians, I have been repeatedly struck by the central place they assign the Nakba in Palestinian identity, and by their deep insistence that those Palestinians whom the Nakba made refugees, and their descendants, have the right to return to their ancestral homes. In many ways, this focus on 1948 is more challenging to Jewish doves--who envision Palestinians abandoning a large-scale right of return in exchange for a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with a capital in East Jerusalem--than for Jewish hawks who assume Palestinians will do no such thing.

In the past I have argued that, while sharing Beinart's basic values, I thought that he did not truly understand the fears of many Israelis who have no interest in colonizing the West Bank, but fear that the Palestinians will not really stop at the two state solution, and consider a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders as a first step towards abolishing Israel as the homeland of the Jews. I also thought that he was not sufficiently aware that these fears are not unfounded: not only has Hamas so far not retracted its stated goal of destroying Israel, but many progressive Palestinian Intellectuals share the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said's point of view that the Zionist project is a primal sin that needs to end if justice is to be reached in the Middle East.

While the text that I quote is but a fraction of Beinart's 5,000 word essay, it is important, because I think it shows that Beinart's position has become more nuanced. He is beginning to realize that while Israel is certainly the stronger side in the Israel-Palestine conflict, Israel's portrayal as uniquely responsible for the failure of the Oslo process is simply incorrect. Many Palestinians, both on the Islamist-fundamentalist and the leftist-secular ends of the spectrum never accepted Oslo's guiding idea of territorial compromise along the 1967 borders.

Where does this leave us? Nobody is particularly sanguine about John Kerry's valiant efforts to revive peace talks with the Palestinians. Even though most Israelis as well as most Palestinians continue to want the two state solution, both sides are profoundly skeptical about its becoming a historical reality. Palestinians because they are faced with the daily expansion of Israel's settlements; Israelis, because they see that Hamas, which represents a substantial proportion of Palestinians, continues to reject Israel's right to exist and has never renounced its rabidly anti-Semitic charter.

Nevertheless I see no alternative to supporting the two state solution, even though chances of its becoming a reality are slim. I have never seen a realistic model for one democratic state west of the Jordan Valley. Very few bi-national states have proven to be viable. Israel-Palestine is difficult to imagine because it would be composed of two ethnic groups that have been involved in a bitter and bloody conflict for more than a century and belong to different civilizations.

What, then, can liberal Zionists like Beinart and I do to further this goal that is receding into the distance? Beinart is right in saying that we need to listen to Palestinians, their woes and their suffering. But it is no less important to listen to ordinary, non-ideological mainstream Israelis who have no particular investment in holding on to Hebron and Shiloh, but are afraid that retreating to the 1967 borders will once again put them and their children into mortal danger like during the second intifada.

I think that it would also help if liberal Zionists both through official and non-official channels would make clear to Palestinians that they should be more open towards a two-stage process in which Palestine begins on 60 percent of the territory inside the 1967 borders and allows for a period to build mutual trust. Even if Yossi Beilin were Israel's Prime Minister, he would at this point not be able to sell an immediate Israeli retreat to the 1967 borders, because he could not guarantee that Israel's population centers would not be in danger of rocket attacks by Palestinian extremists, who, like their Israeli extremist counterparts, will do everything to foil an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

Jewish liberals need to be realistic: our chances of realizing the two-state solution are slim. But we also need some humility: Pontificating to Israelis worried about their security about lofty values without listening to their concerns for security is as counterproductive as not listening to Palestinians; it will only undermine the little chance we have to fulfill our moral and political vision.