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Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch

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Peter Beinart's Offense Against Liberalism

Posted: 03/30/2012 5:04 pm

Peter Beinart's op-ed in the New York Times (March 19), entitled "To Save Israel, Boycott the Settlements," crossed a red line. More than that: it is an offense against liberalism itself.

1. Boycott

The call to boycott Israel -- even the lame effort to distinguish between boycotting Israel within the Green Line and boycotting Israel beyond the Green Line -- is troubling, in and of itself.

It is also hopelessly naïve. How one would actually mount such a boycott; how one could limit it to products beyond the Green Line; how it would end at the Green Line and not become a boycott of Israel -- these are interesting questions for an academic thesis. It is hardly a serious political proposal.

But it is even worse than that: It is immoral because it gives aid and comfort to Israel's worst enemies -- those who seek to destroy the Jewish state. By using the word "boycott" Beinart has granted legitimacy to the delegitimizers of Israel. "Boycott" is the language of Israel's enemies. "Boycott" means to most people: destroy Israel through international diplomacy and economic strangulation. It is an extreme position.

While thousands are being butchered by the Syrian dictator as the world stands by impotently; at a time when Americans should be devoting as much attention as possible to ensuring a democratic Egypt; at a time when Iran is rapidly developing nuclear capability; and at a time when the Palestinian national movement shows no interest or desire to engage in peace talks, and they are hopelessly divided amongst themselves -- now, at this moment, American liberal Jews should be devoting our financial and political resources to boycotting democratic Israel? Really?!

Peter Beinart wrote in his op-ed: "It is time for a counter-offensive ... and that counter-offensive must begin with language." And his solution is to use the language of the BDS (Boycott, Divesment, Sanctions) crowd -- a group of extremists, Israel-bashers (and some anti-Semites) who spend their lives trying to persuade the world to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel?!

I much prefer George Orwell's view on language to Peter Beinart's. Orwell wrote: "If thought corrupts language, language also corrupts thought. Political language ... is designed to make lies sound truthful ... and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."

2. Settlements

Beinart is right to point out the risks to both Israeli democracy as well as its national security as long as the Israel-Palestinian dispute remains unresolved. But there are two grievous offenses in Beinart's blanket "boycott-all-the-settlements" proposal:

First, what he calls a settlement -- any Jewish apartment beyond the 1967 borders -- is not understood as such by practically every Israeli and most fair-minded international observers. Many so-called settlements are considered neighborhoods of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Most of the people who live beyond the Green Line live in proximity to the Green Line, and all two-state solutions that have been discussed assume that these areas will be within the new borders of Israel proper.

Second, there is not one word in Beinart's piece about the role and responsibility of the Palestinians. Many Israeli settlements are still there because the Palestinians have still not demonstrated a politically-realistic willingness for peace.

Even if you were to concede that Israel has made mistakes, surely it is not Israel's fault alone that there is no peace. After all, it takes at least two to make peace. You cannot make peace only with yourself. Often people talk about how Israel should do this and Israel should do that as if it is in Israel's power alone to shape events.

Most Israelis are desperate for peace. Is it that Israelis like sending their children to fight and die in wars? Surely, there is some fault on the other side as well, no? Are the Palestinians potted plants -- mere decoration -- as the Jews argue among ourselves how we should entice the Palestinians to do what we believe is in their national interest?

Maybe they don't believe it. Half of the Palestinian national movement makes no effort to hide the fact that they don't believe it. They say they want to destroy Israel. The other half has rejected three Israeli peace proposals in the past12 years, and, at present, refuses even to sit down with Israeli negotiators.

The West Bank is the West Bank. It is not, as Beinart describes, "non-democratic Israel." It is not Palestine. It is disputed territory. In the past four decades Jordan, Egypt (Gaza), Israel and the Palestinian national movement have all claimed parts of it. If anything, during the past two decades, Israel has relinquished control over ever-larger tracts of the West Bank. If peace can be achieved, many of the settlements will be absorbed into democratic Israel; the rest will be dismantled.

3. Liberalism

I am a liberal. I worry about liberals. Some in our camp have become unhinged when it comes to Israel. I worry about Reform rabbis, too. And I worry about our rabbinical students who represent the future leadership of much of American Jewry.

It is fashionable in some liberal quarters today to bash Israel as the latest litmus test of liberalism. We see it on campus as well. "We'll let you into the club but show us your anti-Israel credentials first."

It is actually the opposite: Israel is the ultimate test of liberalism; the testing grounds of theory and practice. Can we develop a liberalism that relates to the world as it is, not as we would want it to be? Do we offer a compelling vision of the future or just stale liberation theories? Are we prepared to make hard moral choices or shall we be satisfied with easy moralizing slogans?

In our new world, where democracies engage insurgents who hide among civilian populations and use them as shields; where terrorists store weapons in, and fire from, hospitals, houses of worship, ambulances and universities -- can we develop a liberalism that fights injustice justly? That is the question.

Peter Beinart was once at the vanguard of this school of liberalism that is so desperately needed today. But observing his dash to the extremes of liberal theory over the last decade, I worry about us. If, in less than a decade, Peter Beinart moved from centrist liberalism to calling for a boycott of Israelis, what does that portend for so many others in our camp? And what does that say about the future of liberalism in the United States and in the Jewish community?

Peter Beinart's counter-offensive is morally offensive. Israel is a noisy, argumentative, thrillingly pluralistic society, an oasis of liberty within the unrelenting desert of Middle East oppression. It is not a perfect democracy. There are many fissures and unresolved constitutional questions that need to be addressed. But Israel is a thriving democracy, conceived and developing under the most adversarial conditions of war.

Have we become so befuddled in liberal circles that of all the authoritarian regimes and brutally anti-democratic groups operating in the Middle East, we should single out the one Western democracy -- Israel -- as a target of economic boycott?

I am reminded of the poem of Natan Alterman, one of Israel's greatest poets, who was troubled by our propensity for excessive self-criticism of Israel. He wrote:

Then Satan said: How can I subdue him?
For he has the courage and the ability,
The weapons, the resourcefulness and the wisdom.
And he said: I will not weaken him,
Nor curb nor bridle him,
Nor inspire fear in him,
Nor soften him as in days gone by.
I will only do this:
I will dull his mind,
And he will forget that his is the just cause.