Even when he’s serving up a soul-crushing ultimatum, you have to give Peter Beinart some credit. By comparing Israel to “your violent, drug-addicted brother,” but saying that if you call the cops– i.e., support Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS)– to “make them change their destructive and self-destructive behavior” you are putting your “personal morality” ahead of family loyalty, he’s enraged Israel defenders and anti-Zionists alike. In this way, he becomes the personification of the untenable situation he writes about.
“When you boycott Israel, or reject the ideology on which it was founded [my emphasis], you are estranging yourself from much of the Jewish world” runs a pull-quote from Beinart’s Haaretz piece.
On social media, the paper’s slug and headline is: “For Jewish BDS supporters, personal morality trumps Jewish solidarity.” Those words were likely not of his choosing but they crystallize the implicit threat of ostracism and accusation of treason.
The ideology on which Israel was founded assigned Jews the goal of a nationalist state on Palestinian land. Palestinians were erased from all the founders’ early visions: Theodor Herzl wrote about Jewish policemen arresting Jewish sex workers, while Chaim Weizmann told the 1919 Paris peace conference he envisioned a state that would be “as Jewish as England is English.”
To maintain our good standing inside the Jewish family, Beinart implies, we need to swallow all that — even though this ideology entered Jewish life only recently, and deeply divided Jewish communities in the decades before 1948.
Equality and justice are universal values, not personal or selfish ones. As Beinart knows well, they’re often claimed to be “Jewish” values; he emphasizes that Jewish BDS activists “see their embrace of BDS as an expression of their Jewishness.”
As a person, not just as a Jew, I’m offended to hear that opposing segregation, colonialism, exile, massacres and the ongoing brutality necessary to repress a captive indigenous population, or supporting the internationally mandated return of refugees, means I’m selfishly imposing my personal morality at the expense of “family consensus.”
Of course, there’s been much debate as to whether values like justice and civil rights are really part of the Jewish tradition. I don’t want to add to our self-flattery; all I know is what I was taught when I was little. Fighting oppressors is a common thread running through so many of the stories Jewish children are raised on, whether it’s Pharoah in the fictitious Passover story (Jews were never slaves in Egypt), the Maccabees and zealots who resisted Greek and Roman-era tyrants like King Herod, through the Middle Ages and Inquisition up through the Tsar and the Nazis.
It’s a narrative designed to instill a strong desire for justice: a universal, not “Jewish” value, but one we have embraced. Jews were heavily represented in the Russian revolution, civil rights and the antiwar movements, as we are now in the push for justice in Palestine.
The only way for anyone raised on this tradition to support the kind of ethnic supremacism now on full display in Israel is through denial, extreme filtering of facts, and the construction of an elaborate counter-narrative that morphs oppressors into victims (of hostile Arab neighbors, anti-Semitism, “terrorism,” “double standards,” campus radicals, Barack Obama, and ultimately, the Palestinians who didn’t and still don’t accept a Jewish state on their land). Something needs to puncture that; Beinart’s essay helps, whether he wants it to or not.
Beinart perhaps unintentionally shows that American Jewry has created what family therapist Gregory Bateston identified as a “double bind“:
an emotionally distressing dilemma in communication in which an individual (or group) receives two or more conflicting messages, and one message negates the other. This creates a situation in which a successful response to one message results in a failed response to the other (and vice versa), so that the person will automatically be wrong regardless of response. The double bind occurs when the person cannot confront the inherent dilemma, and therefore can neither resolve it nor opt out of the situation.
So Jews who have been taught to hate oppression but taught that we must support Israel are in a classic double bind, of our own making:
Double binds are often utilized as a form of control without open coercion—the use of confusion makes them both difficult to respond to as well as to resist…
Further complications arise when frequent double binds are part of an ongoing relationship to which the person or group is committed [my emphasis].
The double bind, Wikipedia explains, is not a “no-win situation,” but worse: “the subject has difficulty in defining the exact nature of the paradoxical situation in which he or she is caught.”
Beinart accepts the burden of the double bind onto himself, so he deserves sympathy instead of pure castigation. Though he also rationalizes the ostracism of pro-BDS Jews by the Jewish establishment, saying they
“are excluded for taking positions that rupture the bonds of peoplehood. Israel is the world’s only Jewish state. It contains close to 40 percent of the Jews on earth.”
Fine. Who are these kinfolk whose connection I’m supposed to prize above my concerns for equality and my hatred for tyranny (that I first absorbed in Hebrew school)? The religious zealots storming al Aqsa? Half a million West Bank settlers? The 48% of Jewish Israelis who want to expel the remaining Palestinians, or the 79% who say Jews should be favored under Israeli law (which matches the Rome Statute definition of apartheid)? Or the 95% who supported the 2014 Gaza massacre? I may not have a lot in common with them.
Israel will blow up everybody’s spot, that’s been one of my expressions. In the Middle East, it’s been a poison pill: it blew up the long, happy relations between Arab Jews and Palestinian Muslims and Christians in Palestine during the many centuries before 1882. It blew up European promises of Arab autonomy for the Middle East after World War I, when the British carved off Saudi Arabia and handed it to the only family willing to acquiesce to their Balfour Declaration promise of a Jewish home in Palestine. It blew up entire Jewish communities throughout the Arab world, who were transferred to Israel following the 1947-48 Nakba.
Israel has blown up Beinart’s spot. He would like to see it as a glowing ideal, the redemption of the Jewish people’s history. But he’s uncomfortable insisting on preferential treatment for Jews, even as he claims it’s necessary. He wants to stand up for the “Jewish values” exemplified by young BDS activists, but he has to warn them that they’re estranging themselves from the Jewish community. He wants to be a progressive leader, but he understands many people will never consider Israel consistent with progressive values.
Israel blew up Bernie Sanders’s spot: he wanted to avoid foreign policy but in the end couldn’t avoid taking the heat for at least gesturing in the direction of Palestinian equality and dignity. It’s blown up the spot of Barack Obama, John Kerry, sundry official spokespersons and their likes: they know what’s going on, but they’re not allowed to say what they know. It’s got to sting for the first black president to pay endless lip service to our “shared values” with a hyper-militarized Jim Crow society. And yes, a lot of young Jews arguing with relatives at Passover last weekend had their spot blown up by Israel — as has anyone whose family or friendship connections have frayed or severed over support for Israel.
But more than anyone else, Zionism and Israel blew up the Palestinians’ spot. Whatever pain and disruption to relationships takes place among Jews who reject Zionism and support BDS, it’s minuscule compared to the price paid by Palestinians, all 11 million of whom live in either exile or under Israeli apartheid and occupation. A new essay on this site by Nada Elia is an important challenge to Jewish ex-Zionists like myself. It’s time, she says, for the Palestine solidarity movement to stop celebrating Jewish dissent. She is so right: all this focus on what Zionism has done to Jews has the perverse effect of making Jews victims once again, while erasing the people whose suffering is at the center of the problem.
We Jews need to stop wallowing in our own issues. Our family dysfunction isn’t that interesting to others, particularly the ones we’re oppressing. And we need to extinguish the offensive exceptionialism.
The paradox is that the Jewish establishment desperately needs to be challenged — by Jews, of course, young ones in particular — which means it will be exactly the kind of insular Jewish conversation that Palestine activists rightly find infuriating. We’re the ones who need to call the cops on our abusive sibling. But we need to do it without patting ourselves on the back, without dragging the rest of the Palestine solidarity movement into our family dysfunction.
Liberal Zionism is the solar plexus of the occupation. Making it untenable to be any kind of a “liberal” or progressive while supporting a supremacist, segregated state; and getting American Jews to “break up with Israel” could be one of the quickest and most powerful tools in cutting down what now props up Israeli apartheid. Once it’s become impossible for the type of (obviously very privileged) Jews who Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton see at Passover — the Michael Chabons of the world — to support or defend Israeli Jim Crow, and it’s just down to the neocons and Christian end-timers, US policy toward Israel might change very quickly. Without the perception that Jewish voters demand this kind of thing, the massive military aid, veto protection at the UN, one-sided “peace talks” mediation might come to an end. Media coverage would change too. This is already happening, but not fast enough.
This is the main reason that while I lovingly support Jewish Voice for Peace, I prefer to channel my own activism through other groups like Students for Justice in Palestine and the broad BDS movement that have a clear Palestine focus. Still, the communications strategist in me knows the P.R. value of a Chabon defection, or of young IfNotNow activists getting arrested at a “Liberation Seder” sit-in at the office of Islamophobia lobby group Anti-Defamation League. Or of a Broad City episode that skewers Birthright propaganda/mating tours and Israeli militarism from a Jewish perspective. These do more than help protect non-Jewish Palestine solidarity activists from phony antisemitism charges; they show the self-appointed American Jewish leadership that they don’t represent our people’s future. Instead of papering over our objections, we expose them for all the world to see and undermine the myth of solid Jewish support for Israel — which is the basis for US support.
And, not that it should be of any interest to Palestinians, who have much bigger concerns, but I refuse to accept the double bind. I refuse to be read out of the Jewish family just because I reject colonialism and segregation. The burden of moral failure falls entirely on those who support discrimination.