“Zionism as a liberal democratic project will die.” This will be the consequence, Peter Beinart warns in The Crisis of Zionism, of continued settlement building in the West Bank, encouraged by successive Israeli governments and most unapologetically so by the current one under Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership.
Netanyahu and his Likudnik allies emerge as Mephistophelean villains in Beinart’s passionate arguments against the settlement enterprise, which he views as imperiling the continued viability of Theodor Herzl’s vision, brought into fruition by David Ben-Gurion, of Israel as a state of liberal ideals and equality.
While Beinart styles himself “a partisan of liberal democracy” and skillfully argues against the continued colonization of the West Bank, proponents of universal human rights will inevitably be disappointed by his fundamental analytical failings.
One of the basic premises of the book is the desirability and necessity of a “Jewish state” that upholds liberal democratic values. At no point does Beinart dedicate uninterrupted space for an explicit definition of what “Jewish state” means to him, but he gives aspects of his conception here and there.
By and large, it’s what one would expect. While the book is mercifully free of that odious term “demographic threat,” he invokes the specter of demographic change to remind readers that, should the green line’s rapid dissolution continue unabated, “Israel will commit suicide as a Jewish state” (demonstrating once again that many fail to grasp that apartheid is a qualitative, not quantitative, appellation).
Beinart also links the Jewishness of the state with its symbols, which he concedes are elements of “the inequity in Zionism itself”:
As a Jewish state, Israel’s anthem, flag, and Jewish right of return would still afford Jewish Israelis a sense of national belonging and national refuge that Arab Israelis lack. This fundamental tension between Zionism and liberal democracy cannot be fully resolved within Israel’s borders. But it can, to some event, be resolved outside them. Were Israel to permit the creation of a Palestinian state that enabled a Palestinian right of return and expressed Palestinian identity in its anthem and flag, Arab Israelis, like diaspora Jews, would had a country that expressed their special character as a people, even if they chose not to live there. The struggle for a liberal democratic Zionism, therefore, cannot be merely a struggle to afford Arabs individual and even group rights inside a Jewish state. It must also be a struggle to satisfy the Palestinians’ yearning for a state of their own. (p. 17-18)
Beinart appears to be channeling the spirit of Tzipi Livni here. That he would take for granted that it is an acceptable “tension” for Palestinians to not feel at home in the land of their and their forefathers’ birth — and suggest that, according to a Zionist rubric, we should help Palestinians attain a state and not their rights — is not particularly surprising.
But, it begs the question that Beinart does not offer a convincing answer to: How can Zionism, as manifested within the green line, be considered “a liberal democratic project?”
It seems that Beinart’s fantasy of an egalitarian Jewish state subsists on two key fetishes: Israel’s declaration of independence and the notion of citizenship. Beinart celebrates the declaration’s promise of “complete equality of social and political rights to all [of Israel’s] inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” In fact, he makes reference to the declaration and this particular sentence at least a dozen times in the book.
Yet this focus on the declaration of independence is belied by the fact, unmentioned by Beinart, that it has no legal standing. Israel’s Supreme Court has not considered the declaration a “constitutional law” that can determine the validity of ordinances and statements, as Ben White addresses in his excellent book,Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy.
The utility of his other idea, citizenship, in underscoring the Jewish state’s alleged liberal democratic credentials is also wanting. Beinart observes:
In democracies… governments sometimes subject citizens to intrusive, even degrading, forms of control… But as citizens, they are not powerless. They can take legal recourse… and thus remind their tormentors that they are equals in the eyes of the law. In so doing, they not only assert their own dignity, they force the people in power to acknowledge it too. In the West Bank, however, where Palestinians are barred from citizenship, that human leveling rarely occurs. (p. 24)
This observation is, on its face, correct. But even in “democracies,” such as the one inhabited by ‘48 Palestinians, citizenship does not automatically confer rights or dignity. One need look no further than the history of the United States, where African-Americans endured the travails of citizenship in a “democracy” without equal status before the law and unencumbered opportunities for civic participation for the better part of a century.
But all is not lost on Beinart. He recognizes that “Most [Arab Israelis] feel like second-class citizens, and in important respects, truly are.” He vigorously criticizes the racist, rightward drift of the current Israeli government and its policies on both sides of the green line.
For presenting this criticism in unequivocal language to his target audience, Beinart deserves applause. But it is also this aspect which most dramatically denudes the moral and logical inconsistency necessary to maintain “liberal” Zionist illusions.
As previously mentioned, Netanyahu, Likud, and their fellow travelers are the primary antagonists in Beinart’s narrative. In chapter six, “The Monist Prime Minster,” Beinart traces the ideological lineage of these characters to Vladimir Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism, and his professed monism, the belief that Jews should form a majority on both sides of the Jordan river.
In fingering proponents of Revisionism and their ideological inheritors as the dark side of Zionism, as opposed to the Labor variant espoused by the likes of Ben Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin, Beinart makes some breathtaking statements. He asserts that Jabotinsky believed that Palestine’s Arabs had to be “militarily and psychologically crushed.”
This required building up Jewish military might and using it without scruple — no matter what the moralists said — for as long as it took to make the enemy submit. Labor Zionists used force ruthlessly as well, but they were more troubled by it. (p. 104)
Excuse me? Labor Zionists were more troubled by it? Is there evidence of this? I have my suspicions that the exquisitely refined sensitivities and introspective anguish of Labor Zionists were somehow lost on the people of Lydd when a young Yitzhak Rabin oversaw their expulsion following a visit with David Ben-Gurion in July 1948.
Beinart’s false dichotomy between a presumably “liberal” Labor Zionism and a rapacious Revisionist counterpart extends to his reading of Israeli policies in the ensuing decades up to the present day, yielding ever more conspicuous bouts of cognitive dissonance.
The most striking instance comes on page 112. While censuring Benjamin Netanyahu’s book A Durable Peace for its patent failure to show any sympathy for Palestinian suffering, Beinart offers this doozy (emphasis mine):
How does Netanyahu explain away the suffering of the roughly seven hundred thousand Palestinians who lost their homes during Israel’s war of independence? By claiming that their departure was overwhelmingly voluntary. Indeed, he insists that in many cases Jews pleaded with their Palestinian neighbors to stay. Given the more than two decades of scholarship–mostly by Israeli scholars using Israeli archives–documenting that many Palestinian refugees were either coerced or frightened into leaving, Netanyahu’s historical account is silly. But it is deadly serious, because if there was no moral problem with transfer in the past, there is no moral problem with transfer in the present. And top Netanyahu advisers have flirted with exactly that.
On the following page, Beinart recounts a 2007 boast by Netanyahu about one of the “positive” effects of the cuts he made to child welfare programs as Ariel Sharon’s finance minister being the drop in the non-Jewish birthrate; when labeled a racist by columnist Larry Derfner, Ron Demer, a man who would go on to become one of Netanyahu’s aides, said that Derfner was “mistaken in calling Bibi a bigot. He is only a Zionist.” Beinart:
Dermer’s meaning was clear: maintaining Israel’s Jewish majority, by whatever means necessary, is Zionist, and thus beyond reproach. Of course, there are–and always have been–Zionists who believe in a Jewish state with a Jewish majority but who are restrained in their pursuit of such goals by universal principles like nondiscrimination.
The two passages above are perhaps the purest expression of Beinart’s facepalm-inducing moral myopia in front of the most blindingly obvious conclusions to which he should be guided by his very own logic.
Beinart acknowledges the Nakba in all but name (and, given his target audience, this is something he should be commended for) and in both passages, he condemns transfer; thus, one can infer that he thinks that the policies which led to the flight of 750,000 Palestinians from Mandatory Palestine are deplorable.
Yet, while he makes a disapproving reference to Avigdor Lieberman’s suggestion that Arabs within Israel be transferred to a Palestinian state, no opprobrium for Israel’s original acts of transfer is to be found. These facts lead to the obvious question: How does Beinart reconcile his seemingly functional moral compass with his lionization of Ben-Gurion and his supposedly liberal democratic Zionist enterprise?
In the notes section, Beinart lists Benny Morris’s book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem as one of the sources for his statements about the expulsion of Palestinians. Speaking about the book in a 2004 interview, Morris, an apologist for ethnic cleansing, has this to say:
Are you saying that Ben-Gurion was personally responsible for a deliberate and systematic policy of mass expulsion?
From April 1948, Ben-Gurion is projecting a message of transfer… The entire leadership understands that this is the idea. The officer corps understand what is required of them. Under Ben-Gurion, a consensus of transfer is created.
Ben-Gurion was a “transferist”?
Of course. Ben-Gurion was a transferist.
With one of Beinart’s own sources unequivocally reporting Ben-Gurion’s involvement in ethnic cleansing, how can Beinart continue to cling to his hagiographic-cum-liberal democratic fantasy?
How is it that he can say with a straight face that there are Zionists who believe in a Jewish state with a Jewish majority — among whose ranks he clearly belongs — yet are “restrained in their pursuit of such goals by universal principles like nondiscrimination?”
Does Beinart suppose, contrary to his own statements about the coerced flight of Palestinians, that the Jewish majority he seeks to maintain was not manufactured through violence and war crimes?
Again, how does he reconcile this with his reverence for the “miracle” of Israel’s birth? Does he suppose that, in peacetime, this Jewish majority can be maintained by means other than policy contrivances which he readily identifies as racist? Has it ever? The cognitive dissonance is truly staggering, and this is but a limited sample.
All of this reveals that, for Beinart and like-minded liberal Zionists, the conflicts that emerge from Zionism are not about its relation to universal human values as experienced by all those whose lives it touches, but rather about Jews’ relationships to their own past and to one another.
Though Beinart himself repeatedly points out that American and Israeli Jews’ lack of acquaintance with Palestinians facilitates anti-Palestinian dogmatism, readers will not find a single Palestinian voice in Beinart’s book speaking about the “crisis” of the ideology that has led to the colonization of her lands and expulsion of her people in her own words. Palestinians merely serve as extras in a Jewish morality play.
Peter Beinart seems to be a decent, earnest man, and has written an important book by virtue of the fact that will push the mainstream discourse in a more critical direction.
But for those who see Palestinians occupying the center stage of their struggle, one can’t help but be reminded of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous statement: “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”
Never have I felt these words as much as when reading this book. But I, for one, have hope that Beinart will continue to move in the right direction.
Austin Branion, Austin Branion is an activist and perennial student of Arabic living in the DC area. Follow him on Twitter at @austiniyaat.