A Reflection on Peter Beinart’s New York Times Op-Ed

Jeremy Ben-Ami
on March 19, 2012

Peter Beinart’s op-ed in The New York Times this morning will undoubtedly raise more than blood pressure and eyebrows in the Jewish community. It immediately raises pressure on J Street and other organizations over giving a platform to Peter after he has explicitly called for boycotts and other civil protests against Israeli settlements and settlers. So let me say up front and with resounding clarity: J Street is thrilled to host a passionate Zionist like Peter Beinart at any time and any place – even as we disagree with some of the actions that Peter is calling for. It’s critical for the Jewish community to hear Peter’s clear diagnosis of the problem Israel is facing. The country’s Jewish, democratic future is at risk from, as he puts it, “the jaws of a pincer.” Israel is trapped between those on the right who claim all the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean as legitimately Israeli and those on the left in the Global BDS movement who question the legitimacy of Israel itself even within the pre-1967 Green Line. I share Peter’s sense of acute urgency over the need to end the occupation, establish borders for Israel and resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a two-state solution. If we don’t, both left and right will push Israel into a “one-state nightmare” – forced to choose between its Jewish and its democratic character. I also agree with the distinction Peter draws between the legitimacy of Israel within the Green Line and the illegitimacy of what’s happening over the Green Line. I don’t, however, agree with Peter that pressure on settlers and settlements through targeted boycotts and other measures will lead them to change course. I think the ideologues driving the settlement enterprise – not necessarily the settlers themselves – will never change their views. Pressure will only reinforce their belief that the whole world is against them, causing them to dig in even more deeply. I believe that the pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-democracy movement should focus on borders, not boycotts, as it is a recognized border that will save Israel’s democratic and Jewish character. We have to do the hard work of building a political consensus in the broader Jewish community – both in Israel and around the world – to end the settlement enterprise. We must make it clear that failure to achieve two states puts at risk the 2000-year dream of re-establishing a national homeland for the Jewish people. We need to rally the political will and strength to take on a powerful minority who are willing to sacrifice Israel’s Jewish and democratic character for the land beyond the Green Line. I recognize that many passionate two-state activists support targeted boycotts out of a deep personal conviction that they do not wish personally to support the ongoing occupation. I think that’s absolutely legitimate as a personal decision, but I don’t believe that is how we are going to change policy. I know many who share my concerns and my hopes disagree with me, and I welcome a spirited debate with them over how best to bring about the change that we all believe is so critical. I couldn’t be more excited that the J Street Conference provides space for voices that may disagree with J Street on this point. We are not about to apply an ideological litmus test to ensure that every speaker at our conference agrees with every position we take. That would make for a dull conference and certainly be a disservice to those who want to give thoughtful consideration to these difficult issues. I only hope that other mainstream organizations won’t decide that Peter’s latest call is a reason not to hear from him. Would the Jewish Federations of North America still invite Peter to the GA? Would the AJC invite him to their national conference? I hope so. I hope they’d similarly invite such noted Israelis Amos Oz, David Grossman, and A.B. Yehoshua – all of whom support, for instance, the artist boycott of Ariel. I look forward to welcoming Peter Beinart with open arms and with spirited debate at J Street’s upcoming national conference.