Peter Beinart: “It is immoral to have ethnically-based citizenship…”

22 Jul

[The following was originally posted 9/30/2012 on a short-lived blog dedicated to covering Palestine-related events in the northeastern US.]

In April of 2012 I attended a Peter Beinart talk at Harvard. He was there to debate the merits of his most recent book, The Crisis of Zionism, with Barry Shrage, a Harvard professor and president of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies. It was an interesting experience.

Despite facing a largely pro-Israel audience at Harvard at a time when his book had already elicited substantial scorn from many in the American Jewish community, Beinart presented his arguments about the immoralities and dangers of Israeli policy with dignified composure. That same composure attended his rejoinders to rightwing counterarguments from Dr. Shrage. He struck me as a very decent and unusually honest man. (My impression of Shrage was less flattering).

At the time I had been following the advance press and interviews for Norman Finkelstein’s then-forthcoming book, an ambitious exploration of waning Jewish-American support for Israel. One of Finkelstein’s key pieces of anecdotal evidence for his claim that liberal American Jews are distancing themselves from Israel’s more draconian policies toward the Palestinians is the case of Beinart: a figure of some standing in New York’s orthodox Jewish community whose CV includes a stint as editor at The New Republic—a staunchly pro-Israel publication.

I was initially skeptical about Beinart’s significance for those of us hoping to see American political discourse grow more sympathetic to the Palestinian plight. Before the Harvard lecture, I had caught snippets from reviews and interviews that made it sound like Beinart’s opposition to settlement expansion in the West Bank was solely a concern about Israel’s demographic integrity qua Jewish state.  Indeed, his statements were often adorned with reservations about the purported desire of Palestinians that Israel simply cease to exist.

But it’s clear that something significant is going on when you see someone like Beinart making this basic point about racism so bluntly, and at venues likes Shalom TV:

[Note: It looks like the timestamp embed code isn’t working, so to cut to the part I’m referring to here, skip to 35:15 mark or open this link in a new tab]

I disagree with many of his individual points as well as much of the narrative that frames them—e.g., he says Israel’s settlement projects in the West Bank constitute a “tragic mistake” rather than a predictable extension of a colonial project that goes back to the first Zionist aliyah—but ask yourself if you can remember anyone in the mainstream of the American Jewish intellectual establishment speaking so openly before, say, 2008, about the immorality of ethnicity-based citizenship policy in Israel.

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