Peter Beinart’s book The Crisis of Zionism might be more aptly titled The Crisis of Liberal Zionism. Beinart believes that the liberal values of the Jewish and “democratic” State of Israel are threatened by the ongoing occupation and the ascendancy of what he terms “Monist Zionism,” which seeks a Jewish majority on both sides of the Jordan River. For Beinart, the growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank threatens not only the possibility of a two-state solution but also the legitimacy of the state of Israel itself. That legitimacy, Beinart maintains, depends on whether Israel continues to be perceived as a democratic state.
As a former managing editor of The New Republic, Beinart’s recent writings are said to represent a crack in the edifice of uncritical support for Israel within the American Jewish establishment. Beinart first signaled his discontent with a 2010 article in The New York Review of Books which warned that many young American Jews were increasingly opposed not just to Israeli policies but were questioning Zionism itself (“The failure of the American Jewish establishment,” 10 June 2010).
And that has Beinart worried. He warns of the “very real prospect that Israeli democracy will die.”
But Israeli democracy is in no danger of dying. It was dead on arrival.
Beinart doesn’t totally ignore that Israel was founded on the basis of ethnic cleansing, enforced through expulsions and massacres, or that Palestinian refugees from 1948 were refused the right of return, or that the Palestinians who remained within Israel were placed under military rule until 1966. He acknowledges that “In the struggle to build a Jewish state in the face of implacable foes, the liberal ideals outlined by Israel’s founders were brutally flouted.” Then he comes up with a remarkable construct: Israel is a genuine but flawed democracy within its pre-1967 borders but it is an ethnocracy in the territories it has occupied since then.
It’s not just the formula “Jewish and democratic” that is rightly regarded as an oxymoron. If a liberal state is one that impartially guarantees civil and political equality for all, then liberal Zionism with its emphasis on the supremacy of one ethnic group over others — as expressed in the very definition of the state itself — is simply another oxymoron.
Beinart is aware of the tension between liberal democracy and Zionism. He refers to the “inequity in Zionism itself” and “the inequality inherent in Zionism.” He seeks ways of “reconciling Zionism with liberal democracy,” even outlining various reforms, such as granting “full and equal citizenship” to Palestinian citizens of Israel and allowing Palestinian parties to take part in Israel’s governing coalitions. But he stops well short of accepting a Palestinian right of return or repudiating the idea that Jews are sovereign in a state where fully a fifth of its citizens are non-Jews.
Glossing over crimes
In an effort to make it appear that only right-wing Zionism betrays democratic ideals, Beinart continually glosses over the crimes of the ethnocracy that was established in 1948 and later codified through more than twenty provisions in its Basic Laws that discriminate against non-Jews. For example, Beinart tells us that Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion “declared himself ‘shocked by the deeds that have reached my ears’” regarding massacres of Palestinian villagers, without acknowledging Ben-Gurion’s numerous statements in support of “compulsory transfer” and calls to expel Arabs from British Mandate Palestine in order to give Jews an overwhelming majority. In a momentary aside, he writes, “Labor Zionists used force ruthlessly as well, but they were more troubled by it.”
Beinart is similarly cavalier in dismissing the evidence for Israel as a settler-colonial state. He writes that Zionism’s founder, Theodor Herzl, opposed the racial doctrines of Boer nationalism that led to the creation of apartheid South Africa, but fails to mention Herzl’s praise of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes, who carved out a colonial state in what is today Zimbabwe.
Beinart doesn’t address the calls by Palestinian citizens of Israel for a redefinition of Israel as a “state for all its citizens” because it raises the possibility of a pluralistic democracy and maintaining Israel as a Jewish state is paramount to liberal Zionism. Instead, he proposes that Palestinians in Israel could gain satisfaction from the creation of a neighboring Palestinian state. He writes, “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 have a country that expressed their special character as a people, even if they chose not to live there.”
Beinart’s ideological blinders prevent him from understanding the racism at the core of how political Zionism functions. He implies that racism within Israel resulted from the 1967 occupation: “As painful as it is for Jews to admit that race hatred can take root among a people that has suffered so profoundly from it, the ground truth is this: occupying another people requires racism, and breeds it.”
Ethnic cleansing, segregated living areas and legalized discrimination also required racism, but perhaps more to the point, defining the state as belonging to one group assures it. Beinart’s formulation of a flawed but genuine democracy suggests that Jews enjoy democracy within Israel while Palestinian citizens merely suffer discrimination. But a genuine democracy, even a flawed one, does not start from the premise that the state belongs to one ethnic group. That is why Israel is more properly defined as an ethnocracy rather than a democracy.
Lip-service to equal rights
In this book and in a March 2012 opinion piece in The New York Times, Beinart calls for a boycott of products created in the illegal settlements, a campaign he calls “Zionist BDS” (boycott, divestment and sanctions) because it would be counterbalanced by increased aid to Israel within the pre-1967 borders. Beinart, however, rejects the Palestinian-led campaign for BDS against Israel.
The Palestinian call for BDS outlines three goals: an end to the occupation, equal rights for Palestinians within Israel and the right of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to their homes. Beinart’s liberal Zionism can accommodate the end of the occupation as part of a two-state solution, it can give lip-service to the idea of equal rights, but it crashes on the shoals of the third because “an unrestricted Palestinian right of return, ” he writes, represents “the likely end of Israel as a Jewish state.”
In his op-ed, Beinart actually suggests it means an end to “Israel’s existence” (“To save Israel, boycott the settlements,” 18 March 2012).
What ought to be regarded as simply a fundamental human right, as stipulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, becomes an existential threat to the notion of an ethnocentric state.
Beinart suggests that his Zionist BDS is the only thing that can “marginalize” the Palestinian-led BDS campaign and that puts him squarely at odds with the Palestinian liberation struggle, which faces not just an ethnocracy within Israel, not just oppressive, military rule in the West Bank and Gaza, but also would-be condescending saviors.
Rod Such is a freelance writer and former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He is a member of the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign and Americans United for Palestinian Human Rights.