“The Crisis of Zionism”
A Conversation with Peter Beinart
Photo by Geoffrey Mock
Duke TODAY | September 21, 2012
Israel was envisioned by its founders as a place to protect the Jewish people. But now that identity is colliding with the country’s occupation of the West Bank, journalist Peter Beinart said Thursday before a full auditorium at the Sanford School of Public Policy.
Author of a new book “The Crisis of Zionism,” Beinart said Israel was built on a vision of justice, dignity and democracy but has failed to meet these ideals with Palestinians living under its control. The result, he said, is a crisis challenging the country’s Jewish character and security.
Saying Jews should be able to live on the West Bank, Beinart nevertheless insisted that vigorous government support for expanding Jewish settlements there has resulted in Palestinians being denied basic legal and political rights and facing crippling economic and travel restrictions.
Democracy cannot survive such a situation, he said. Continued occupation of the West Bank will “force Israel to choose between democracy and preserving its Jewish character.”
“Democracy was a central tenet of Zionism,” Beinart said. “Theodor Herzl (the founder of Zionism) understood this. Israel’s founders understood this. In 1948, in the middle of a war fought for Israel’s survival, they wrote a Declaration of Independence that promised equality regardless of race, religion and sex.”
Beinart, a former editor of The New Republic who now writes for several leading publications, criticized Palestinian leaders for repeatedly failing to seize opportunities to negotiate a just political settlement. Simultaneously, he said Israeli abuses in the West Bank have undermined non-violent Palestinian opposition and strengthened armed groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
Beinart also had strong words for American Jewish organizations that challenge criticism of Israel while saying little about what he called Israel’s internal existential threat. “The only threats they are comfortable discussing are external,” he said. “And I’m glad they talk about them, because these threats are real.
“But [American Jewish organizations] only talk about those threats that fit their narrative of Jews as a weak and victimized people. If you listen to them, you’d think conditions for the Jewish people haven’t changed in 75 years.”
Instead, Beinart said American Jewish organizations must talk about Jewish power, and responsibilities that come from that power. There’s a strong tradition in Jewish culture, religion and literature to do this, he said, noting stories from the Bible and other sources. But such challenging questions are missing from discussions of contemporary Israel.
Zionism was built on a vision of dignity and justice for a people that frequently received neither, he added. “If that vision can’t inform a Jewish state in its power, then what good is it?”
When asked during the question-and-answer session what American Jews should do, Beinart encouraged visitors to Israel to go beyond the usual sites that tell a story of Jewish heroism. “You should visit those sites, but you have to go beyond them. The [idea of Jewish weakness] can’t stand one day in the West Bank.”
His book has been controversial, even within his own family, said Beinart, who humorously described the criticism he’s heard from cousins and others. But he added he’s not worried about his conversations with critics who, like him, are Jewish.
“The conversation I most worry about is the one with my two children if the dream of democracy in Israel fails,” he said.
Beinart’s talk was sponsored by Duke’s American Grand Strategy Program, the Duke Center for Jewish Studies, the Triangle Institute for Security Studies, the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, J-Street Triangle and the Duke and UNC chapters of J-Street U.
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