Beinart urges young Jews to get arrested in the West Bank for the sake of Zionism. Will they?

Beinart urges young Jews to get arrested in the West Bank for the sake of Zionism. Will they?

on August 29, 2014

Peter Beinart has a column in Haaretz calling on American Jews who believe in the two-state solution to take direct action now and like the Mississippi Freedom Summer go out to the West Bank to oppose the settlement program. He wants those liberal Zionists to march alongside the Palestinian activists and the international BDS types:

It’s time for American Jews who support Israel but oppose the occupation to commit to large-scale, direct action of our own. And the most important place to do so is in the West Bank. Palestinians in villages like Bil’in and Nabi Saleh have been protesting, unarmed, for years against the theft of their land. But their efforts receive little attention in American Jewish circles or in the American press. Few American Jews have any idea that under the military law that governs Palestinians in the West Bank, Israel routinely criminalizes freedom of speech and assembly. Or that peaceful protesters can be held in detention for years without trial.

But if thousands of American Jews joined those protests, American Jews would know. Protesters would return home with videos to show their synagogues; hawkish parents would be appalled by the treatment meted out to their children. And the American media, which covers Jews far more intensively than it covers Palestinians, would follow. The model would be Freedom Summer, Robert Moses’ campaign to bring white college students to help register voters in Mississippi in 1964, and thus draw the nation’s eyes to oppression that garnered little media attention when practiced only against blacks.

Such an effort would not be simple. The call for Jewish volunteers would have to come from Palestinian activists themselves. There’s a risk that some protesters would throw stones. Even if American Jews came to support a two state solution, some of the people marching with them would not.

But even if protesters differed on their ultimate goal, the core message—that it is fundamentally unjust to deny people the basic rights that their neighbors enjoy because of their religion or ethnicity—might reach American Jews, and Americans overall, in a way it never has. By facilitating a human connection between Palestinians and Jews—the kind of connection Palestinians rarely make with settlers or soldiers–such a movement would also combat anti-Semitism. It would create the right kind of pressure on Israel: not military pressure but moral pressure, the kind of moral pressure that Washington still refuses to deploy.

I admire Beinart’s idealism and his clear writing and I applauded his book on the crisis of Zionism and his call for a settlement boycott. So I hope he’s right: that Jews will go out from America to get arrested in the occupation in the belief “that it is fundamentally unjust to deny people the basic rights that their neighbors enjoy because of their religion or ethnicity.” Peter Beinart should be willing to get arrested himself, just as Norman Finkelstein was in civil disobedience action in New York.

But here is the problem with Beinart’s appeal:

It’s young people who will throw their bodies down and I hate to tell you but if you’re a young Jew who has a job at Goldman Sachs you’re not going to rush out to save the two state solution, you have better things to do with your time. At J Street they used to sell T-shirts for Beinart’s Army, all the young Jews who supported Peter Beinart and were ready to march. I believe my nephew was one of them. He ain’t marching any more. He’s got a good job. Do young careerists really care that much about the two-state solution to run out and get arrested half way round the world? The ones who do care are idealistic Jews who believe in equal rights and have a stake in this struggle inasmuch as they’ve been rejected by their Jewish community and have formed friendships with Palestinians and feel committed to those people. I.e., they’re Jewish Voice for Peace Jews. Just like the Freedom Riders were young radicals who knew black people and were passionate against Jim Crow.

Beinart himself demonstrates the problem. Last year he had a fine website called Open Zion that by and large advocated for a two state solution but also published non- and anti-Zionists, like Yousef Munayyer. But then management changed at the Daily Beast, and Beinart had trouble raising money for the thing, and he had great job offers, and he folded Open Zion and moved on. At the time I faulted his lack of dedication, and I have to bring that up again today: If it’s so goddamn important to save the two-state solution, why didn’t he make the sacrifices to keep it going? Because he had other opportunities. If you convinced young liberal American Jews that Israel was about to go down the tube I don’t know how many of them would experience that as a personal tragedy or go out to get arrested halfway round the world. Rightwing Jews would in a second. They’re passionate; they feel deeply part of Israel, they have family there, they love Israelis. But what happens to a young liberal Jew who goes to Bil’in out of a deep belief in human equality and she meets the Palestinians with a giant key on the outside of the house symbolizing the right of return: she’d stop believing in Zionism. Because she wouldn’t have an answer to why she has a right to move to Tel Aviv tomorrow from New York but these wonderful hospitable people she’s been dodging rubber bullets with can’t move to Jaffa 50 miles away. And that contradiction is at the core of political Zionism: We need a state on Palestinian land, because we’re unsafe in the west. Young American Jews don’t feel unsafe. The mojo of Zionism is over for them.

The crisis of Peter Beinart is that the center has collapsed. We’ve reached a watershed moment. I don’t like the polarization but there it is; sides are forming; you are either supporting Palestinians in the demand for equal rights or defending Israel for its actions in Gaza. Being in the former camp means rejecting the living Zionist ideology of more rights for Jews, an ideology that produced massacres. Beinart’s third way of liberal Zionism will continue to get a lot of attention because well-meaning people (and older Zionist funders) will support it in The New Yorker and New York Review of Books and in the  Democratic Party thinktanks. But young people won’t get arrested for it.

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