Independence and “Divestment” (Peter Beinart & American Liberal Zionism)

“We have found parts, but not the whole! We still lack the ultimate power, for: the people are not with us…We began over there in the Bauhaus. We began there with a community to which each one of us gave what he had. More we cannot do.” –Paul Klee

Sadly, I’ve been following and contributing to the ruckus about Peter Beinart’s recent book, and lest I be misunderstood, I still think that Israel is a remarkable place and that Israelis are right at a gut level not to care about what American Jews think about the country. While I care very much what happens to Israel, for my part I finally have to say that as a liberal American Jew I almost actually don’t care about what Israel decides to do to itself. I no longer consider it my business. I suppose this declaration of independence is a small, insignificant part of “the crisis of Zionism” about which Beinart speaks. Then I hope to stop posting about Israel for awhile.

Beinart’s critics from the Zionist center-left and ideological right (Jeffrey Goldberg at the Atlantic blog, Jonathan Rosen in the New York Times Book Review, that awful guy at the Wall Street Journal who wrote in Tablet, and Daniel Gordis) are all fuming that Beinart allegedly isn’t sensitive to Israeli security concerns, that he puts too much blame on Israel and not enough onus on the Palestinians.

Maybe the critics are right, maybe they’re not, but I think they’re missing an important point.

On one hand, the Israel Advocacy crowd is hot and bothered about this last ditch defense of liberal Zionism. On the other hand, Beinart’s critics on the left argue that his call to boycott settlements does not get to the root of the problem, which is the State, or which is Zionism itself.

I think they are all pissing in the wind. The Israel Lobby can spend its money, and the leftwing can save its energy. It’s the rightwing now representing the Israeli electorate which by its own actions is going to do the work of the far left. By entrenching the Occupation, Israel turns itself into the bi-national state of Palestine.

For this bit of armchair prognosis you don’t need an American Jewish critic. The only new thing that I think people like Beinart or myself can contribute to the discussion from over here is to point out how with each passing year more and more people in the United States could simply care a less. About liberal American Jews, someone should take serious note of this –without the moralizing that dominates leftwing criticism of Israel and without the hysteria that dominates rightwing discourse about Zionism.

A not insignificant amount of ink and time have gone into the ins and outs of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). Save your breath. Neither Beinart’s liberal critique of the Occupation and his call to boycott the settlements nor the radical leftwing critique against Beinart is anywhere near as profound as that more ordinary, creeping, slouching divestment that does nothing to call attention to itself as such.

If I recall correctly, this was actually the central argument in Beinart’s original article, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” that appeared in the New York Review of Books (June 10, 2010)  What Beinart observed is the by far more radical form of emotional and intellectual divestment by so many ordinary American Jews who are either absolutely uninterested in anything having to do with Israel or who try not to think about it, or who just don’t want to be bothered by the invective that is sure to follow every statement critical of Israel.

Really, though. Most people don’t care. There will always be the usual suspects, people of a certain age or political-religious disposition who care a lot about Israel. Leftwing or rightwing, we carry a lot of personal baggage and ideological investments without which we would probably be better off. All I can say is that it now no longer shocks me how little my colleagues at Syracuse University and students (graduate and undergraduate) are even interested in the news from Israel anymore. And when they do pay attention for the briefest of moments, it’s more like watching a train wreck than anything else. It’s this deafening indifference and distant remove that should make anyone who genuinely cares about Israel to tremble truly.

I don’t think any amount of hasbarah or hectoring on the part of rightwing Jews is either going to change this fact or not make it worse. Anything that gets said digs the hole deeper.

I used to think that American Jews had the right and obligation to stake ideological claims in Israeli politics. I was wrong. I don’t have anything to say. Legalize outposts? Go ahead. Beat the hell out of Hamas or Hezbullah? I won’t object. Hit the Iranians? I hope you all know what you’re doing, because the mess is yours if you make it, and there is not a lot that the American Jewish community will be to do if things go south. Desecrate mosques, uproot olive trees, beat up a Danish demonstrator, pass racist legislation, muzzle criticism, harass people at the airport? I guess that’s what it has come to. This is the “silver platter” of the Palestinian people.

Personally, I think it’s time we all got off the moral high-horse. Unlike Beinart and others further to the left, I’m going to stop complaining about the Occupation. I just don’t want to be asked for my political support.

I came rather suddenly to these conclusions, first when Netanyahu appointed Lieberman as his Foreign Minister, and then again after he spoke at the UN last September rejecting the most recent Palestinian bid for statehood. Before the assembled body of the international community, the Prime Minister of Israel insisted that his government is prepared to make painful concessions and that it’s too dangerous to withdraw from the territories. Is that really it then? the end of the two-state story? L’État est lui.

Unlike Beinart’s critics like Jeffery Goldeberg and others from the center and unlike those critics from the right like Daniel Gordis and that guy who wrote in Tablet, regarding Israel and Palestine, to me it no longer matters who did what to whom and when historically. I’m 80% willing to concede if only for argument’s sake that the Palestinians and the Arabs are 90% at fault for the historical and political imbroglio. “There’s no such thing as a Palestinian people.” Tell me what to say and I’ll sign on the dotted line. Israel is always right. Or Israel is not always right, but the conflict is complex and tragic. These records can play over and over and over and still do nothing to change what is taking shape as the larger arc from Israel to bi-national Palestine.

About this it’s time to be honest. Regarding BDS I no longer have a firm opinion. It’s something about which I now think reasonable people can disagree. It has nothing necessarily to do with anti-Semitism, although I’m sure in some cases it does. And when the Palestinians and their supporters in the U.S. and Europe demand for the West Bank and Gaza Palestinians the right to vote for the Knesset, I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to oppose it with a lot of conviction. The die has been cast not by the logic of the left but by the force of others on the right.

Is Shaul Mofaz the last grey hope for the Zionist center-left? What about unilateralist ideas advanced by liberal centrists like Ami Ayalon and Ari Shavit? It would be unfair to expect too much from any of them or from any of this. I still believe in all the decent people in Israel. I continue to follow what happens. Not under almost any circumstance am I going to boycott my family and friends. I want them to be safe, and I want them to be able to protect themselves. That’s a human right, and people also have the right to be happy, to get along with their lives. I’ll hope for a reasonable solution to the conflict because I “like” Israel and the loose informality of its culture, because I think the alternative of a one-state solution in historical Palestine is a terrible idea, and because I know things can change all of a sudden all at once.

I’m just not going to hold my breath anymore. About many things the rabbis sitting things out in Babylonia were right. One of them is the dictum, “One should never put [oneself] in a dangerous situation and say, ‘A miracle will save me.’ Perhaps the miracle will not come. And even if a miracle occurs, one’s merits are reduced” (b.Shabbat 32a).

Now enough already about Israel, right?? My own attention to it has become indecent, a little like voyeaurism.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman teaches modern Jewish thought and philosophy in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. He works in religion, continental philosophy, theoretical aesthetics, and visual culture.
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