Monday, March 26, 2012

Here is the video and text of Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch's sermon last Shabbat at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, discussing Peter Beinart's NYT op-ed last week I had written about, as sent to me by the synagogue.

Peter Beinart’s Offense Against Liberalism

By: Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, Senior Rabbi, Stephen Wise Free Synagogue

Peter Beinart’s op-ed in The New York Times (March 19, 2012), entitled “To Save Israel, Boycott the Settlements,” crossed a red line. More than that: it is an offense against liberalism, itself.

1. Boycott

The call to boycott Israel – even the lame effort to distinguish between boycotting Israel within the Green Line and boycotting Israel beyond the Green Line – is troubling, in and of itself.

It is also hopelessly naïve. How one would actually mount such a boycott; how one could limit it to products beyond the Green Line; how it would end at the Green Line and not become a boycott of Israel – these are interesting questions for an academic thesis. It is hardly a serious political proposal.

But it is even worse than that: It is immoral because it gives aid and comfort to Israel’s worst enemies – those who seek to destroy the Jewish state. By using the word “boycott” Beinart has granted legitimacy to the delegitimizers of Israel. “Boycott” is the language of Israel’s enemies. “Boycott” means to most people: destroy Israel through international diplomacy and economic strangulation. It is an extreme position.

While thousands are being butchered by the Syrian dictator as the world stands by impotently; at a time when Americans should be devoting as much attention as possible to ensuring a democratic Egypt; at a time when Iran is rapidly developing nuclear capability; and at a time when the Palestinian national movement shows no interest or desire to engage in peace talks, and they are hopelessly divided amongst themselves – now – at this moment - American liberal Jews should be devoting our financial and political resources to boycotting democratic Israel? Really?!

Peter Beinart wrote in his op-ed: “It is time for a counter-offensive…and that counter-offensive must begin with language.” And his solution is to use the language of the BDS (Boycott, Divesment, Sanctions) crowd – a group of extremists, Israel-bashers (and some anti-Semites) who spend their lives trying to persuade the world to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel?!

I much prefer George Orwell’s view on language to Peter Beinart’s. Orwell wrote: “If thought corrupts language, language also corrupts thought. Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful…and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

2. Settlements

Beinart is right to point out the risks to both Israeli democracy as well as its national security as long as the Israel-Palestinian dispute remains unresolved. But there are two grievous offenses in Beinart’s blanket “boycott-all-the-settlements” proposal:

First: What he calls a settlement – any Jewish apartment beyond the 1967 borders – is not understood as such by practically every Israeli and most fair-minded international observers. Many so-called settlements are considered neighborhoods of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Most of the people who live beyond the Green Line live in proximity to the Green Line, and all two-state solutions that have been discussed assume that these areas will be within the new borders of Israel proper.

Second: There is not one word in Beinart’s piece about the role and responsibility of the Palestinians. Many Israeli settlements are still there because the Palestinians have still not demonstrated a politically-realistic willingness for peace.

Even if you were to concede that Israel has made mistakes, surely it is not Israel’s fault alone that there is no peace. After all, it takes at least two to make peace. You cannot make peace only with yourself. Often people talk about how Israel should do this and Israel should do that as if it is in Israel’s power alone to shape events.

Most Israelis are desperate for peace. Is it that Israelis like sending their children to fight and die in wars? Surely, there is some fault on the other side as well, no? Are the Palestinians potted plants – mere decoration – as the Jews argue amongst ourselves how we should entice the Palestinians to do what we believe is in their national interest?

Maybe they don’t believe it. Half of the Palestinian national movement makes no effort to hide the fact that they don’t believe it. They say they want to destroy Israel. The other half has rejected three Israeli peace proposals in the past twelve years, and, at present, refuses even to sit down with Israeli negotiators.

The West Bank is the West Bank. It is not, as Beinart describes, “non-democratic Israel.” It is not Palestine. It is disputed territory. In the past four decades Jordan, Egypt (Gaza), Israel and the Palestinian national movement have all claimed parts of it. If anything, during the past two decades, Israel has relinquished control over ever-larger tracts of the West Bank. If peace can be achieved, many of the settlements will be absorbed into democratic Israel; the rest will be dismantled.

3. Liberalism

I am a liberal. I worry about liberals. Some in our camp have become unhinged when it comes to Israel. I worry about Reform rabbis too. And I worry about our rabbinical students who represent the future leadership of much of American Jewry.

It is fashionable in some liberal quarters today to bash Israel as the latest litmus test of liberalism. We see it on campus as well. “We’ll let you into the club but show us your anti-Israel credentials first.”

It is actually the opposite: Israel is the ultimate test of liberalism; the testing grounds of theory and practice. Can we develop a liberalism that relates to the world as it is, not as we would want it to be? Do we offer a compelling vision of the future or just stale liberation theories? Are we prepared to make hard moral choices or shall we be satisfied with easy moralizing slogans?

In our new world, where democracies engage insurgents who hide among civilian populations and use them as shields; where terrorists store weapons in, and fire from, hospitals, houses of worship, ambulances and universities – can we develop a liberalism that fights injustice justly? That is the question.

Peter Beinart was once at the vanguard of this school of liberalism that is so desperately needed today. But observing his dash to the extremes of liberal theory over the last decade, I worry about us. If, in less than a decade, Peter Beinart moved from centrist liberalism to calling for a boycott of Israelis, what does that portend for so many others in our camp? And what does that say about the future of liberalism in the United States and in the Jewish community?

Peter Beinart’s counter-offensive is morally offensive. Israel is a noisy, argumentative, thrillingly pluralistic society, an oasis of liberty within the unrelenting desert of Middle East oppression. It is not a perfect democracy. There are many fissures and unresolved constitutional questions that need to be addressed. But Israel is a thriving democracy, conceived and developing under the most adversarial conditions of war.

Have we become so befuddled in liberal circles that of all the authoritarian regimes and brutally anti-democratic groups operating in the Middle East, we should single out the one Western democracy - Israel - as a target of economic boycott?

I am reminded of the poem of Natan Alterman, one of Israel’s greatest poets, who was troubled by our propensity for excessive self-criticism of Israel. He wrote:

Then Satan said: How can I subdue him?
For he has the courage and the ability,
The weapons, the resourcefulness and the wisdom.
And he said: I will not weaken him,
Nor curb nor bridle him,
Nor inspire fear in him,
Nor soften him as in days gone by.
I will only do this:
I will dull his mind,
And he will forget that his is the just cause.
Also worth reading is this review of Beinart's book, The Crisis of Zionism, at Tablet Magazine:
Beinart’s habit of what is either inexplicable sloppiness or extreme interpretative elasticity turns out to be one of the defining characteristics of The Crisis of Zionism. In fact, one of the challenges of reviewing the book is that it practically demands a typology. Consider a few examples:

Elasticity of attribution:

Describing the effects of Israel’s policy toward Gaza after Hamas’s election in 2006, Beinart writes that “the blockade shattered [Gaza’s] economy. By 2008, 90 percent of Gaza’s industrial complex had closed.” The source of this claim is a study conducted by the IMF—in 2003.

Of omission:

Beinart quotes former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami telling Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman that “If I were a Palestinian, I would have rejected Camp David as well.” Yet Ben-Ami said in the same interview that Yasser Arafat “was morally, psychologically, physically incapable of accepting the moral legitimacy of a Jewish state, regardless of its borders or whatever.” This goes unquoted. I suspect that’s because Beinart found it in The Israel Lobby by political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, which also quotes the first part of Ben-Ami’s statement but not the second.

Of consistency:

Beinart acknowledges that “the populism sweeping the Middle East has unleashed frightening hostility against the Jewish state.” Yet in the same paragraph he writes: “The Egyptian leaders who have emerged in Hosni Mubarak’s wake are not calling for Israel’s destruction, let alone promising to take up arms in the cause.” Maybe Beinart should acquaint himself with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Essam El-Erian, currently head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Egyptian Parliament. “The earthquake of the Arab Spring will mark the end of the Zionist entity,” El-Erian said recently.

Of fact:

Returning to the subject of Gaza, Beinart writes that the Strip “remains a place of brutal suffering.” This, he adds, is the case even after Israel eased its blockade following the Turkish flotilla business in 2010.

Really? Here’s what New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (whose politics track Beinart’s, but who also visits the places he writes about) had to say on that score in a July 2010 column: “Visiting Gaza persuaded me, to my surprise, that Israel is correct when it denies that there is any full-fledged humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The tunnels have so undermined the Israeli blockade that shops are filled and daily life is considerably easier than when I last visited here two years.”

There’s more of this. Much more. In fact, the errors in Beinart’s book pile up at such a rate that they become almost impossible to track.

Still, the deeper problem isn’t that there’s so much in Beinart’s book that is untrue, but rather so much that is half-true: the accurate quote used in a misleading way; the treatment of highly partisan sources as objective and unobjectionable; the settlement of ferocious debates among historians in a single, dismissive sentence; the one-sided giving—and withholding—of the benefit of the doubt; the “to be sure” and “of course” clauses that do more to erase balance than introduce it. It’s a cheap kind of slipperiness that’s hard to detect but leaves its stain on nearly every page.

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