A Small but Momentous Shift on Israel

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S1: When I asked Peter Beinart to tell me what he thought about the cease fire agreement between Israel and Hamas announced last week, his tone was resigned.

S2: I mean, I’ve actually been in an Israeli shelter with my my daughter when she was younger. And I have a lot of friends and family in Israel. So I was grateful. But I also felt nothing had been solved. And that in all likelihood, something like this could happen again, unfortunately.

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S1: So you think the cease fire is pretty temporary?

S2: Yes, I think so. I mean, the structural realities are that Palestinians lack basic rights. I mean, wherever they are.

S1: Peter is a writer and an editor, but above all else, he’s an unusual figure for many American Jews. He’s Orthodox, has considered himself Zionist. He’s also a human rights advocate and his position on Israel has shifted over time, having once been a staunch defender of the Jewish state. He’s now something else, an interlocutor challenging everyone around him to look closely at Israel and tell him if what they see looks fair. The people who’d really like to talk to you are in the Biden administration from the beginning, Peters noticed Biden has seemed to want to ignore conflict in Israel, focus on covid, focus on Asia.

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S2: And all of this makes a certain kind of realpolitik sense, except for the fact that America is deeply implicated in this deep oppression. And then, as I said, in a situation where you have deep oppression, there’s likely sooner or later going to be war.

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S1: Yeah, it’s hard to say. I want to stay out of it when you’re actually selling the bombs to Israel to stoke the conflict.

S2: Yes. If the United States really wanted to stay out, that would be actually, I think, something that that some Palestinians might find quite appealing, which is that we don’t give Israel the aid, don’t protect Israel and give it international impunity around the world. That would actually, in a way, shift the power balance between Israelis and Palestinians in a way that would change the whole nature of the conflict. But that’s really not something that Biden ever appears to have given serious thought.

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S1: Do you think the president is going to be able to stay at a remove from this conflict?

S2: I suspect that they will try. Administration is really stuck, and I think the path of least resistance will be for them to try to put enough of a Band-Aid and just cross their fingers that something like this doesn’t erupt again while he’s president.

S1: Today on the show, the president might be stuck, but when it comes to Israel, there are signs that other Democrats are shifting their positions. Question is whether the left flank of the party is going to influence the White House. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. Back during the Democratic primary, Peter Beinart wrote a deeply reported piece that seemed to anticipate this very moment. It was titled Joe Biden’s Alarming Record on Israel, and it laid out President Biden’s hesitancy around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in business, telling Biden’s reluctance to act has been a political calculation. There just wasn’t much to be gained, Biden argued, from having public disagreements with Benjamin Netanyahu or his government. And to explain his reasoning, Biden used this phrase, never crucify yourself on a small cross.

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S2: It’s kind of an ironic metaphor to use the Israeli-Palestinian conflict conflict between Jews and Palestinians. But look, I think that in a way, I don’t blame Biden. I blame us, which is to say, Biden is a politician most of the time. Politicians response political incentives. Most of the time politicians aren’t courageous. This is really interesting moment in when Obama was running for president in 2008 and 2007, when he was asked by a progressive American Jew, Jew whether he would be willing to pressure the Israeli government to change its behavior. And Obama told this story in which the African-American labor leader, A.. Philip Randolph, went to Franklin Roosevelt and asked Franklin Roosevelt to start desegregating states government. And Roosevelt said something along the lines of, you put 10000 people on the White House lawn and make me do it. And the truth is that those of us who care about the freedom and dignity of Palestinians who believe that it is a matter of Jewish honor, that we are not oppressing other people, we have not done that yet. We have not created enough political force. So that changes the political calculations for Joe Biden. And although I wish that he would be more out front and more courageous, that ultimately I think will be the determining variable.

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S1: So I guess the question now is really are the politics changing? Because I think you could see if you were paying attention over the last week or to various politicians putting themselves forward and making the moral case here, whether that’s Senator Bernie Sanders with his op ed in The Times. And he’s been outspoken in a number of ways and has been for a long time,

S3: is we should be bringing people together, not just being one sided and say everything that Israel does is good because it is not

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S1: over the years. Or Rasheeda Talib, who spoke directly to the president when he was on a visit to Detroit and also spoke on the floor of Congress and spoke very movingly about her Palestinian heritage.

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S4: We cannot have an honest conversation about U.S. military support for the Israeli government today without acknowledging that for Palestinians, the catastrophe of displacement and dehumanization and their homeland has been ongoing since 1948. To read the statements from President Biden and Secretary Blinken, General Austin and leaders of both parties, you’d hardly know Palestinians existed at all.

S1: Are you seeing other things, too, that folks should be paying attention to that show, some kind of movement

S2: in the quote unquote, mainstream media? This definitely has been a significant shift. I think that the Black Lives Matter movement and other things have made the media more conscious of representation and more frankly, embarrassed at the historic absence of Palestinian voices in this conversation. And so I think you have seen more Palestinian voices in the conversation during this conflict than in previous ones.

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S1: There’s been so much conversation about bias, just really transparent conversations about let’s really examine who is telling the stories and what are the words they’re using.

S2: Yes, and that’s a big deal. And you are seeing some of that filter into the more most progressive members of Congress. But I’m not sold on the idea that we’re necessarily seeing a fundamental shift overall. First of all, the Democrats are only one of two parties in the United States. Right. And so even though there’s a little bit of progressive movement happening in the Democratic Party, the Republican Party has gone way backwards. You know, 20 years ago, you could find Republicans who were willing to talk about Palestinian rights and about America pressure on George H.W. Bush with the last US president to ever condition aid to Israel because he wanted to restrain settlement growth. You know, that’s completely gone inside the Republican Party.

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S1: And why is that? I mean, my my understanding is that that’s because the Republican Party has become entwined with these religious interests that make it make sense to align yourself with the state of Israel. But is that your understanding, too?

S2: Yes, you can say it’s because of white Christian evangelicals and their influence in the Republican Party and also those American Jews who are involved in the Republican Party who are disproportionately Orthodox. And so it’s a powerful kind of alignment, but I think in a way, just focusing on the religious aspect is perhaps too generous. Would you say one of the things we’ve certainly learned in the Trump era is that when one talks about this category of Christian evangelicals, you’re talking about a racial category, not just a religious category. Right. And so part of what’s going on is that Israel has hierarchy’s ethno religious hierarchy. You can see it most explicitly in its immigration policy, where I as a Jew could go to Israel and become a citizen tomorrow. And virtually there’s no way for Palestinian or almost any other non to actually to go to Israel and gain citizenship. That’s very appealing to a lot of people in the Republican Party who are basically focused on defending a series not the same hierarchies, but a set of Iraqis and an ethnic, essentially ethno religious racial definition of America. Tucker Carlson said just the other day, basically, you said, you know, why can’t we have an immigration policy like Israel? So there is a deep ideological association between the kind of America that many Republicans want and the kind of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu presides over the day.

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S1: You’ve said the reason the American debate over Israel and Palestine could shift dramatically and quickly is that behind closed doors there are. Plenty of politicians who are convinced already that what Israel is doing is wrong, but they just need to be convinced that they can say that out loud without hurting their careers. What is it that would convince those politicians of that

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S2: seeing other politicians be able to do so and survive politically? I think it’s really important that wishing to leave in the long term are both won their re-election challenges, even though there were a lot of people who really put a lot of effort into trying to defeat them. That’s really important. I think it’s possible that in the Democratic Party you will see more people realizing that actually that this kind of APACS, you know, establishment infrastructure that they’re often so afraid of actually isn’t as powerful as they might believe. But you have to actually go through that experience before you can believe it.

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S1: AIPAC is the lobbying group that advocates for a strong American Israeli relationship. And a lot of people have cited them when they talk about the influence of Israel in Washington. Do you feel like there’s been any change there? In terms of how much influence they have in the halls of Congress,

S2: APACS problem is that it’s a bipartisan organization. It has to be a bipartisan organization. Its whole point is to basically ensure that US policy toward Israel remains largely the same

S1: no matter who’s in power.

S2: That’s and the problem is that, first of all, it’s just part to be a bipartisan organization on anything Washington. I have a relative by marriage who was a long time donor to AIPAC. Like many American Jews are, she gave money to a PAC, just kind of a way of signaling her from Israel. But one day she told me during the time she said, I talk to the person AIPAC. And I said, I just don’t want my money going to Republicans. In the first Mixtepec was like, well, that’s our whole thing, that we give money. The whole point is that it is bipartisan. And this was a moment where she realized that her partisanship was in conflict with the relationship. So APACS problem is that the momentum in AIPAC is towards it being a more Republican organization, and it’s struggling very, very hard to hold on to its Democratic flank. It’s talking constantly about progressive values in Israel, LGBT, this mother. But the momentum is clearly for Árpád to become less influential in the Democratic Party. Hmm.

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S1: You know, I noticed, too, that Congressman Jerry Nadler wrote this op ed in The New York Times over the last few days, and he was making an argument that Democrats have always seen the nuances in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship and that Democrats in Congress agree on this. I wondered if you agreed with that or whether you thought what you’re seeing now is new.

S2: I mean, Democrats have seen the nuances, but the vast majority of them have basically still wanted Israel to be able to act with impunity. I mean, the really significant share is among a small number of Democratic members of Congress. People like to leave Alexandria because of protests. Betty McCollum from from Minnesota, who actually speak full throated in the language of Palestinian rights and want to want the US to use its leverage to change Israeli policy. We’re only still talking about maybe a couple dozen or so, maybe two or three dozen of the Democrats in the House and maybe Bernie Sanders in the Senate. It’s still nowhere near a majority of even the Democrats in Congress are taking this position. What will be significant is when someone like Jerry Nadler is willing to say US money should not be used to imprison Palestinian children and demolish Palestinian homes. That’ll be that’ll be important. But we are not there yet.

S1: After the break, Peter Beinart explains why he thinks the U.S. should stop shielding Israel from international rebuke and what he thinks American Jews can do to normalize that position. The way Peter Beinart sees it, the problem with U.S. support for Israel is that it’s been pretty unconditional. He doesn’t want the U.S. to remove itself from Israeli affairs. He says certain national defense investments make sense, but he wants to see Congress attach some strings to Israel’s nearly four billion dollars in military aid.

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S2: I would say, first of all, that there are certain kinds of practices that are simply too inhumane for us money to be used for what would be the demolition of Palestinian homes. Important to understand, the vast majority of Palestinian homes are not demolished because Palestinians have been accused of anything other than not having building permits. And what they can’t get building permits, because when you’re not a citizen, the government doesn’t have any real interest in giving you a building permits. So you build illegally because that’s the only way you can build. And then they show up one day and say, sorry, we’re knocking down. The second thing I would say is that we should condition US aid on Israel actually restraining, stopping settlement growth and being open to the idea of a Palestinian state. I myself have. I think that probably the ship has sailed on Palestinian statehood. But but but we should be using our our leverage to say to Israel, if you want this three point eight dollars billion, then you have to change your policies. And I think this would change Israeli politics. I think that one of the reasons Benjamin Netanyahu has been so successful is he is convinced Israelis really do that they can have their cake and eat it, too. They can continue this project of basically inexorably taking more and more Palestinian land and entrenching this oppression of Palestinians and pay no international price because their big friend, America, is giving them international impunity. If that were not the case, if there really were a price international for Israel’s behavior, I think that would strengthen Netanyahu’s centrist and progressive critics.

S1: You wrote a piece last year about how your views had changed and you thought originally you’ve been quite in favor of a two state solution, a Palestinian state and an Israeli state. But the more and more this conflict deepened, the less and less possible. You thought that was why

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S2: it just came to the conclusion that the Israeli settlement enterprise, not just the number of settlers, but the vast infrastructure that Israel has built in the West Bank. And when you see it up close, nothing about it looks temporary. And so I began to fear that in continuing to use this paradigm of two states, we would actually kind of blinding myself to the reality that these actually existed on the ground and that the paradigm, instead of being a helpful way of understanding the conflict and a potential solution, was actually becoming a way of essentially justifying this immoral status quo. So I basically went and spent a fair amount of time trying to think about alternatives and trying to think my way through to to an idea of one equal state that I thought could work for both Jews and Palestinians.

S1: And I think that that scares a lot of American Jews who think that they will lose power in that situation where it’s not a Jewish state. It’s a state that’s shared.

S2: Yeah, tell me about it. I mean, it scares me, there’s a lot of trauma in the Jewish experience and a lot of fear, but I ultimately came to the conclusion that our fears are not cannot be a moral license to crush other people. That that to me, is actually antithetical to the way I understand Judaism. The Judaism is not we’re not simply a tribe. The Judaism has an ethical message. It makes a case about the infinite value of all human life. The Torah doesn’t start with Jew. It starts in human beings who are not Jews. Noah, Adam, these are not true. The point is, many rabbinic commentators make is to emphasize that the infinite value of all human life. So that’s one that’s one reason I took this position. The second is I ultimately don’t think that Israeli Jews will be more safe in a in a state where they are brutalizing and dominating another people and making their lives better.

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S1: Hell, because then those people have nothing to lose.

S2: Yes. The harsh reality is that in virtually every movement of national struggle by people who are oppressed, there are some faction that uses violence. We’ve sanitized Nelson Mandela, but he was not an apostle of nonviolence. He supported armed resistance. The IRA planted bombs around England in Myanmar. Now, there are many people in moving to armed struggle. The point is that there will always be some group of Palestinians who are who are going to meet the violence that they experience through state oppression, through violence, unless you show them that nonviolence can actually lift that oppression. And Israel has done the opposite.

S1: I wonder if you’ve noticed a shift in your Jewish communities around the conflict in Israel, like your own personal Jewish communities, because I know that you’ve had this multi-year shift in your own thinking. And I’m wondering if you’ve seen it mirrored in the people around you.

S2: Some people around me. Yes. My own particular Jewish communities where I pray and tend to have my circle of friends are not really necessarily the places where you see that progressive movement as much. But I do think that you find among some younger American Jews, non Orthodox, younger American Jews, a greater willingness to rethink things because of their different life experience, because they’ve grown up seeing Israel as a kind of superpower, and because they’ve been sensitized by things happen in the United States to the plight of Palestinians. And those kids do give me some hope.

S1: I’m wondering how much you think whatever change happens now relies on American Jewish communities stepping forward and basically in some ways giving permission for politicians and other people to speak about Israel in a new way to make space for saying things that are critical of Israel as not being anti-Semitic.

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S2: Yeah, it’s a bit of a paradox, so I think Jews do have this special privilege in this conversation because it’s harder to call us anti-Semitic. It’s certainly not impossible. I mean, a lot of people have done their best with me. Call me anti-Semitic, but it’s a harder lift if you’re Jewish to be called anti-Semitic. And so I think we therefore, I think do have, I believe, a certain greater obligation to try to enter into this conversation, which so many people, in my experience, not just politicians, but also people in the media, just avoid because they’re like, who wants that headache? Who wants to be called anti-Semitic? That’s you know, that’s terrible.

S1: It’s funny you’re characterizing people as even the media kind of making that exact same calculus that Biden was like, do I want to wade into this? No. Is it worth the cost? Maybe. You know, it’s just interesting that that trickles down to individuals, too.

S2: Yeah. I mean, I remember when I was writing my when I was on my book tour, which is a long time ago now, there was an interview, a prominent interviewer whose name I won’t mention, who was so anxious interviewing me. They kept on rerecording their questions because they were afraid that they had inadvertently and they asked me, do you think this is OK? Does it seem offensive? And I’m thinking I’m the one who’s making the you know, I’m the one who’s out on a limb. But I just got a sense of that anxiety. And it I really found it. I found it depressing. It really bothers me.

S1: Yeah. And Judaism is about asking questions and education and in some ways conflict. Whenever I think about, like my own family, that’s what I think about.

S2: Absolutely.

S1: Peter Beinart, I’m really grateful for your perspective.

S2: My pleasure.

S1: Peter Beinart is editor at large for Jewish Currence, his newsletter on Substory is fantastic. It’s called The Biner Notebook. Look it up. And that’s the show. What Next is produced by David Land, Kamal Dilshad, Elena Schwartz, Daniel Hewitt and Mary Wilson. We are led by Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. I’m Mary Harris. I’ll catch you back here tomorrow.