Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Beinart's Settlement Boycott

Peter Beinart made waves in the NYT the other day in calling for a boycott of Israeli settlements -- paired with, Beinart says, a sharp opposition to boycotting Israel-proper. The goal, Beinart argues, is to effectuate a sharp separation between Green Line Israel -- an imperfect democracy that nonetheless is among the freest places on earth, and a beacon for what the liberal Zionist dream should be -- and the occupied territories, which is ... not. I'm a sharp critic of boycotts, and a sharp critic of the settlements, which puts in me a bit of bind. While I might agree that conceptually there is a distinction between boycotts of Israel writ large and the settlements I instinctively recoil at boycotts targeting Israel, because the BDS movement pervasively shot through with anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism that appears intractable. I think Beinart underestimates just how much a visceral reaction Jews have against this particular tactic -- it has such a dark history, and it's current manifestation has been surrounded by such a vicious resurgence of anti-Semitic rhetoric, that it really can't be viewed abstracted from the context. It's like Glenn Greenwald writing in Pat Buchanan's outfit. Sometimes past and present prejudice circumscribes what would otherwise be acceptable, and this could be one of those cases.

In any event, the reaction to Beinart's call has mostly been negative on the Jewish left -- J Street, for instance, said it thought a boycott would cause the settlers to hunker down and become more radical. Beinart's own site posted a powerful rebuttal to his argument (which is testament, one should say, to Beinart's desire for honest dialogue on this question), saying that the boycott absolves both the left and right of having to deal with the tough questions that -- despite ever-present efforts to simplify the conflict to dueling caricatures -- have to be answered for any lasting peace to be created. This is the crux of Jeffrey Goldberg's objection as well -- Beinart simplifies the conflict so greatly that he doesn't seem to recognize that even if Israel starts acting like a perfect mensch, it won't solve things.

The retort Beinart and his supporters (like Andrew Sullivan) have been throwing out is "well, how do you propose to arrest the settlements?" This debate, after all, is being held amongst people who all agree the settlements are a bad thing and should be opposed -- but Beinart's allegation is that for many, this is purely a rhetorical trope, and they reflexively oppose any calls for actual action aimed at restricting settlement expansion. Which is not an unreasonable retort, and I'd like to see a more comprehensive response. But that cuts both ways -- it's a fair critique that Beinart is wildly oversimplifying too, and he needs to tack onto his proposal concrete agenda items to demonstrate, for example, how to ensure that a final status agreement is actually "final", how to delegitimize anti-Israel and anti-Semitic zealots who seem to view the existence of Jews in any state but one of abject supplication as an affront, or how to take non-starters like a Palestinian right of return off the table.

Still, seeing as I do think that arresting settlement growth is critical both to the peace process as well as Israel's long-term longevity, it is important to think of tactics for making that happen. So I tentatively forward a few proposals -- not meant as a firm commitment to any of them as either necessary or sufficient, but an effort to get ideas flowing.

(1) Increased support for efforts aimed at revitalizing the Israeli left (e.g., OneVoice and TULIP). Israelis are always going to be in the best position to stop the settlements from destroying their state -- but the pro-peace left in Israel has been largely moribund since the second intifada, and has largely been ignored by its international peers.

(2) Better policing of the pro-Israel tent in the US. I am absolutely in agreement that not any and every group which claims to be "pro-Israel" should be allowed to get away with it -- if they advocate "solutions" to the conflict that are manifestly anti-Israel and outside the consensus of the broader Jewish community, they should be expelled. But in recent years this has been a one-sided standard -- left-wing groups have been closely scrutinized (sometimes rightly so), while their conservative counterparts have gotten a free hand, even when the advocate policies (like one-statism) that are clearly considered beyond the pale. No more: the onus is on mainstream Jewish groups like the AJC and ADL to come down hard on politicians and organizations -- putatively "Zionist" or not -- which endorse one-statism and encourage settlement growth. What Americans consider to be "pro-Israel" has influence in Israel-proper -- to the extent that the consensus Jewish-American position is clearly and unabashedly anti-settlement and anti-one state, that will strengthen forces inside Israel pushing for those same results.


David said...


1. Try to bolster liberal Israelis who are increasingly emigrating to the United States (or elsewhere, like Brazil) to do the job it would crimp our style too much to do ourselves...


2. Keep on going to J-street conferences, while those organizations we criticize continue to use Uncle-Tom slurs brazenly and without comment from pretty much anyone not at the conference.

Indeed, it doesn't seem to matter whether one calls for targeted BDS or opposes BDS. Opponents of settlement expansion are named anti-semites without critical comment from anyone who matters who is not, themselves, a member or publicly in sympathy with J-street. Moreover, one has no idea what line one need cross before prominent people (e.g. Jeffrey Goldberg) who are broadly in sympathy with ending settlement expansion will throw you under the same bus in the goal of differentiating the good liberal Jews (Goldberg) from the bad (an ever-lengthening list that now includes Beinart).

While I agree that Beinart's call for targeted BDS is probably pointless, I think your call for dialogue is arguably even more pointless. Beinart may be counterproductive in alienating the right. But this sort of thing is counterproductive in alienating the left.

Basically, when everyone jumps on Beinart the "left" (broadly speaking) does the one-staters work for them and eats its own. Divide and conquer, baby.

David Schraub said...

I don't think my post was anything but respectful towards Beinart, whom I greatly respect. And while Goldberg was more sharply critical than I was, he had some kind words for Beinart too, whom he has repeatedly noted makes important points about the future of American Jews vis-a-vis Israel. Indeed, I don't see Beinart being thrown under the bus by liberal Jews -- they've disagreed with him, but respectfully, and that's a-okay.

As for my own proposals, I admit they're not the most aggressive in teh world, but you're begging the question on the first and strawmanning the second. On the first, the whole point is to arrest the demise of the Israeli left -- and I don't think there is no difference (either inherently or tactically) in an internally-led movement to stop settlement growth and an externally-imposed one, particularly in a democracy. It's not about "crimping our style", it's about recognizing who is best situated to bring about reform.

On #2, it's notable that I didn't put the onus on J Street for this. I put it on the ADL and AJC -- middle-of-the-road groups who have stated commitments but aren't living up them. J Street versus ZOA is a statlemate (at best). The AJC versus ZOA is a battle ZOA loses.

David said...

Excuse me if I seemed to imply that you were the kind of narcissist Goldberg is - I did intend anything nothing of the sort. I agree with you that, tactically, his proposal goes nowhere.

But I think Goldberg's (I'm paraphrasing), oh i don't want to talk about your proposal except to mention in the same breath as the holocaust and the murder of French children - instead I'll just direct my readers to 'Commentary', was pretty indicative of the dickish way liberal jews throw liberal jews under the bus. It could have been worse - Goldberg cares about stature. If Beinert were a lowly film critic, for example, he would have blunted his teeth.

As for my begging-the-question about the Israeli left - I'm not sure how that criticism applies. I guess I wonder how paying the Israeli left to get beaten up by settlers while cops (who are also settlers) watch furthers anything. That movement might have a modicum of success if Hamas were to hold off on launching missiles for a year or two, or thugs in the West Bank would refrain from cutting children's throats. Until then, any accomplishment by the Israeli left gets erased the moment the missiles fly or throats are cut. It's a Sisyphean task. I have a hard time asking others to do it when it's not something I'm willing to do - particularly not when such people have to put their bodies on the line first in the army and then (again) in action at the settlements all the while expecting to be treated as traitors and Uncle-Toms by large swaths of the public. I cannot reasonably encourage anyone else to live that sort of life.

The obvious truth is that two-staters on both sides will be undermined by extremists. It really doesn't matter what the left does. It's the people who talk with guns or rockets that control the situation.

As for AJC... Are you kidding? Did you read their z-word blog, or the no-longer-officially AJC-sanctioned spinoff, The Propagandist (whose essay-contest winner was a Wissian Uncle-Tom accusation directed at Ben Murane of NIF)? AJC would have to endure a wholesale cultural change to police rightward one-staters. It's precisely the kind of organization you rightly complain about.

As for the ADL, I really don't have much of a sense for them anymore. I'm speculating, but my guess is that they build consensus among prominent establishment figures or groups in the Jewish Community before forming and announcing their views and commitments. If that's right, it's hardly the kind of organization one can expect to show leadership. And surely (this is not speculative) they haven't. My guess is that the influence of the ADL dissolves as the historical consensus within the American Jewish community similarly dissolves. This is sad.

What I guess I'm saying is that at least Beinart is advocating something that has a chance to shake things up even if it has absolutely no chance of convincing anyone rationally. He doesn't deserve to get compared to Nazis. At the very least, the truth that such targeted boycotts have no chance of convincing anyone is hardly a criticism when the alternative proposal has no chance of convincing anyone.