The Crisis of Zionism: Undeterred by unavoidable realities

In his new work, Peter Beinart exposes his own emotional and paradoxical relationship with Zionism, and sidesteps the challenges facing modern Israel.

The Crisis of Zionism
Peter Beinart
Times Books
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On my first trip to the West Bank, I was struck with a strange sense of familiarity. I left my apartment in Jerusalem and set off driving south, passing Bethlehem on my left and Israeli settlement blocks on my right. Driving through the Occupied West Bank, I stopped at an Israeli petrol station, just like the ones in my neighbourhood. I stopped at an Israeli national grocery chain and was almost apprehended by Israeli traffic police for speeding as I rejoined the well-maintained road. Despite the fact that I was in the middle of Occupied Palestinian Territory, I felt as though I was still in Israel and, according to the Israeli legal system, I was.

On the surface, every sector of Israeli society, except religious settlers and the military establishment, understand the occupation to be an ephemeral security measure necessary only in the absence of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Likewise, many in the international community, especially American Jews, believe that Israel is desperately working towards a two-state solution which will finally end Israel’s colonial project in the West Bank and Gaza. Yet, the reality on the ground is markedly different.

Settlements continue to grow despite the attention they receive in the media. New immigrants from the United States, France and South Africa as well as Israelis from Tel Aviv pour into the steady supply of homes over the 1948 Green Line in search of a modest house with a garden at a reasonable price.

New settlers are only part of the Israeli mosaic in the West Bank. Israel’s economy is deeply entrenched beyond the Green Line. Recently, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that Israeli companies could extract natural minerals from the rich land of the West Bank. The main water aquifers which supply thriving Tel Aviv and Haifa are found under the mountain top city settlement of Ariel. The captive economy of Palestine is a central and lucrative focal point for Israeli exports.

Given this entrenchment of infrastructure, the cornerstone of Israeli society, the army, is symbiotically connected to the West Bank. Israel’s famed conscription is maintained at such high levels, in part, to allow for a constant supply of soldiers needed to patrol the dark corners in between the hills of the West Bank.

Israel’s massive military industry, almost unrivalled throughout the world and known to provide the latest “combat tested” equipment, ranging from drones to tear gas canisters, uses the West Bank as a research and design laboratory. Without the West Bank and its hundreds of Palestinian villages, which double as elaborate training grounds, the industry would surely suffer.

The current Israeli parliament, controlled by an aggressive pro-Settler majority which enjoys enormous popularity in Israeli opinion polls, is busy ensuring that criticism of Israel’s slow annexation of the West Bank is quickly silenced. New laws, like the recently passed anti-boycott legislation that makes nonviolent calls for boycotts of Israel by Israeli civilians a civil crime, have completely erased the Green Line. Human rights organisations which attempt to document Israel’s routine violations on the ground are also targeted with harsh funding laws and vile attacks on the evening Israeli news programmes.

When social justice protests erupted in the centre of Tel Aviv’s cafe-lined streets, all discussion of the occupation or even its economic impact was discredited as political. The time to talk about the social rights for Israelis is now, the protesters claimed, and discussion of the occupation is merely exhausted political banter. Despite the desire of some to draw a connection between social justice and an end to the occupation, Tel Aviv residents, by and large, rubber stamped the occupation. Without a doubt, the social justice protesters, ballooning at times to 500,000 people, demonstrated that there is no longer a large segment of Israeli society that is willing to demand an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

How did Israel’s occupation become entrenched beyond repair? When did an equitable two-state solution become irrelevant? These questions are creeping into the American discourse and factual debate concerning their contours has thrown the American Jewish community into a crisis, one which has been suppressed for a long time.

Expanding on his landmark manifesto in the New York Review of Books called, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment”, Peter Beinart sets out to address American Jewish silence on Israel in a new book, The Crisis of Zionism. For Beinart, a generation of young American Jews can no longer identify with Israel as an occupying country. Reconciling their upbringing, soaked in victimhood and Holocaust memory, with the colonial actions of the Israeli government in the West Bank and Gaza is near impossible in the age of new media. Without honest engagement, American Jewish support for Israel risks its own liberal values.

Evidently not strong enough for him to emigrate from New York to Jerusalem, Beinart has a deeply emotional relationship with Zionism. His book is a personal chronicle of his development as a Zionist, which began, of all places, in South Africa. He presents raw reflections about his personal process of awareness of Israel’s immoral treatment of Palestinians, but is careful not to denounce them by always providing an Israel caveat.

Beinart’s arguments are not new or even particularly original, let alone based in reporting from Israel. His analysis draws on a variety of books and reports which don’t capture the entire dialogue taking shape in cafes in Tel Aviv, let alone Ramallah, but allow him to present a slightly new analysis of why the two-state solution has failed. Even those he holds responsible for Israel’s present ills – chief among them revisionist Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – are the traditional enemies of American Zionists who start to feel uncomfortable when racism towards Palestinians is clearly articulated, as opposed to quietly carried out.

At its core, The Crisis of Zionism is an ode to liberal Zionism – that confusing ideology which rallies behind the idea Israel can exist as a Jewish and Democratic state – a place where liberalism coexists with tribalism.

Yet, Beinart’s liberal Zionism is a paradox. Zionism, as an ideology and practice, privileges one ethnic group over others. Ignoring this and other bothersome aspects of Israel’s liberal democracy, like the absence of a constitution or the existence of discriminatory laws directed at Israel’s Palestinian citizens, Beinart diverts attention to Israel’s occupation as the root of the country’s problems. West Bank settlers and their allies are portrayed as fanatics, blinded by religious zealotry, which have hijacked Israel’s liberal democracy for their own messianic purposes.

Beinart takes the argument to the extreme in The Crisis of Zionism and a subsequent opinion piece in the New York Times, where he argues that there exists a “democratic Israel”, namely the liberal democracy that exists within the 1948 boundaries of the State of Israel and an “undemocratic Israel”, the West Bank, where Israel controls Palestinians without giving them citizenship and deprives them of basic rights. Not only does this absolve Israelis living in Tel Aviv of responsibility for the entrenchment of the occupation, his separation of the West Bank from Israel safeguards the liberal foundations of Zionism.

This is not how the situation looks on the ground. The Israeli government, which is democratically elected, is responsible for all of the actions of the settlers and the creation of the settlements. Israeli settlements are a by-product of Israeli democracy and not a negation of it. Recent poll data demonstrates that a majority of Israelis support the construction of new settlements and the growing power of the right in the Israeli parliament confirms that. The left-leaning, liberal Israeli, which appears like a Herzlian figure for Beinart, most likely has a son patrolling the streets of Hebron or conducting night raids in Ramallah as part of his military service.

These unavoidable realities do not deter Beinart. His solution for the manufactured impasse between undemocratic and democratic Israel is a targeted boycott of Israeli settlements. Not only is this impossible in practice, but it conceals a more sinister objective.

Beinart’s boycott borrows rhetoric and tactics of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in order to marginalise it. The BDS movement, while calling for an end to Israel’s occupation, focuses on dismantling Israel’s system of inequality through global nonviolent pressure. In a strange and perhaps flawed way, the BDS movement is a last ditch Palestinian effort to appeal to the very liberal elements in Israeli society, which Beinart is interested in expanding, by isolating the exclusivity of Zionism.

Perhaps the actual crisis of Zionism is the fact that liberal Zionist writers, who deeply care for Israel, are unable or unwilling to accept that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is increasingly being defined as a battle over rights and equality between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea. Palestinians are coalescing around nonviolent boycotts targeting Israel’s system of inequality while Israel is destroying its own democratic foundations in an attempt to protect its ideology of exclusion. Rigorous critique of Zionism, not Israeli settlements, is the first step towards safeguarding Israel as a haven for Jews while preventing the country from sliding deeper into moral bankruptcy.

Joseph Dana is a journalist based in Ramallah.