David Breakstone
Reflections on Israel and the Jewish world
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Peter Beinart to attend the Zionist Congress? I hope so.

His arguments for dismantling Israel are faulty, naïve and unviable, but they do highlight serious issues that are far too often ignored.
American Jews, particularly the next generation, increasingly insist their liberal values are inconsistent with support for Israel - and are taking to the streets to convey that. We dismiss them at our own peril.

What everyone in the know now knows is that Peter Beinart, the wayward guardian of his particular strain of Zionism, has publicly renounced his support for a Jewish state. Less known is that he was recently elected as a representative to the 38th Zionist Congress, scheduled to convene this October. Given his recent Op Ed in The New York Times (“I no longer believe in a Jewish State,” July 8, 2020) advocating the undoing of Israel in order to allow for the founding of a country in which there would be “equal rights for Jews and Palestinians,” there are those calling for him to resign his seat, or to be banned from attending if he doesn’t. Personally, I look forward to his showing up.

Not that there aren’t grounds for hollering for his exclusion. Beinart secured his place as an alternate delegate running on the ticket of the Hatikvah party, a conglomeration of several progressive Zionist groups. To do so, he had to affirm his acceptance of The Jerusalem Program, as did every candidate appearing on any of the 15 slates competing in the election run by the American Zionist Movement. This, the official platform of the World Zionist Organization “views a Jewish, Zionist, democratic and secure State of Israel to be the expression of the common responsibility of the Jewish people.” It is easily arguable that forsaking that responsibility, as Beinart has done, would oblige him – morally if not legally – to relinquish his claim to represent those who elected him.

So why would I, vehemently rejecting his position, welcome him at the Zionist Congress? Because Beinart’s arguments – as faulty, naïve, and unviable as they may be – highlight issues that are nonetheless real, serious and worrisome – and far too often disregarded. His appearance – perhaps even the specter of his presence – might just succeed in compelling the rest of us to delve deeply into weighty matters we might otherwise be more comfortable skirting.

The essence of his contention is that his long-preferred two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer practical given both the demographics and the mindset of Israeli and American policy makers, bringing him to the conclusion that “the goal of equality is now more realistic than the goal of separation.” The alternative, he fears – and which he asserts Israel has all but already decided upon – is “one country that includes millions of Palestinians who lack basic rights.”

That is an eventuality he can’t reconcile himself to, nor can he accept as the Palestinian state “an archipelago of Palestinian towns, scattered across as little as 70 percent of the West Bank” which, he believes, is the best that can be expected to emerge from the execution of Trump’s peace plan. Thus, he writes, “It’s time to imagine a Jewish home that is not a Jewish state.”

I’m not going to take issue here with Beinart’s declaration point by point. That’s already been done more than sufficiently by others. (See for example @DanielBShapiro.) Suffice it to say that that I fervently disagree with his deduction. But that does not mean I am blind to the conundrum he has explicated, nor that I am oblivious to the consequences of what he is suggesting is already happening and what the future portends. Moreover, I humbly submit that all who do believe in Israel as a Jewish and democratic state had best take note of his concerns.

There is a field of research known as “weak signal analysis” in which those involved in predicting forthcoming trends engage. They look for signs which may be indicators of future developments that will have a significant impact on society and thus identify threats and opportunities moving forward. Signs that are generally overlooked altogether or dismissed as inconsequential, long before they become mainstream.

I believe that Beinart’s piece is one of many such signals warning us that the Zionist dream is in trouble. Who and what one blames for that is obviously critical to shaping a strategy for extricating ourselves from the predicament in which we find ourselves. It is, however, irrelevant to coming to terms with the fact that the current situation in which Israel rules in one way or another over nearly 4,000,000 Arabs who do not have not the right to vote for those who control much of their lives, never mind the right to self-determination, runs counter to the Zionist ethos. And it doesn’t matter whether one swears by Herzl, Borochov, Jabotinsky or Ben Gurion.

His is also a signal that the traditional support for Israel we have long assumed to be sacred is no longer to be taken for granted. “A New Wave of Democrats Tests the Party’s Blanket Support for Israel,” read a headline in The New York Times a few months back, one of innumerable articles attesting to a fissure in the bipartisan support for the Jewish state that was once rock-solid. Intersectionality is another such signal some may have overlooked. So is the ever-growing support for a binational state and the Palestinian cause among America’s general population of young adults.

And closer to home are the several studies over the past decade that point conclusively to an alarming distancing from Israel on the part of the next generation of Jewish Americans, manifested in the phenomena of IfNotNow and JStreet U. In case anyone missed them, Sarah Farb, an undergraduate at McGill University, shouted out the message for all to hear in an article in the Forward a few weeks ago, titled “Israel will lose my entire generation if it goes ahead with annexation,” arguing that applying Israeli sovereignty in the disputed territories “will effectively render the two-state solution impossible, meaning the lynchpin of liberal Zionism, the policy proposal that has preserved the compatibility between progressivism and support for Israel for Jews across the world, will be dislodged.”

it was, of course, Beinart who warned us exactly ten years ago that this is where we were headed. “For several decades,” he wrote, “the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.” (“The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” in The New York Review of Books) He spotted back then what were “weak signals” at the time and which have since been broadcast loud and clear. Now he has become an example of what has come to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. We can ill afford to dismiss him again.

Instead, let us convene the Zionist Congress with our eyes wide open. With foresight, let us strive to read the “weak signals” all around us and engage in original thinking in pursuit of innovative policy and creative solutions. Ideally such deliberation would influence the course of the conflict; minimally it should result in the formulation of an honest narrative that liberal Jews and supporters of Israel around the world can believe in. We will only be able to do this if we are prepared to wander outside our comfort zone. Peter Beinart has arguably left us no alternative but to do that.

About the Author
Dr. David Breakstone is a long-standing member of the executive of the World Zionist Organization and the conceptual architect and founding director of the Herzl Museum and Educational Center in Jerusalem. The opinions expressed herein are entirely his own.
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