Zev Bell

To Peter Beinart: A Jewish state is crucial

Peter Beinart is a well-known fierce Jewish critic of Israel. A few years back, he wrote an article about why he went from a liberal Zionist into a believer in a one-state solution. I wrote to him directly to explain why I disagree, especially with the hindsight of October 7. In an attempt to eschew the political climate of aggressiveness and hostility, I embraced a more conciliatory approach in light of Ramban’s message to his son: “All of your words should be said gently.”

At Yeshiva University, I took a course in writing that encouraged students to respond to a position using the Rogerian rhetorical method of empathy, understanding, and finding common ground. If we are to get anywhere beyond scoring petty partisan points, it is through this method of cordial dialogue. Taking this class during the war in Israel allowed me the opportunity to respond to some of Israel’s most outspoken critics, and try to find common ground with a fellow Jew. I, too, care greatly about happenings in Israel — I personally know a hostage in Gaza, and have many friends who are fighting in the IDF — but passion and compassion are not mutually exclusive. Below is my letter to Peter Beinart.

Dear Peter,

I read your article “I No Longer Believe in a Jewish State” that you published in the New York Times. I deeply admire the care you show for the Jewish people, oppressed communities worldwide, and the pursuit for global harmony. Your well-written formulation of your vision of a peaceful Middle East that can satisfy the national aspirations of multiple peoples is noble, and it is a goal that you and I share. We both care about our Jewish brethren, and want to see a future in which Palestinians can achieve justice, dignity, and respect.

However, I thought it would be valuable to address your arguments post-October 7. It is clearer than ever that, in contrast to what you wrote, a thriving and continued existence of the Jewish state of Israel more important than ever.

Like you, I also hope and pray for a future political solution that involves the establishment of a viable, democratic, and peaceful Palestinian state alongside a secure, democratic, and Jewish one. I too believe that elements of Israeli policy, many of which were implemented as a response to vicious terror, do not provide Palestinians with the justice they deserve. It is my true hope that they achieve a state of their own one day. While our outlooks differ, our broader goals are the same.

I too spent my teenage years admiring Yitzhak Rabin, peacemaker par excellence, and the brave steps he took for the sake of peace. A former military general, he shook hands with the very man he spent so many years fighting against, Yasser Arafat. I concur with you, Peter, when you say that Israel is a source of pride for many Jews. The vast majority of Jews see Israel as a primary element of their Jewish identity, and most wish for the flourishing of the Jewish state. That is precisely why I firmly believe that its existence must persist.

The primary area in which we differ is which side we believe is primarily to blame for the death of the peace process. I certainly agree that Israeli settlements over the Green Line serve as a barrier to peace, as it makes the establishment of a contiguous Palestinian state quite difficult. However, as a Jew, surely we can both acknowledge that such settlements, while inconvenient, are not all the products of an extremist outlook. After all, the region of Judea and Samaria, where most Israeli settlements exist, has extraordinary religious, cultural, and national significance for Jews. Despite this, I agree that Israel should avoid establishing settlements deeply entrenched in the West Bank to leave open the possibility of a potential state, but I do not view largely peaceful communities as the reason there is no peace (there are certainly violent extremists that regretfully exist, but they are a small minority). I personally learned in a yeshiva over the Green Line, in the Jewish settlement bloc of Gush Etzion. People who live there are peaceful, moderate, and educated, and many Palestinians work in communities in the area as well.

We further agree that the Trump peace plan is not the answer, and the disengagement with the Palestinian Authority of his administration was troubling. Like you, I believe that a revitalized Palestinian Authority should be increasingly legitimized, and international actors should incentivize moderating its problematic positions and behavior, such as paying terrorists in jails, educating Palestinians to hate Jews, and leading a concerted worldwide delegitimization campaign against Israel.

I, like you, sympathize with Palestinians. There should not be a blockade on Gaza; millions of Palestinians should not be ruled over without proper civil rights; and they are entitled to self-determination under international law. However, Peter, what you fail to note is how we got to such a problematic situation. Surely, being that you are well-versed in history, you know that Israel gained control over that land as a result of winning multiple defensive wars of aggression waged against them, and began an occupation that they did not want, at least originally. Afterwards, they expressed a willingness to give up land to enemies sworn to their destruction just a few years prior. Indeed, they did so with Egypt, returning the resource-filled Sinai peninsula. Later, Israel began negotiating with a political entity that facilitated attacks against civilians (PLO), and which continued to do so after talks failed. Bill Clinton, the American president at the time, readily acknowledges that it was former Palestinian Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat, not the Israelis, who was the prime reason the talks failed at Camp David, a development that prompted the Second Intifada. Israelis remember that as a reward for believing for and voting for a two-state solution, they were met with murderous suicide bombings in buses, pizza parlors, and discotheques. Peaceful overtures and initiatives were met with hate, death, and destruction. In response, they initiated increased security measures, including imposing a blockade on Hamas-controlled Gaza after uprooting thousands of Israelis from there in 2005.

You mention that Jews feel “angst fed by a particular interpretation of the lessons from the Holocaust.” With respect, Peter, the attack of October 7 – where 1,200 Israelis, mostly civilians, were brutally murdered – has proven these naysayers to be correct. Given the opportunity, Hamas and like-minded Palestinian extremists are willing to maim, rape, and murder as many Jews as they can get their hands on. This did not occur in the occupied territories, my friend – they were inflicted upon peace-loving kibbutzniks, many of whom made concrete steps for peace with their Palestinian neighbors.

Although their legitimacy and methodology is debated, polls show that a majority of Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza support the decision of Hamas to launch these attacks, despite the carnage that the retaliatory response has inflicted on Gaza. Now, I understand the trauma that Palestinians carry. I understand that they too have suffered and, like you, I yearn for a day where they gain the rights they deserve. However, how can you ask Israel to risk their existence by allowing for the establishment of a binational state in which the rights of Jews have no insurance? A state in which there are many people who agree that Hamas were correct in launching the October 7 attacks?

Throughout history, Jews have learned the hard lesson that they are a “nation that dwells alone” (Numbers 23:9). Antisemitism is a constant phenomenon throughout history, and the “Holocaust-lens” you disavow comes from many years of immense suffering and persecution. It comes from lived experience that whenever Jews place their trust in others, they end up killed. On October 7, this lens was proven to be prescient and correct.

I agree with you that pre-state Zionism did not necessarily entail the establishment of a nation-state. However, there is a difference between a theoretical vision and the here-and-now reality. Creating a binational state in Israel-Palestine would require the dissolution of modern day Israel, a proposal that is as unrealistic as it is callous. There is no way Israelis would allow for this, nor should they. Instead, the best hope – while it remains elusive – is one of two states for two peoples. That will require seeing the humanity of the other, and promoting a willingness to compromise on both sides. Indeed, I have been thoroughly disturbed by the dehumanizing rhetoric I have heard among many pro-Israel advocates, even some among my family, friends and community, to “make Gaza into a parking lot,” that there are “no real innocents in Gaza,” that they are not really suffering, that we should commit genocide, or that even we should “nuke Gaza.” Palestinians in Gaza are suffering terribly, and while the blame for death and destruction in Gaza lies solely with Hamas, supporters of Israel should be empathizing with their plight. Recent suggestions by irresponsible and extremist ministers of mass displacement of Gazans are also a reflection of this phenomenon. Even if some of such rhetoric is meant in partial jest – many of them are surely not – and is a product of much pain and trauma, it is not acceptable. We can both agree that Zionist Jews ought to talk to Palestinians and understand their pain, their aspirations, and the real damage Israel has caused them, even if much of it was in response to aggression.

However, to achieve a two-state solution, I believe the primary onus is on the Palestinians to reform politically and socially. It is wildly unfair to expect a sovereign state to allow for a hostile political entity on its borders. In fact, I – like many Jews who were and remain sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians – am fearful of the establishment of such a state. Especially after October 7, Peter, we know that Hamas is not interested in self-determination; their goals are nefariously dedicated to the complete eradication of Israel and the Jewish people. It is difficult to imagine a Palestinian state where a movement with such evil intentions enjoys broad support among the public, as they currently do.

However, despite these challenges, I maintain my hope for a two-state agreement. As a religious Jew, I take comfort knowing that giants such as Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and Rabbi Eliezer Shach supported territorial concessions in theory, if it meant saving Jewish lives. This would involve a reluctant split, where both sides make significant compromises on what they want. However, it is a compromise I would be willing to make, and a risk I would be willing to take, assuming many conditions of security are adhered to, and major reforms take place throughout Palestinian society. Time would be necessary, too.

What I am not willing to risk, however, is the Jewish people once again being subject to the whims of another nation; an unacceptable return to the past in which Jews were persecuted, tortured, and slaughtered because of who they were; a world in which Jews had no control over their destiny in their ancestral homeland. A binational state would result in a return to those days. But the days where Jews are defenseless are over, and will never be returned to again.

We both hope for a future where both peoples live on the land, where justice, equality, and peace reign supreme. This cannot be done in a binational state. May we merit a future of mutual respect, empathy, and seeing the image of God present in each and every human being.

Your friend,


About the Author
Zev Bell is a 20 year-old student who studied in Israel at Yeshivat Har Etzion, and currently attends Yeshiva University. His affinities include Talmudic study, classical philosophy, and law.
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