Peter Beinart

”Occupation is not my Judaism”

The type of Zionism that the Israeli government stands for is at odds with liberal ideas, claims journalist and author Peter Beinart. This has led many young American Jews to want to sever ties with Israel.

Anneli Rådestad met him in New York.

Peter Beinart is one of the most prominent Jewish voices in the criticism against Israel’s occupation and the settler movement. He writes for several publications both in Israel and the United States, and is often invited to debates in Synagogues and on University campuses. When we meet, he turns out to be just as engaged and sharp-witted as he comes across in his columns. During the short walk from the lobby to his office at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, he manages to ask a large selection of questions about anti-Semitism in Malmö, which is the first thing many American Jews seem to associate with Sweden.

His book The Crises of Zionis, published in 2012, is as brave as it is controversial. It is about Peter Beinarts vies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the increasing hostility toward Israeli politics among a younger generation of American Jews.

AR: You accuse the Zionism of Benjamin Netanyahu to be at odds with liberal values. Yourself, what type of Zionist are you?

PB: Zionism is the idea that Jewish life will be strengthened through Jewish presence in the State of Israel, but there are many different types of Zionism. According to the cultural Zionist Ahad Haam, the Jewish state could just as well have been established in the Ottoman Empire, or it could have entailed a confederation in British Palestine. Like Ahad Haam, I self-define as a cultural Zionist. I believe that the creation of a Hebrew-speaking Jewish society in Israel affects Judaism in the Diaspora positively. I also define myself as a political Zionist, with the conviction that a state is needed in order to protect the Jewish people.

Is it important with a Jewish majority in Israel?

I would prefer a Jewish majority in Israel, but I would never support laws or policies that violate the rights of non-Jews in order to guarantee a Jewish majority. I see the support of Jewish immigration to Israel as a non-coercive way of promoting a Jewish majority in the country but as a liberal, I am convinced that demography is something that cannot be controlled.

Do you feel that American Jewish society has become more polarized in its relationship to Israel?

That is absolutely the case. In the American Jewish community, the group of young assimilated Jews with progressive and universal values is growing, as well as the orthodox group that tends to be more tribal, while the middle, the conservative Masorti movement, has collapsed. The political differences in the view of Israel are in a way a result of this new Jewish landscape. It is different in the older generation. Many times, they have experienced a fear of assimilation and anti-Semitism, and even if they didn’t receive a Jewish education, they are so-called secular tribalists. Their children, on the other hand, have never experienced anti-Semitism. They see themselves as a natural part of American society. At the same time, the orthodox group has become more isolated and more right-wing. When former Senator Joe Lieberman was a child, he went to a public school. Almost all orthodox children did back then. Today, they attend their own schools after which they spend a couple of years in Israel, which also affects the conversation on Israel.

You can’t really speak of an American Jewish community anymore, since there are no longer any common values. There is a rift between an older generation of American Jews, who see the world as “us against them” and get upset when you criticize Israel or Judaism openly in front of non-Jews, and a younger generation of progressive Jews, the majority of whom live in mixed marriages, who wonder what they mean when you can’t voice criticism in front of non-Jews. They are family after all – spouses and in-laws.

At the same time, it is difficult to be critical of Israel in many of the major Jewish institutions and communities in the US.

The large Jewish institutions are often dependant on a small group of older and more conservative donors, who have an “us against them” view of the world. In their view, Jews are under constant attack, and they want to preserve institutions such the student organization Hillel as a type of fortress. And when people depend on their salary, they will keep silent.

You have been criticized for your book The Crises of Zionism, with some people claiming that it questions and damages the relationship that young Jews have with Israel. Do you feel afraid or threatened?

I am so used to being a public figure that I don’t care what people think. I am a journalist and teach at CUNY and I am not exposed in the same way a Rabbi of a community might be. I feel privileged to be able to write about topics that I care about and that express who I am and what I stand for.

Aren’t you bothered by the criticism that the book contributes to the polarization in the Jewish world in relation to Israel?

Yes, it does bother me. I think that there is great value in bringing people together, but not at the cost of lying or abandoning your moral compass and sense of justice. The polarization when it comes to Israel will keep growing, because it is the result of differing world views and experiences in life. The Israel that the younger Jewish generation has grown up with is Israel after the six-day war in 1967 – a country that militarily is very strong. I wish that we could create possibilities of studying together, progressives and orthodox. I think that we could create a new common foundation to stand on through study. The stronger your relationship to Judaism is, the stronger it will be to Israel. In my eyes, one of the reasons that progressive Jews don’t feel that they can relate to Israel is their lack of knowledge about Judaism. If you know your bible, you would probably feel differently. When my son and I went to Jaffa for the first time, he pointed out to me that this is the city from which Jonah set sail. For him, that was relevant and exciting. You care about places that you can relate to.

How did you become an engaged voice against the occupation? Was there a specific event that served as a wake-up call?

The first time I spent time on the West Bank was fifteen years ago, when I visited Qalqilya, Tulkarm and Ramallah. That experience was powerful. A lot of Jews on the right hand side and the in middle of the political spectrum will tell you that yes, the occupation is problematic but the fault lies with the Palestinians. They have elected incompetent leaders. It is different on the ground though. To understand what it is like to try to live under restrictions like travel bans and road blocks and how it is to be without rights in the country you are living in, that is a brutal awakening. If the participants in the ten-day Birthright trip would spend an afternoon visiting the West Bank, I think their statistics on the relationship of young Diaspora Jews towards Israel would like quite different. Another awakening came when Avigdor Lieberman was appointed foreign minister of Israel in 2009. The attitude among American Jewish leaders was that Lieberman is ok and nothing to worry about. But if you defend Lieberman, then where do you draw the line? The position that large parts of the American Jewish leadership have taken is to defend Israel no matter what policy positions the government takes. It is extremely frightening that there is no independent moral stance. If you don’t have that, then how do you know when things have gone too far?

To what degree do the standpoints towards Israel that the American Jewish leadership takes represent American Jews in general?

I think that most American Jews are open for criticism of Israel, but they are not the Jews that count. Progressive Jews tend to be less involved and less well off and therefore have less power. The ones who count are the ones who can mobilize the masses, like AIPAC. You find many older, engaged and wealthy people among AIPAC’s members. In private, they might acknowledge that the settlements are unnecessary and that Benjamin Netanyahu is frustrating but in many cases, their position is that: “we don’t live there, and the Israelis must be voting for Netanyahu for a good reason”. This generation also has a guilty conscience over the fact that they didn’t mobilize for the defense of European Jews during the Holocaust. Now instead, they’ll be damned if they didn’t come through for Israel.

Towards the end of last year, you publicly called for a boycott against goods produced in the settlements on the West Bank, together with Michael Walzer and Peter Brooks among others. In what way do you think that your voices matter?

Unfortunately, I don’t think they do much. Former president Barack Obama was our strongest card. He is genuinely progressive when it comes to the West Bank but JStreet, who supported him couldn’t defend him. In the end, he gave up.

The occupation is now in its 50th year. What does the future look like?

In the end, the situation on the ground will dictate what happens next. I feel divided over that. On the one hand, I really don’t want any harm to come to Israeli Jews. I want them to be able to live good lives and I want them to enjoy the fantastic Jewish society that they have built. In many ways, it is spectacular and I love being there. The American activist and statesman Frederick Douglass said that power never voluntarily concedes. In order for the occupation to end, something needs to happen that makes the price of keeping the West Bank too high. I hope that this doesn’t mean that people will have to die.

Is there still a possibility for a two-state solution?

In the US, most Jews believe in a two-state solution. For me, the dividing line doesn’t run between those who are ready to handle a two-state solution and those who aren’t. Instead, the fissure lies between those who think that the morale injustice is so big and the danger towards Israel so imminent that they are prepared to put pressure on the Israeli government – and those who aren’t. If you claim to support a two-state solution but don’t react when the Israeli government adopts laws that make that solution more difficult, like AIPAC for instance, then it doesn’t matter what you say. What is fascinating with Israel is that it is an experiment in Jewish power. We haven’t had this type of power in 2000 years. We could learn a lot about ourselves as a people and about our tradition by how we respond to power. Our tradition tells us to challenge power, Jewish power included, for a better moral vision. You can see that by looking at the prophet Nathan, who challenges King David for his extramarital relationship with Bathsheba. If it turns out that our tradition lacks the potential to do just that, then Judaism is bound to change in ways that in my eyes are both sad and scary. Judaism was largely developed in conditions where Jews were stateless and powerless, and it holds within it many beautiful ideas and important texts about justice and how to relate to strangers. Now, when we are in a position of power, this tradition is tested. If Jews in Israel and Jews in the Diaspora are unable to work out the morale challenge that the occupation entails, if we are unable to live up to what our tradition maintains, we will not be able to relate to it in the same way in the future.


Peter Beinart, 46, was born into a conservative family but became orthodox in his 20s. He actively supports a liberal type of Zionism and is strongly critical towards the Israeli settler movement. He is the former editor of The New Republic and writes regularly for publications such as Time Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic and Haaretz. Peter Beinart teaches journalism and political science at City University of New York. He is the author of three books, most recently The Crises of Zionism (2012), about the American Jewish relationship towards Israel.

AIPAC – a lobbying organization with the mission to strengthen, protect and promote the U.S.-Israel relationship in ways that enhance the security of Israel and the United States.

J Street – a lobbying organization and a political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans who want Israel to be secure, democratic and the national home of the Jewish people.

Tribalist – an advocate or practitioner of strong loyalty towards one’s own tribe or social group.

Birthright – an organization with the mission of strengthening Jewish identity, Jewish community and Jewish solidarity with Israel through bringing young Jews for a 10-day trip to Israel.

Hillel – the world’s largest Jewish student organization, present at more than 550 colleges and universities mainly in the US.