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Some Advice for American Jews Visiting Israel: Stop Ignoring Palestinians

Wednesday night marks the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year (did you get your festive 5774 sunglasses?), when many American Jews will gather at synagogues, listen to their rabbis’ sermons, argue over the sermons, argue over Israel, argue over whether the service has too little/much Hebrew, ask if it’s time for lunch yet, and generally talk among themselves. Today, in other words, is a great time to give the American Jewish community something to talk about.

Peter Beinart has obliged us. Beinart, who used to edit this magazine and has since gone on somewhat controversially to help define a more left-liberal Zionism in the United States, has a new essay in the New York Review of Books (notably not the house organ of more mainstream American Zionism). The NYRB essay he wrote three years ago, which was in turn followed by a book, The Crisis of Zionism, tackled the general problem of liberal Zionism—how liberals can reconcile their liberalism with Zionism, particularly when Zionism could mean supporting an Israeli government whose actions are sometimes decidedly illiberal. That essay and book took big bites, sometimes more than they could chew. His latest piece is quieter, milder. It is extremely unlikely it will ignite anything like the firestorm those previous works did. It reports that established American Jewish organizations typically do not dialogue with Palestinians. They travel to Israel, but they don’t visit the West Bank; or if they visit the West Bank, they first have the city placed under curfew. Such policies, generally enacted more out of laziness and inertia than malevolence, “make the organized American Jewish community a closed intellectual space,” Beinart writes, “isolated from the experiences and perspectives of roughly half the people under Israeli control. And the result is that American Jewish leaders, even those who harbor no animosity toward Palestinians, know little about the reality of their lives.” 

This piece is also very well-hedged—some would say to a fault, though I wouldn’t. “The American Jewish community does not bear all the blame for its lack of interaction with Palestinians,” Beinart writes. “In recent years, sadly, Palestinian activists have led a growing ‘anti-normalization’ campaign that rejects any relations with Jewish Israelis, or Israel’s supporters abroad, who do not—in the words of one statement by Palestinian youth groups—‘explicitly aim to resist Israel’s occupation, colonization and apartheid.’” (I would be curious to know whether these groups would meet with Beinart, who advocates boycotting settlement goods, or whether Beinart thinks he applies to their restrictions.) And he adds: “To say that American Jews need to hear from Palestinians is not to say that doing so will turn them into doves. To the contrary, in some ways a truly open conversation with Palestinians may be more discomforting to American Jews like myself who are committed to the two-state solution than to those skeptical of it.”

The problem with the hedges is that they reveal that Beinart’s central point is a little bit of a red herring. Beinart gives a shout-out to the wonderful organization Encounter, which organizes trips across the Green Line in which you talk to Palestinians. I have gone on one. I got to speak to a Palestinian nonviolent activist and a Palestinian publisher; to see that the Jewish settlement of Har Homa, perched on its hilltop, looks viscerally menacing as you stand on a neighboring hilltop in the Arab city of Bethlehem; to witness a Palestinian home well inside the Green Line that nonetheless found itself on the wrong side of a planned extension of the Israeli security barrier. And if I pointed to my “experience” on my Encounter trip as authoritative credentials for understanding what the daily “reality of their lives” is like in the West Bank, as Beinart implies American Jewish leaders might do, I would rightly be dismissed. 

What makes Beinart’s piece valuable is the subtle turn he takes midway through. He notes that U.S. congressmen and senators and their staffs—most of them not Jewish—have visited Israel nearly twice as frequently as the second-most-visited country since 2000; and these trips are characterized by a parallel emphasis on Israeli totems like the Holocaust memorial (to say nothing of Lake Kinneret, site of Congressional skinny-dipping) at the expense of the West Bank. He notes, perceptively, “Establishment Jewish discourse about Israel is, in large measure, American public discourse about Israel,” adding, “Watch a discussion of Israel on American TV and what you’ll hear, much of the time, is a liberal American Jew (Thomas Friedman, David Remnick) talking to a centrist American Jew (Dennis Ross, Alan Dershowitz) talking to a hawkish American Jew (William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer), each articulating different Zionist positions.”

The fact is, non-Jewish Americans look to Jewish Americans for their cues on Israel. This is only natural—we are, after all, talking about the Jewish state. And so the message I will take from Beinart’s piece is that American Jews owe it both to other Jews and to other Americans to strain to see all sides of the conflict. The price we pay for being Chosen, I guess.

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