The irreconcilable tension within Zionism has been laid bare once again by prominent columnist and commentator Peter Beinart. For a number of years, the 49-year-old has had the status of America’s pre-eminent liberal Zionist intellectual. His trenchant essays and books buttressed the hope of liberal Jews in the possibility of rescuing the Zionist State of Israel from its very illiberal instincts.
Though Israel’s decades-long takeover of Palestine has been a constant source of shame and a test of faith, liberal Zionists, exhibiting clear signs of cognitive dissonance, still back the ethnic state. They hold to the possibility of, at the very least, an eventual two-state solution. Israel’s continued and proposed land theft makes such a prospect unlikely ever to materialise, however.
“I no longer believe in a Jewish State,” declared Beinart in a New York Times article. “For decades I argued for separation between Israelis and Palestinians. Now, I can imagine a Jewish home in an equal state.”
Renouncing his previous convictions, his conversion was no doubt caused by the overwhelming burden of holding on desperately to a liberal vision of Israel while watching simultaneously as it speeds down a path towards Judeo-fascism, with its elected leaders displaying the kinds of racism that any white-supremacist would be proud of.
Like so many liberal Jews, it seems that Beinart was willing to give Israel the benefit of the doubt; understandable, some would say, given the tragic history of Jews in Europe. “I believed in Israel as a Jewish state because I grew up in a family that had hopscotched from continent to continent as diaspora Jewish communities crumbled,” he explained. Hence, Israel was always a “source of comfort” to his family and millions of other Jews.
Beinart has written extensively about “the crises of Zionism” and described the tension between his support for Israel and seeing the tragic impact its foundation had on the Palestinians. “I knew Israel was wrong to deny Palestinians in the West Bank citizenship, due process, free movement and the right to vote in the country in which they lived, but the dream of a two-state solution that would give Palestinians a country of their own let me hope that I could remain a liberal and a supporter of Jewish statehood at the same time.”
He insists now that events have extinguished that hope. This was an allusion to Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned annexation of the occupied West Bank. Challenging liberal Zionists to be honest about the direction in which Israel is headed, he added that, “Israel has all but made its decision: one country that includes millions of Palestinians who lack basic rights. Now liberal Zionists must make our decision, too.”
In the same week, the author also published a major essay in Jewish Currents, declaring the two-state solution to be dead. “The harsh truth is that the project to which liberal Zionists like myself have devoted ourselves for decades — a state for Palestinians separated from a state for Jews — has failed,” he wrote. He pointed out that, “In most Jewish communities on earth, rejecting Israel is a greater heresy than rejecting God.”
Laying out his new vision to reconcile Zionism with safeguarding the rights of Palestinians, Beinart suggested that, “Equality could come in the form of one state that includes Israel, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.” He named several Palestinians writers, such as the late Edward Said, who proposed something similar. “Or,” he added, “it could be a confederation that allows free movement between two deeply integrated countries.”
Responding to Beinart, another self-declared liberal Zionist, Jonathan Freedland, asked, “What next, if the two state dream is dead?” Echoing Beinart, the Guardian columnist concluded that the hope of a two-state solution allowed many Jews to “hide” from the reality that “Israeli Jews and Palestinians now inhabit a single political space.” Now that this hope is “vanishing,” Freedland urged, “we can hide no longer.”
It should be said that critics of the two-state model have never harboured any illusions that a state founded on an ideology of ethnic supremacy — Zionism — would be willing or able to abandon its colonial ideology and subject itself to liberal principals of equality and the rule of law. Such critics’ opposition to Israel’s colonialism, decried by the likes of Freedland, is not rooted in antipathy towards the idea of a Jewish state per se. Rather, it stems from the belief that displacing hundreds of thousands of people and gerrymandering a Jewish majority to accommodate the fantasies of European Zionists was from the outset morally and legally indefensible.
Beinart suggested that Zionism itself isn’t the problem, but Israel is due to its appropriation of a type of Zionism that seeks ethnic domination. “A Jewish state has become the dominant form of Zionism,” whereas “the essence of Zionism is a Jewish home in the land of Israel, a thriving Jewish society that can provide refuge and rejuvenation for Jews across the world.”
Though Beinart’s political conversion should be applauded, his suggestions are not very original. Palestine was earmarked for a “national home for the Jewish people” by Arthur Balfour himself in his eponymous 1917 declaration, not a “Jewish state”. Though many insist that the Balfour Declaration was indeed support for the creation of an ethnic state for Jews alone, they misread history; the Jews made up just 5 per cent of the population of Palestine at the time, and Balfour went on to say, “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine…” Not even the most liberal of Zionists can say with any degree of honesty that that aspect of the Balfour Declaration has been followed in any way, shape or form.
I don’t think it’s a stretch of the imagination to suggest that the aspiration of Palestinian nationalists at the turn of the 20th century was not far from what Beinart envisages now: an equality-driven nationalism, embracing all faiths and communities, to achieve self-determination for all who live within the territory. The source of civil unrest during the British Mandate for Palestine (1923-48) was unregulated immigration of European and American Jews who sought to undermine the political aspirations of the indigenous community by using violence to secede from the majority population that was simultaneously campaigning for an independent State of Palestine as a homeland for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.
This vision of territorial nationalism was obstructed violently to accommodate the ethnic domination of European Zionists. However, a century of politically and socially engineered segregation has been nothing but a miserable failure.
From Balfour to US President Donald Trump’s so called “deal of the century” over a hundred years later, the enforced fragmentation of Palestine has been the main source of conflict. A return to equality-driven nationalism, one that embraces every religious and ethnic group within historic Palestine, as Beinart notes, has a far greater chance of securing peace than one based on the domination of one racial group over another. The fact that someone like Peter Beinart “no longer believes in a Jewish state” tells us a lot about what that state has become.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.