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November 1, 2012

West Bank Boycott?

Reuel S. Amdur

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Peter Beinart is an Orthodox Jew and ardent Zionist who calls for a limited boycott against Israel-limited to the West Bank. He spoke at Ottawa's Temple Israel on October 23. Beinart's talk was sponsored by Canadians for Peace Now. Peace Now is a dovish Israeli movement opposing the Occupation.

As an advocate for Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state,” he calls for an end to the Occupation.  His principle argument is that the Occupation is a threat to that characterization.  Its democracy is threatened by making Palestinians non-participants in their own governance and its Jewishness is endangered by the sheer number of Palestinians who inhabit the land between the Jordan River and the sea.

He criticizes Israel for all the usual reasons—the dual legal structure in the West Bank, with military courts for the Palestinians, the unequal funding in Israel itself for Palestinian municipalities, the efforts of right-wing parties to disqualify Arab parties because they do not support Israel as a Jewish state, etc.  However, he adds that the Palestinians have much blame as well, because of terrorism and a failure to make the necessary concessions for peace, especially around their demand for the right of return.

Now, he argues, Israel must bear the responsibilities of power.  Theirs is a special obligation.  “Jews’ commitment to dignity and social justice forged in powerlessness must now be exercised.”  He is highly critical of North American Jews for failing to criticize the obvious deviance by Israel from this imperative. 

While Jewish leaders on this continent argue that it is not their role to criticize Israel because they do not live there, he notes that they do not hesitate to criticize the Palestinians in spite of the fact that they do not live there either, nor do they refrain about commenting on Darfur.  Alternatively, it is argued that criticizing the settlement movement puts Israel’s security at risk, an argument which, citing the views of former high Israeli military and intelligence officials, he dismisses.  Finally, he identifies the “victim” argument, falling back on Jews self-identifying as weak and abused.  That argument, he says, just doesn’t cut it anymore.  Israel is strong, not weak.

For Beinart, Israel is essential.  “Israel is a blessing to the Jewish people.”  It protects Jews and is “a cultural center for Jews around the world.”  As an example, it has given new life to the Hebrew language.

What can we make of Beinart’s position?  He does not belittle the wrongs being inflicted on the Palestinians.  Yet, there are serious difficulties on the stand that he takes.  Who in his right mind would today suggest that Jews should, for reasons of safety, leave their homes in the West and go to Israel?

And is there not an internal contradiction between being an ethnic state and a democratic state?  Is there not a certain inevitability of the decline in commitment to democratic values illustrated by the trajectory from kibbutz idealism to Begin and now Netanyahu, who now stands to be re-elected next year by a landslide? 

In spite of this critique, it is important for Beinart’s argument to be made.  It is an important break from the almost monolithic, unquestioned support of whatever Israel does that has characterized organized Judaism in the United States and even more so in Canada.

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