Peter Beinart: To Save Israel, Boycott The West Bank Settlements Journalist Peter Beinart supports Israel but thinks the Jewish settlements in the West Bank are compromising Israel's commitment to democracy. He has proposed a boycott of goods made in those Jewish settlements.
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Should American Jews Boycott West Bank Settlements?

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Should American Jews Boycott West Bank Settlements?

Should American Jews Boycott West Bank Settlements?

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The future of Israel and the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is very important to many Jews in America. Nevertheless, it's a subject that's often avoided at gatherings of friends and families because there is such strong disagreement about how to resolve the conflict.

My guest, Peter Beinart, is the author of the new book "The Crisis of Zionism," about how American Jews of different generations and different political perspectives see the future of Israel. He has strong opinions. He describes himself as a Zionist who believes the Jewish people deserve a state dedicated to their protection, but he also describes himself as a partisan of liberal democracy who believes a Jewish state must offer equal citizenship to all its inhabitants, two principles which he acknowledges are difficult to reconcile.

As we'll hear, he's created quite a stir in his book and in a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times. Beinart has called for a boycott of products made in Jewish settlements on the West Bank. This isn't to be confused with the movement originated by Palestinians to protest the state of Israel through boycotts, divestiture and sanctions aimed against the state.

Beinart's proposal applies only to Jewish settlements on the other side of the green line, the line that separates Israel from the West Bank, which Israel captured and occupied after the war in 1967. Peter Beinart is the former editor of The New Republic and edits the Open Zion blog for the Daily Beast.

Peter Beinart, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with your family connection to Zionism. Tell us about your grandmother's history of being uprooted and having to flee.

PETER BEINART: My grandmother, my mother's family, are Sephardi Jews. Their roots are originally in Spain. My grandmother was born in Alexandria, Egypt. Her own parents were from the isle of Rhodes, in what's now Greece, and Izmir, in what's now Turkey. So the ancestry had a history of Jews having to relocate and move.

Then my grandmother, when she was fairly young, left Egypt, went with her family to the Belgian Congo, to what's now Lubumbashi, and then soon after that again left and went to Cape Town, South Africa. Meanwhile, the ancestral community in the isle of Rhodes was virtually all destroyed in the Holocaust, and now the South African Jewish community itself, many people have left, given the sense of turbulence in South Africa.

So what my grandmother conveyed to me was the sense of the fragility of Jewish life in so many diaspora communities, the sense of rootlessness. And she made it very clear to me that we as Jews should see Israel as the place that would take us in, the place of permanence, the place that could give us, even if we didn't go there, the psychological comfort of knowing that there was a home if we had to be on the run.

GROSS: Now in your book, you describe a video that made you rethink what Zionism meant to you. Would you describe that video?

BEINART: There was a video that some Israeli friends sent to me of a Palestinian man being arrested in the West Bank. He was being arrested because he had tried to connect his village up to some water pipes that ran through a nearby settlement.

There is a massive disparity in water allocation in the West Bank between Palestinians and Jewish settlers, largely because Jewish settlers are citizens of the government, the state of Israel that makes water policy decisions, and Palestinians are not. They're stateless.

And in this video, the son of the man, who was exactly my son's age, was screaming for his father as his father was being taken away. And as it turned out, he was yelling to his father baba, baba, which is the name that my son and my daughter use for me because when my son was very little, we thought he would call me abba, which is the Hebrew word for father. But he couldn't say abba, so he calls me baba, which is also what our daughter calls me.

So it had a powerful effect on me, and it was one of a series of experiences that I would say led me to be willing to face a little more frontally than I had been willing to before the reality of what Israel's occupation is and made me concerned about how I would tell my own children, how I would convey my love for Israel, try to make them devoted Zionists, while also not ignoring the reality of what happens when you hold millions of people for more than 40 years as non-citizens in the places in which they were born.

GROSS: So how has your sense of Zionism changed now that you've started to empathize more with Palestinians?

BEINART: My feeling is that what makes Israel so precious, what's always made it so precious to me is not just that it's a Jewish state but that a state founded three years after the Holocaust, when Israel was in a fight for its very survival, when the stench of Jewish death still hung over Europe, pledged itself in its declaration of independence to complete equality of social and political rights irrespective of race, religion and sex.

I think my reading of many of the founders of the Jewish state was that they didn't only want a state for Jewish protection, they wanted a state that would live out the ideals that were betrayed by Europe, and in that way, in some ways, they would redeem the Enlightenment ideals that Europe had failed.

And for me, that is still the struggle: to preserve a Jewish state that tries to live out the principles of Israel's declaration of independence, and I fear that that Jewish state is incompatible with a permanent occupation of millions of people who lack citizenship, basic rights, live under military law, don't have freedom of movement simply because they're not Jews.

GROSS: Do you think that the idea of a Jewish state is compatible with the idea of equal rights for all people, no matter what their religion is?

BEINART: I think there is a tension between Israel's role as a protector of the Jewish people and Israel's stated commitment to complete equality of social and political rights. But I don't think because there's a tension it means that either of those principles is invalid. There are also tensions between economic development and environmental protection, or national security and civil liberties.

There can be tensions between goals that are both valid. I believe that given our history, Jews have the right to self-determination as a means of protection, given our history and the diaspora. But I - and I believe that Israel has made real accomplishments in the way it treats its non-Jewish citizens.

Israel gave citizenship to its Arab population in 1948, even though many of the Palestinian Arabs who left and went to Jordan - went to Syria and Lebanon, sorry - didn't have citizenship in those countries. Israel has always allowed its Arab citizens the right to vote. There's an Arab Israeli on the Supreme Court, in the Knesset. That seems to me a foundation upon which to build.

There is still severe discrimination against Israel's Arab citizens, even within what's called the green line, even within the area where they have citizenship. But I think there is a foundation upon which to build, to move towards truer equality in the context of a state that has a special mission to protect the Jewish people.

GROSS: So in your book and in a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times, you proposed a boycott where Americans would not buy goods and services from Israeli settlements in the West Bank. So let's talk about what you've proposed. Why are you calling for a boycott of the West Bank?

BEINART: My great fear is that we are hurtling towards the creation of one state: Israel within its 1949 boundaries plus the West Bank, a state that cannot be fully democratic or else it will no longer be a Jewish state. If Israel holds that territory permanently and does not give the right of citizenship and the right to vote to the Palestinians living there, it will no longer be fully a democratic state.

If it does, it will no longer have a Jewish majority and will no longer be a Jewish state, and therefore our generation will have failed our responsibility to pass down to our children what our parents gave to us, which is our most precious legacy, which is a democratic Jewish state.

I call the West Bank nondemocratic Israel to convey first that this is area under Israel's control, and B, that it's not a territory which lives up to the democratic ideals upon which Israel was founded, but that there is a territory, Israel's original boundaries, in which Israel does make a real effort to live up to those ideals.

And so to me, that's why I use the terms democratic and non-democratic Israel. What I think we urgently need to do is to redraw the division between the Israel where all people have the right to citizenship and the right to vote and the territory conquered in 1967, the West Bank, where they don't.

We have to invest and spend our money and celebrate the part of - the original Israel, which offers the right of citizenship to all people, but I don't think we should be spending our money in the West Bank, which is a territory in which Israel's founding ideals are desecrated.

GROSS: So let me see if I understand you. What you're saying is with more and more settlers, Jewish settlers in the West Bank who are allowed to vote in Israeli elections and who have full Israeli rights, the West Bank is becoming this really ambiguous territory where you have Palestinians who have no Israeli rights, who can't vote in Israel, and then a lot of Israeli settlers who do.

So the inequality there is growing, and there's two different sets of laws that apply, yes? Am I...?

BEINART: Yes, Jewish settlers live under civil law. Palestinians in the West Bank live under military law. And with the settler population growing, according to one recent story, at three times the rate of the Jewish population inside Israel's original boundaries, at some point in the future, there will simply be too many settlers in the Jewish in the West Bank to actually extricate Israel from the West Bank.

And at that point, Israel will become, in the words of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert - I'm not quoting anti-Semites here, I'm quoting two former Israeli prime ministers - Israel will become an apartheid state, and that would be such a tragedy for us.

GROSS: There are a lot of people very angry with you right now because you've proposed this boycott. Just tell us a little bit about the reaction that you've gotten to your New York Times op-ed piece about the boycott and the chapter about it in your book.

BEINART: Sure. Well, you know, there are many Palestinians who also vociferously disagree. I mean, I'm a Zionist. I believe in Israel's existence as a democratic Jewish state. I believe in Israel's security. That actually puts me in a very different place from many Palestinians. But it also puts me in a different place from I think many mainstream American Jewish leaders, who I fear are not sufficiently concerned about the internal threat to Israel's future as a democratic Jewish state.

There is a lot of lip service paid in the organized American Jewish community to the idea that we should have a two-state solution. But my fear is despite that lip service, American Jewish organizations are essentially supportive of policies that are leading the two-state solution to slip away.

And I think we have to start, even though it's painful, a conversation about how we're going to try to preserve the possibility of a two-state solution. What I fear is that Israeli policies are moving us towards a situation in which Israel will not survive as a democratic Jewish state.

If you disagree with the proposal I've put forward, then please suggest to me how you think differently we can stop the process of subsidizing people to move to the West Bank that threatens Israel's future as a democratic Jewish state. We have to have that conversation.

It may not be an easy conversation. It certainly should not be a conversation to the exclusion of Palestinian culpability, which there absolutely is. But we have to have that conversation if we are going to fulfill our obligations to the next generation, which is to pass on a democratic Jewish state to them.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Beinart, the former editor of The New Republic, and now he edits the Open Zion blog on The Daily Beast, and he has a new book called "The Crisis of Zionism." Let's take a break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Beinart, former editor of The New Republic. He now he edits the Open Zion blog at The Daily Beast. His new book is called "The Crisis of Zionism."

Peter, as we were talking about, in your book and in a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times you've called for a boycott of the West Bank. You've explained your reasons for calling for that boycott. What exactly are you calling for? What form are you proposing that the boycott take?

BEINART: First of all, I want to make it very clear. I am absolutely opposed to any boycott of all of Israel because I believe in Israel's right to exist as a democratic Jewish state. What I'm calling - what I'm suggesting in one of the proposals in the book - there are others as well - is that we take, we make a distinction between democratic Israel and non-democratic Israel, invest in products and services within what's called the green line, within democratic Israel, the Israel that tries to live up to its declaration of independence, rather than in the West Bank.

I think that distinction is very important if we are going to try to preserve the two-state solution that allows Israel to continue to exist as a democratic Jewish state.

GROSS: So you're calling for not buying things made in the West Bank, not selling things to the West Bank. What exactly are you calling for?

BEINART: Not buying things that are produced in Jewish settlements and taking that money and instead using it to buy things that are produced in democratic Israel.

GROSS: And when somebody buys something, do they know that it was produced in...

BEINART: Sure, you can - well, you can see where - you can find out where products are made. In fact, there have been companies like Barkan wine and the Swedish Multilock Company that have moved back inside the green line, into democratic Israel, partly because of international pressure.

I don't think we should have - we should have a free trade zone with Israel, which I think is wonderful, but I don't think we need to have a free trade zone with the West Bank. I think we need to start to draw these distinctions because they're necessary to help Israel survive as a democratic Jewish state.

GROSS: So one of the things you write about in your book is what you describe as the shift from Jewish powerlessness to Jewish power, and what you're saying basically is that, yes, Jews are victims of the Holocaust and the pogroms and purges of countries, from countries around the world, but we have to acknowledge as well that Jews also have power. What are examples of that kind of Jewish power that you're talking about?

BEINART: Well, in the United States, you now have, according to Robert Putnam, the Harvard political scientist, Jews are actually the most esteemed religious group in the country. There are three Jews on the - I say this with pride. There are three Jews on the Supreme Court, no Protestants. I think five of the last seven editors of The New York Times have been Jewish.

This is, you know, even 50 years ago, there were still quotas at some universities, how many Jews could be present. Now there have been Jewish presidents of most of those Ivy League universities. In Israel, although Israel still faces real security threats - which I write about in the book - Israel now has, we assume, nuclear weapons, a military superiority, clear military superiority over its neighbors.

It's one of the largest arms exporters in the world. Again, that doesn't mean that we don't face threats, but it does mean that I think we need to start to think about a conversation which is not only about victimhood and survival, but also what happens after survival, which is power and its ethical responsibilities.

And I don't think we have found a language to talk about the ethical responsibilities of power, even though that language I think is there in Jewish tradition.

GROSS: Do you think that some people are almost afraid to acknowledge the kind of Jewish power that you've just described because then Jews are accused of having a cabal, you know, like controlling the media or whatever?

BEINART: Yes, I think that's true. I think people are concerned about that. But I find that in fact if you want to talk to younger Jews, particularly if you want to talk to younger American Jews and try to engage them and explain to them where the Jewish tradition has things to say that are meaningful to them, a language just of victimhood and survival - you know, there's this line about Jewish holidays, they tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat - that's not actually a storyline that speaks to the realities of their lives.

And there is so much in Jewish tradition which talks about in fact the Jewish use of power, our struggle to wield it ethically. And that seems to me very, very important for us to have a conversation about because it's partly about showing that our tradition has relevance today for the lives of our own children.

GROSS: You know, I'm sure a lot of people are thinking, OK, what you're saying about Israel is interesting, but let's face it, Israel faces an existential threat, several existential threats. There's Iran, that looks to be on the verge of nuclear capability, and Ahmadinejad is a Holocaust denier. And then in Egypt, there is a very extreme Islamist who is a front-runner in the presidential election, and now the Muslim Brotherhood, which is, you know, I think way more moderate by comparison, has decided to break its pledge not to run a presidential candidate, and it's running a presidential candidate.

Egypt had, you know, a relatively long peace treaty with Israel, and who knows what the future with Egypt will be now. So, you know, how do you calibrate that when you're thinking about the future of Israel, that, you know, Israel - Israel's future is perhaps very fragile right now?

BEINART: I think Israel faces real external security threats. I don't think we should minimize them for a second. I think the question we should ask ourselves is, how can Israel best safeguard its security? I think there's a struggle going on in the Arab world between people who will reluctantly - I underline reluctantly - reluctantly accept Israel's right to exist.

You know, all of the Arab countries in 2002 and again in 2007 offered to accept Israel's right to exist if it returned to the 1967 lines and found a just and agreed-upon solution to the refugee problem. We need to strengthen those elements in the Arab world against those that want a fight to the death.

It seems to me the key question is: How do we best support those people who are willing, reluctantly, to live at peace with Israel? And when you continue to build settlements and settlements and settlements, what you do is you undermine and discredit the moderate Palestinian leadership like Salam Fayyad and Mahmoud Abbas that exist in the West Bank, and you make Hamas and Hezbullah's lives so much easier because they can say, you see? Look, these Palestinian leaders in the West Bank, they've been supporting a two-state solution, they've been doing security cooperation with Israel, and look what they get for it? They get their future Palestinian state eaten away and eaten away by settlement growth.

The best way I think we can weaken and defeat groups like Hezbollah and Hamas is to make winners out of those people in the Palestinian Arab world that have shown themselves willing to live at peace with Israel in a two-state solution.

GROSS: Peter Beinart will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "The Crisis of Zionism." He edits the Daily Beast's blog Open Zion. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Peter Beinart, author of the new book "The Crisis of Zionism." It's focused on the American Jewish community's divided reactions on how to end the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Beinart describes himself as a Zionist who believes in liberal democracy. He opposes the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which Israel occupied after the war in 1967, and thinks they're an obstacle to creating a two-state solution.

In his book, and in a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times, he's proposed a boycott of goods made in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Beinart is the former editor of The New Republic and edits The Daily Beast blog Open Zion.

A lot of your book is about how American Jews relate to Israel and the disagreements between American Jews about what to - how to support Israel and whether - how important Israel is to the lives of American Jews. So let's just start with families. I think in Jewish families it's often very difficult to bring up Israel because that's one area where you're likely to have a really big argument, and even in your own family to not understand each other. Do you think that's an accurate description?

BEINART: Increasingly so. I think there is a - outside of the Orthodox community, I think there is a pretty substantial generational divide that's opening up because of people's different life experiences. Older American Jews have a memory, if not of the Holocaust, at least of Israel as a very weak and embattled state. They might remember the Six-Day War in 1967, where it seemed that Israel might be destroyed. Younger American Jews are more likely to have seen Israel as a regional superpower and to remember experiences like the intifada, the First and Second Intifada - Israel-Lebanon war - in which Israel seems to have the greater power, vis-a-vis the Palestinians it's fighting against.

It's also important to remember that young American Jews are less likely to have seen Israel as a refuge. Remember, the reason that American Jews became Zionists in the first place, in the 1930s and '40s, is it became so clear that the Jews of Europe needed a place to go as refuge and so much of the world would not allow them in. That experience is even one that I am old enough to have seen because I remember seeing - it was a very important part of my childhood - the Soviet Jews who came to Israel, the Ethiopian Jews. But the danger is that younger American Jews are alienated precisely because of the Jewish community's unwillingness to talk openly and honestly and in an unafraid way about these subjects. That's why I think we lose a lot of younger American Jewish kids, because they want the right to voice their questions and their criticisms openly without being written off and the American Jewish community hasn't done a very good job of that, I think.

GROSS: So you attend an Orthodox synagogue and send your children to a Jewish school. Why do you send your children to a Jewish school?

BEINART: I believe that the foundation of Jewish commitment is Jewish education. I believe what I most want for my children is knowledge of, joy in and fascination with Judaism. And I believe if they are given that then I will have discharged my duty to them and given them the tools they need to have a meaningful relationship with Judaism and - God willing - to pass it on to their children and grandchildren. I'm willing to pay a very high price, financially and in other ways, in order to make sure that I ground my children in that foundation.

I critique in my book the American Jewish community actually for not doing enough to support Jewish education because I think it's unrealistic to imagine that we can inculcate Jewish commitment in our children if we haven't given our children a strong foundation educationally in Judaism.

GROSS: But sending your children to a Jewish school means they're not going to a school where they'll be meeting people who aren't like them. I mean, they won't be meeting people who aren't Jewish. And in an age where multiculturalism has become so important, don't you want your children to in school be mingling with, having friends who are different from them - different religions, different ethnic groups, different races?

BEINART: We look for opportunities to do that outside of school and certainly they will - certainly by the time they're in college they'll be at a much more diverse place. But I actually believe that the strongest form of multiculturalism, the most vibrant form of multiculturalism comes through the interactions between people who actually know something about their own tradition and can then speak about it to other people in a meaningful way.

When my children do interact with the non-Jewish world and people say what does it mean to be Jewish? Why do Jews do A, B and C, I want them to be able to speak from a position of knowledge and pride and explain what Judaism is. And I think actually often the most meaningful multicultural encounters come between people who both have strong foundations in their own particular religion or ethnicity or peoplehood. And so that's where I wanted to invest - my wife and I wanted to invest - first with our children.

GROSS: We're in the middle of a presidential campaign. I think everybody who's campaigning would like to get, you know, the, quote "Jewish vote." What do you see candidates doing to try to get that?

BEINART: You know, the dirty little secret of the American Jewish vote is that the vast majority of American Jews do not vote on Israel. The polling shows that about 10 percent of American Jews vote on Israel. You know, the American Jewish leaders may focus a lot on Israel. I think Israel is very important, but these are non-elected leaders who don't necessarily represent most American Jews.

Barack Obama I think will win 70-plus percent of the Jewish vote because Jews are very strongly attached to the Democratic Party because of domestic issues. You know, the single biggest driver of the Jewish vote in America is actually abortion. American Jews are very strongly committed to an agenda of cultural tolerance, probably, in fact, because they're actually very secular. American Jews are much more secular than are American Christians, and they tend to break out on these cultural issues in the same way that do secular people of all faiths. So I think people often misunderstand this question of the Jewish vote. I don't - I think it's going to turn more on the economy and frankly, on cultural issues like abortion, ultimately, than probably it will on Israel.

GROSS: Any final thoughts you'd like to leave us with?

BEINART: I guess the final thought that I would offer is I think that we need to remember that the people who created this state of Israel, who created it under the most adverse circumstances imaginable, in a fight for Israel's very existence in a country that had millions of Holocaust survivors who were traumatized beyond belief. They were not naive people. Yet, they believed that what would ultimately lead to the security of the state was democratic ideals. And oftentimes, those of us who talk about Israel's democratic character and the Jewish ethical tradition can be mocked as naive people who don't understand what a nasty neighborhood the Middle East is. That's not true. It's precisely because we recognize that Israel faces real dangers that we understand that Israel's best safeguard ultimately is its democratic character, because democracy is the way any government legitimates itself in today's world.

The American Jewish organizations worry a lot about Israel's, quote/unquote, "delegitimization." I fear what they don't understand is that the thing that threatens to delegitimize Israel most is the collapse of Israel's democratic character. If Israel remains a democracy, a country that offers the right of citizenship to all its people, it can stand up proudly in any forum around the world and make the case for Zionism and for Israel's existence and win that argument. But if Zionism collapses as a democratic project, then I fear, I fear that Israel will become delegitimized, even though it would be the worst possible outcome.

GROSS: Well, Peter Beinart, thank you so much for talking with us.

BEINART: Thank you.

GROSS: Peter Beinart is the author of the new book "The Crisis of Zionism." You can read an excerpt on our website,

Coming up, we talk with Gary Rosenblatt, the editor of The Jewish Week, a weekly published in New York. We'll talk about reactions, including his own, to Beinart's proposal of a boycott of goods made in Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

This is FRESH AIR.

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