WATCH: Journalist Peter Beinart Speaks with LA’s American Jewish Community
Acclaimed journalist Peter Beinart spoke at Beth Chayim Chadashim last week, in a discussion titled ‘How Should the American Jews think about the violence in Israel?’ It was conducted by Ikar’s Rabbi Sharon Brous.
“I love speaking to communities like Ikar and BCC, but to be totally honest this wouldn’t be the moment that I would have chosen to do so,” Beinart said in his opening remarks. “I find it hard to speak critically about Israeli policy when Israelis are being stabbed. I’m reminded at a time like this that I write and speak in a country which gives Jews extraordinary safety, and this safety makes it easy, probably too easy, for us to moralize.”
“A few weeks ago the United States bombed the only functioning hospital in one of Afganistan’s largest cities- totally incinerated it,” Beinart said. “Ever since, Doctors Without Borders have been demanding an international investigation- which the Obama administration will not allow. How many liberal American Jews have you seen protesting that? I suspect that if it were an Israeli jet and a hospital in Gaza, that our indignation would probably be greater. and I think we have to ask ourselves why that is.”
Beinart has been notably outspoken in support of liberal Zionism and critical of the Israeli settler movement, but despite the fact that he clearly advocates the two-state solution, he says that no matter how much you object to Israeli policy, stabbing another human being is wrong. “Israelis deserve to be able to walk safely down the street, just like every other group of people,” Beinart said. “A national movement that justifies violence corrupts itself morally. It is simply impossible after the second Intifada to credibly argue that killing ordinary Israelis serves the Palestinian cause. And any Palestinian leader today who thinks he can use Palestinian violence to win concessions from Israel, as Yasser Arafat tragically believed in 2000, is a fool.”
“But while we condemn Palestinian violence we must recognize the painful truth: that Israeli policy encouraged it. Israel encouraged it by penalizing Palestinian non-violence, by responding to that non violence by deportations, tear gas, imprisonment and confiscation of Palestinian land. Young Palestinians can experience this lack of basic rights, this lack of basic dignity in their own lives. To stop the violence ultimately you have to change their experience or at least give them hope that it can change.”
“If you really opposed those Palestinians who practice violence and preach Israel’s destruction, you must support those Palestinians who are seeking a different way,” Beinart said.
Beinart also talked about the most important thing that we can do inside our community in order to start creating a change, and it is to have more exposure to Palestinians. “I’ve seen again and again, the ways in which interactions with ordinary Palestinians, Palestinians who actually, when you meet them, don’t seem obsessed with the idea of killing Jews just because they want the sight of Jewish blood, and who actually can describe the circumstances in their lives in ways that sound not so diffrenet than how we would describe the circumstances of our lives were we in those conditions,” he said. “For me, at least, listening to Palestinians is a very interesting and powerful experience precisely because when you listen to people talk about living their lives in a state over which they have no control, in which their fate is kind of at the mercy of others, and then they talk about how their families had been dispersed via historical forces over which they had no control, over the decades and across the world – that is a very Jewish experience, you can understand that as a Jew, you can relate to it very easily.”
And then the question is: How do we relate to politicians?
“I think that the American Jewish community is basically split between people who take the view that we should support Israel doing whatever it wants, and the perspective that we should try to nudge Israel to support a Palestinian state. The problem is that people in camp number one are older, and even more importantly, they’re even more affiliated. They’re more likely to be synagogue members, to be members of Jewish organizations, to be part of the Jewish community. So while American Jews may lean towards being more liberal towards Israel, the American Jewish community, with the people who are part of Jewish institutions, is much more conservative. And it’s those people who, because they’re organized as Jews, wield a lot more influence.”
Below is a recording of the full talk with Peter Beinart. “If you’re the person in the room who feels that you disagree with me more than anyone else in the room then you’re the person I’m really the most grateful for being here tonight, because I think one of our pathologies in the Jewish community is that people tend to listen to and read people who they already agree with, and it’s as much of a problem on my side of the aisle as it is among people who are more conservative.”