Beinart's Boycott

by Joel Beinin | published March 19, 2012 - 7:07pm

The New York Times has done it again. For the second time in a month its op-ed page features an article calling for a (qualified) boycott of Israeli products. The latest installment, “To Stop Israel, Boycott the Settlements,” is from Peter Beinart, former editor of The New Republic, former senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and now senior political writer at the Daily Beast. In addition to Beinart’s impressive credentials as a left-of-center Establishment thinker, he is also a practicing Orthodox Jew and sends his children to Jewish school, as his article informs us.

Beinart’s position will certainly not satisfy proponents of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which he opposes. He calls only for a boycott of products manufactured in the West Bank, not including East Jerusalem. Tireless Israeli peace campaigner Uri Avnery has advocated virtually the same position for over a decade. But Avnery doesn’t belong to an Orthodox synagogue and, most importantly, he isn’t an American Jew and doesn’t belong to a community whose moneybags over-generously fund the American political system, as Sheldon Adelson’s antics so indecorously remind us.

Beinart believes that it is possible to isolate the West Bank settlements from a relatively democratic Israel, expanded to include all or much of East Jerusalem. As the Who Profits? website and others have argued, this is a chimera. The settlements are, and have always been, a project of the Israeli state. The differences among governments led by Labor, Kadima or the Likud are matters of style and degree. All believe equally that only Jews are the rightful owners of “the land of Israel.” This is the fundamental source of the inability to compromise on any basis that acknowledges equal Palestinian rights. The settlements are inseparably connected to a support infrastructure, from Israeli universities and their “security studies” programs to the Israel Defense Forces, which is rooted in pre-1967 Israel. The “settler lobby” in the Israeli Knesset numbers over 40 MPs, more than one third of the total membership.

Beinart tells us that 300,000 settlers live in the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem. True enough. But over 200,000 live in East Jerusalem, and their number has been growing on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s watch. Their violence against their Palestinian neighbors in Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan and elsewhere makes headlines almost every week and has never been effectively restrained by any Israeli government.

Beinart altogether ignores the second of the BDS movement’s demands -- for full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel. For someone who believes that Israeli democracy is salvageable, this is a critical omission. The civil rights of Palestinian-Israelis have been severely eroded by the Netanyahu government. This is, to be sure, a different issue than the fate of the Palestinians of the West Bank, who have virtually no rights at all. But neither is it wholly disconnected. It wouldn’t be too far off the mark to say that Israel’s treatment of its Palestinian minority before 1967 (there was a military government from 1949 to 1966) was a dress rehearsal for the post-1967 occupation.

One could go on at much greater length, and I suspect that Palestinian colleagues will, because the single most egregious problem with Beinart’s article is that it barely mentions Palestinians (the main reference is to reject BDS) and “Palestinian rights” are absent altogether.

Despite all these weaknesses Beinart’s article is a historic marker in the trajectory distancing American Jews from the Israel of Bibi Netanyahu, Sheldon Adelson, Avigdor Lieberman, Irving Moskowitz and the messianic nationalist settler right. What he proposes is likely too little, too late for Israel-Palestine. But perhaps not if his main concern is American Jews and the future of diaspora Jewish culture.