To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.
--- George Orwell

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Peter Beinart Decries Insularity of US Debate On Israel Even As He Underscores His Own: The Limits Of Tribal Discourse And The 'American Jewish Cocoon'

In the year or so since I’ve been monitoring the American debate on Israel, perhaps toward a book on the subject, I think I can safely say that one of the thing that makes that debate so dysfunctional is its intellectual, political and ethnic insularity. This is mostly unconscious, although sometimes it does seem to be a function of political calculation, ethnic defensiveness or cultural self-absorption. In Israel itself, meanwhile, the bandwidth of acceptable discourse is much wider.

One figure trying to widen the Israel debate here is Peter Beinart, author of The Crisis of Zionism and editor of Open Zion, a blog hosted on the Newsweek/Daily Beast website.  Beinart’s recent piece in the New York Review of Books examined some of the reasons behind the debate’s insularity, describing the information deficits toward Palestinians among officials in what could be called the Jewish establishment and among the congressional representatives they influence, as well as the problematically narrow circle of mostly Jewish pundits who have become the go-to guys in media discussions of  political developments in the Middle East. (And in fact they are almost all guys.) The piece is filled with some very insightful reporting.  But in underscoring the blindspots among those living in what his headline calls the “American Jewish Cocoon,” Beinart in fact has shown his own, highlighting a kind of ethnocentricity that he should be trying to move beyond. 

Regarding attitudes toward Palestinians among Israel’s American Jewish supporters Beinart says:

I used to try, clumsily, to answer the assertions about Palestinians that so often consume the American Jewish conversation about Israel. But increasingly I give a terser reply: “Ask them.” That usually ends the conversation because in mainstream American Jewish circles, asking Palestinians to respond to the endless assertions that American Jews make about them is extremely rare. For the most part, Palestinians do not speak in American synagogues or write in the Jewish press. The organization Birthright, which since 1999 has taken almost 350,000 young Diaspora Jews—mostly Americans—to visit Israel, does not venture to Palestinian towns and cities in the West Bank. Of the more than two hundred advertised speakers at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) 2013 Policy Conference, two were Palestinians. By American Jewish standards, that’s high. The American Jewish Committee’s Global Forum earlier this year, which advertised sixty-four speakers, did not include a single Palestinian.
Beinart takes aim at self-censorship of the debate on American college campuses and how political red lines drawn around anything bearing on the subject of “delegitimization” of Israel make for “a closed intellectual space:”
Ask American Jewish organizations why they so rarely invite Palestinian speakers and you’ll likely be told that they have nothing against Palestinians per se. They just can’t give a platform to Israel’s enemies. In 2010, Hillel, the organization that oversees Jewish life on America’s college campuses, issued guidelines urging local chapters not to host speakers who “deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders,” “delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel,” or “support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel.”
Those standards make it almost impossible for Jewish campus organizations to invite a Palestinian speaker. First, “delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard” is so vague that it could bar virtually any Palestinian (or, for that matter, non-Palestinian) critic of Israeli policy. Even supporting a Palestinian state along the 1967 lines would violate the “secure” borders standard, according to Benjamin Netanyahu.
Guidelines like Hillel’s—which codify the de facto restrictions that exist in many establishment American Jewish groups—make the organized American Jewish community a closed intellectual space, isolated from the experiences and perspectives of roughly half the people under Israeli control. And the result is that American Jewish leaders, even those who harbor no animosity toward Palestinians, know little about the reality of their lives.
Beinart then chastises Abe Foxman of the ADL, as well as Elie Wiesel, who have not been able to get outside “the cocoon the organized American Jewish community has built for itself. “
In 2010, for instance, an interviewer asked Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, about nonviolent Palestinian protesters convicted by military courts in the West Bank. It was an important question. While Jewish settlers are Israeli citizens and therefore enjoy the due process afforded by Israel’s civilian courts, West Bank Palestinians are noncitizens and thus fall under the jurisdiction of military courts in which, according to a 2011 investigation by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, more than 99 percent of cases end in conviction. Foxman, who leads an organization that according to its website “defends democratic ideals and protects civil rights for all,” replied, “I’m not an expert on the judicial system and I don’t intend to be.”

It’s a good bet that Foxman and Wiesel have each traveled to Israel dozens of times. They’ve likely known every Israeli prime minister in recent memory. They’ve probably even repeatedly met Palestinian leaders.
Moreover, during their careers, each has issued eloquent calls for human rights. Yet judging by their statements, they don’t know the degree to which Palestinians are denied those rights in the West Bank. They are unfamiliar with the realities of ordinary Palestinian life because they live inside the cocoon the organized American Jewish community has built for itself.
Beinart also examines the insularity of the US Congress, its skewed view the product of the lobbying “weakness of Palestinian and Arab-American groups” and“ the effectiveness of the American Jewish establishment” adept at controlling impressions on the congressional junkets they arrange. To a “striking degree” the insularity of the debate within “American Jewry” characterizes “debate about Israel in Washington.”
Since 2000, according to the website LegiStorm, members of Congress and their staffs have visited Israel more than one thousand times. That’s almost twice the number of visits to any other foreign country. Roughly three quarters of those trips were sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF), AIPAC’s nonprofit arm. And many of the rest were sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, local Jewish Community Relations Councils, local Jewish Federations, and other mainstream Jewish groups. During the summer of 2011 alone, AIEF took 20 percent of House members—and almost half the Republican freshman class—to the Jewish state. Since 2000, the foundation has taken House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer or his staffers to Israel nine times and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor or his staffers eight times.
These trips, whose cost can exceed $10,000 and often include congressional spouses, are extremely popular. They’re also influential, leaving what Hoyer has called an “indelible impression” on legislators. Unfortunately, they largely replicate the cocoon that the American Jewish establishment provides its own members.
Last summer, when I asked a member of Congress about his AIEF-sponsored trip in 2007, he told me, “When we went into Ramallah to meet Fayyad, they put the city under curfew. We drove in an armed convoy. We didn’t drive through Qalandiya checkpoint [through which Palestinians, with some difficulty, often pass in order to travel between Ramallah and Jerusalem], didn’t see garbage, shanties. We saw almost no actual people.” He added, “Most members [of Congress] don’t know that Palestinians live under a different legal system.”
That’s not to say members of Congress don’t learn anything on their Israel trips. They learn why Jews feel so connected to Israel and why they worry so much about its security. And for the most part, they learn to see Palestinians the way the American Jewish establishment does: as a faceless, frightening, undifferentiated mass.
As one “pro-Israel” activist told The New York Times last year, “We call it the Jewish Disneyland trip.”
As for the media, Beinart says establishment Jewish discourse about Israel is, in large measure, American public discourse about Israel:
Watch a discussion of Israel on American TV and what you’ll hear, much of the time, is a liberal American Jew (Thomas Friedman, David Remnick) talking to a centrist American Jew (Dennis Ross, Alan Dershowitz) talking to a hawkish American Jew (William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer), each articulating different Zionist positions. Especially since Edward Said’s death, Palestinian commentators have been hardly visible. Thus Palestinians can’t easily escape hearing the way the other side discusses Israel; American Jews can.
Toward the close of his argument, Beinart quotes a Jewish ethical text, Pirkei Avot which roughly translates into Ethics of the Fathers. “Who is wise?,” asks the text. "He who learns from all people," it answers. “As Jews,” Beinart maintains,“We owe Israel not merely our devotion but our wisdom. And we can’t truly provide it if our isolation from Palestinians keeps us dumb.” (italics, WMcG)
It’s commendable for Beinart to call on American Jews to open up their eyes and hearts to the plight of Palestinians, and that he is taking aim at the reprehensible constraints on official American awareness. But the communalism Beinart gives expression to, only most markedly through the use of the possessive pronouns I've italicized, makes his appeal too ethnically specific. It winds up putting the conversation on the side of the “ethnic wire,” at least for most Americans. There’s an implicit separatism at work here, which regards the debate in an collectively proprietary manner---as a Jewish communal entitlement and not as a part of a broader American national interest where America’s international reputation for backing Israel so unconditionally, as well as the $3 billion a year in annual aid we give to Israel, are at stake. While Beinart wants to widen the focus of the debate, he’s fine with the ethnic constriction of the discussants, leaving the core tribalism of the discourse, at least as it’s currently conducted, alone. Unless and until this tribalism is acknowledged and challenged, the American debate on Israel will remain limited and constrained. The next time Beinart asks American Jews to take a hard look in the ethnic mirror, he himself should try to see beyond it. Right now, the view is kind of “restricted,” as historically ironic as that might sound. Until he goes wider, his vision of the debate on Zion won't be as open as it should be.  

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