Part III: Reflections on JSpace

Peter Beinart is another very well-known activist and writer who appeared on the initial panel. A Rhodes Scholar and former editor of The New Republic, he is an Associate Professor of Journalism and Political Science at City University in New York, a senior columnist for Haaretz, a CNN regular, and writes for The Atlantic and a plethora of other publications. In his writing and his commentaries, he has been preoccupied with America’s abetting of the Israeli occupation and the settlements in the West Bank as well as the rise of ethno-nationalism around the world. As he proudly states, he attends an Orthodox shul with a mechitzah (a partition dividing men and women during a service) and sends his kids to a Jewish day school – “my children go to Jewish day school and Judaism is the center of my life.” In 2012, he wrote a very controversial article advocating support of a boycott of the settlements. I have commented occasionally on some of his writing in my blogs.

In his opening remarks, he lamented the support of the organized Jewish community for Trump’s actions on Israel and expressed the conviction that the greatest danger to Israel and the Jewish people came from the alignment of Netanyahu with new “partners,” the new autocratic leaders of Hungary and Brazil and numerous other states. Jews would, in the end, he believed suffer from the bitter fruit of the oppression unleashed by these populist leaders. The flirtation with ethnic nationalists led directly to the Pittsburgh shooting since the original objects of hatred of the killer were illegal migrants whom Trump had assailed. And it was only a short step to characterizing Jews as the organizers of the caravans of Central Americans trying to cross the US/Mexican border. The denigration of Palestinians in Israel, he opined, was parallel to the marginalization of minorities by Trump and his acolytes.

If you read Peter even infrequently, you will find that his current obsession, as with many if not most American journalists, is with the Trump phenomenon, a Trump who ridiculously wants to buy Greenland while engaging in other embarrassing actions, most of which run against American interests, as in the withdrawal from Syria. He follows the Democratic Party race for the presidential nomination and current American foreign affairs, much more than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump and the GOP both now wallow in paranoia even though they are in power. I cannot recall if he ever called Trump a racist, as I have done, but he has certainly written about Trump stressing race, ethnicity and religion rather than citizenship and civic values at the same time as the GOP insists that nothing is racist. Beinart seems to cheer the new shift to the left of the Democratic Party indicated by Nancy Pelosi’s launch of the impeachment inquiry and the initial seeming preference for inspiration over caution.

Again, if you follow Peter’s writings, it is evident that he is profoundly moved by the plight of the Palestinians in the West Bank. I have been to the West Bank many times and dealt with Palestinians but never had the same response he did. That may be because I have spent a great deal of time in different refugee camps around the world. “(T)he first time I [Peter Beinart] went to the West Bank it was a shattering experience. The only thing I could imagine that could be similar for an American would be going to visit the Jim Crow South. When you see people living under the control of the state with no rights and they can not become citizens or vote for the control of the state that controls their lives, they do not have free movement, the need a pass to move from city to city, and they live under a military legal system. The consequences are more brutal than we could imagine sitting here.” For Beinart, the real core issue seems sometimes to be Palestinian self-determination and, at other times, “the absolute denial of human

[individual versus collective]

rights.” I believe he views the two as inter-dependent.

In my talk with Peter afterwards, he saw no hope for peace coming from within Israel alone, but viewed peace between the Israelis and Palestinians as only possible if the U.S. Government used its economic and political leverage to pressure the Israelis. But what about the Palestinians? For most Jewish Israelis, in spite of the criticisms of Netanyahu, are distrustful of Palestinian intentions given the past record that I summarized in yesterday’s blog, the belief is that Palestinian rejectionism goes very deep. Beinart did not tackle that issue.

Raja Khouri spoke second. He is the Founding President of the Canadian Arab Institute, an Ontario Human Rights Commissioner, a member of Human Rights Watch Canada, and co-founder of the Canadian Arab/Jewish Leadership Dialogue Group. Though born in Lebanon and identified as an Arab-Canadian, he refers to himself as a Palestinian. He is a strong believer in dialogue. He champions diversity and inclusion, cultural bridge-building and human rights. He is opposed to the use of violence as a tactic. He tried to communicate why Palestinians in the diaspora were understandably frustrated with the Jewish community when the Jewish establishment appeared as such uncritical supporters of Netanyahu’s policies.

His two stumbles in his presentation were instructive. Raja supported the right of Canadians to boycott Israeli products produced in the West Bank and deplored the efforts and pressure the established Jewish community brought against the LCBO, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, to reverse its stand on rejecting wines produced in the West Bank as being labeled “Made in Israel.”

The first stumble occurred when he failed to distinguish between the right to boycott, and, more specifically, the right to boycott products produced in the West Bank but labeled “Made in Israel,” versus support for BDS. He asked whether members of the audience regarded BDS as antisemitic. Perhaps a dozen people raised their hand, though I suspect that belief was more widespread. No one offered a follow-up question about his identification of the right to boycott mis-labeled products from the West Bank and the efforts of BDS, which many commentators view as using the boycott simply to demonize Israel. Unfortunately, as with many panels, time ran out before anyone could probe this issue deeper.

The other stumble took place when he seemed to say that he was not anti-Israel but pro-Palestinian and was a supporter of a two-state solution, but refused to acknowledge and respect Israel given its pattern of behaviour. I was left with the impression, which I was unable to clarify in my discussion afterwards with him, that he accepted the reality of Israel’s existence but not its right to exist. He did not seem aware – at least this was my first impression, subject to correction – that many Jewish Zionists would regard him and his position as certainly liberal and fair, but also untrustworthy and without any depth of respect for Israel as a Zionist entity.

Shaqued Morag at 33 is the new current Executive Director of Peace Now. She was the third person on the panel. When I read about her before the conference, I thought she would speak about the effect of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian children, a core concern. However, on the panel, she was most preoccupied with “creeping annexation” of the West Bank when I am sure that she would be the first to say that it was not creeping but was storming ahead. For as Peter Beinart said in the discussion that followed the opening remarks, refusing to give Palestinians living in Area C building permits while expanding Jewish settlements is not simply creeping annexation, but simply a prologue to a program of annexation. However, in the slogan, “Choose Peace over land,” was she advocating removal of 450,000 settlers? Did this partially explain why Meretz had been reduced to a leftist rump?

As usual, the panel turned into an exercise in frustration as follow-ups were limited and I never found an opening to speak to her personally. I must say that, whatever her position on any matter, and whether I agreed or disagreed, she was dynamic without engaging in any demagoguery, was very clear thinking and articulate with very strong convictions but ones articulated with modesty and restraint. She will make both a strong impression as a lobbyist in the Knesset and an articulate and warm voice to reaffirm Peace Now’s position as a broad-based movement. She is clearly a strategic thinker and we will hear much more from her in the future.  For that discovery alone, it was worth hearing her.

The questions I was left with on which I hoped to get further clarification:

  1. Are Canadian Jews complicit in “creeping annexation”?
  2. If you believe in self-determination and independence, how can you endorse U.S. pressure as the mechanism to move Israel into a peace mode?
  3. Why is Israel characterized as the main, if not exclusive, obstacle to peace?
  4. Given the record of the past thirty years, how can dialogue and education be regarded as the major if not exclusive paths to peace, especially when the text books in Palestinian schools are so virulently anti-Israel and anti-Zionist?

If, as Raja Khouri cited, 72% of Israelis support an unequal status for Israeli Palestinians, what is the real chance of Israel becoming a truly democratic state with full and equal rights for its Palestinian citizens?  

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