The Right Question, the Wrong Answer


Peter Beinart is neither a politician nor a “Jewish leader,” a title usually reserved for major philanthropists and lay and professional heads of Jewish organizations. People pay attention to — and often revile — the journalist and college professor because he reliably articulates liberal Zionist attitudes on Israel. He is an unofficial spokesman for Jews who describe themselves as pro-Israel, who support the two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict and who tend to disapprove of many of the policies of Israel’s current right-wing government.

That category represents the majority of American Jews, according to many surveys, including a recent one by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. The JCPA noted, with a hint of disbelief, that most liberal Jewish-Americans would vote for a sometimes harsh critic of Israel like Sen. Bernie Sanders while still considering themselves “pro-Israel.” The JCPA also found among the Jewish majority a “preference for ‘pro-Israel’ candidates in local elections, but not at the expense of other issues.” Asked if they support the annexation of territories held by Israel, 40 percent of American Jews opposed it outright, while only about 12 percent support it. (The remainder either did not know enough about the issue or agreed only the Israeli government has the right to make a decision in this matter.)

Beinart tapped into this vein of discontent in two recent pieces, one in Jewish Currents magazine, the other in The New York Times. He wrote that dimming prospects for a two-state solution have led him to support a binational solution: that is, a single state or confederation that includes Israel, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, and that extends equality to all the Jews and Arabs therein. Because annexation would leave millions of disenfranchised Palestinians under Israeli control, he writes, “It’s time to imagine a Jewish home that is not a Jewish state.”

As a spokesman for the Jewish left, Beinart is, in this viewpoint, hardly representative of his putative followers; few American Jews support one state, especially in its left-wing manifestation. Beinart’s prescription alarmed Jews on the left and the right, as it should: He is endorsing nothing less than the end of the Zionist dream of Jewish sovereignty in the Jews’ historical homeland. His formula threatens Jewish lives and the Jews’ hard-won right to self-determination

But if his solution is fantastical, Beinart’s frustration is real and representative. American Jews who oppose annexation are wondering how Israel can remain Jewish and democratic if it doesn’t extend full rights to the Palestinians, or if it doesn’t negotiate for a Palestinian state whose residents also have autonomy and self-determination.

Beinart’s is an immodest proposal, presumptuous in its aims and dangerous in its prescriptions. But sometimes immodest proposals have a way of focusing a conversation. Nearly three decades after Oslo, a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still far away, while the basic dilemmas remain unchanged. Beinart is asking the right questions, even if he proposes a disastrous answer.