UPDATE: As the AJC’s Rosalind Bentley reports, tonight’s presentation by Peter Beinart at the Margaret Mitchell House has been sold out.
Peter Beinart was raised in the Jewish faith, attends an Orthodox synagogue in New York City, keeps kosher and says “I love Israel and believe in the Zionist experiment.” He was also just named one of the “Forward 50” by the Jewish Daily Forward, a listing that marks him among those “who have made a significant impact on the Jewish story in the past year.”
So how does Beinart become persona non grata at the Book Festival of the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta, his invitation to speak this week suddenly withdrawn? Beinart himself is in some ways mystified, noting that “I speak to Jewish audiences all the time — at synagogues and community centers,” and had never previously been disinvited. However, he also recognizes that in his new book “The Crisis in Zionism,” he says things that have angered and perhaps even frightened America’s Jewish establishment.
In brief, Beinart sees Israel becoming less and less democratic — both in spirit and reality — as it attempts to swallow the occupied territories without granting basic human rights to the millions of Palestinians who live there. And he warns that over time, an abandonment of Israel’s democratic heritage will jeopardize its support among young Jewish Americans by forcing them to choose between Israel and their support for democracy and equal rights.
Last month, an opinion poll released in Israel highlighted the risks cited by Beinart. The poll found that 42 percent of Israeli Jews did not want their children to attend class with the children of Israeli Arabs; only 19 percent would give Palestinians the right to vote if the territories were permanently annexed into Israel. And just six years after Jimmy Carter was strongly condemned for using the term “apartheid” to describe Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, 59 percent of Israeli Jews admit point-blank that apartheid now exists in their country.
It is absolutely true, of course, that a similar poll of the Arab nations that surround Israel would find overwhelming, even vicious anti-Jewish sentiment. It is equally true that even today, Israeli Arabs enjoy a degree of free speech unavailable in almost any Arab country.
But it is also true that the United States maintains no “special relationship” with those Arab countries. Some may be U.S. allies, but it is an alliance of mere convenience, not an alliance based on deeply shared values and traditions. Beinart fears that if Israel abandons a two-state solution to the Palestinian problem and attempts permanent subjugation of the Palestinian people, even many Jewish Americans will begin to detach themselves from the country, with dangerous consequences.
As he writes in his book, Israel “must not do to others what Jews found hateful when done to them.”
Beinart is hardly the first to make that argument, and is far from the most forceful. But such things are generally said in Israel, by Israelis, not here in America. For example, Gideon Levy, a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, wrote that the poll cited above “lays bare an image of Israeli society, and the picture is a very, very sick one. Now it is not just critics at home and abroad, but Israelis themselves who are openly, shamelessly, and guiltlessly defining themselves as nationalistic racists.”
Beinart has been invited to Israel to speak and debate its future, and has received a respectful welcome. “In general, the conversation in Israel is less confined,” he says. “Israelis don’t worry about whether they have the standing to comment.”
So he can say these things in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, but not at the Book Festival of the MJCCA?
“Our membership isn’t closed to anyone or any one idea, but the negative reaction was significant,” Steven Cadranel, president of the MJCCA, told Rosalind Bentley of the AJC. “We believe this is a message best presented away from our facility.”
As a result, Beinart’s presentation has been stripped from the book festival listing and rescheduled for Wednesday at 8:15 p.m. at the Margaret Mitchell House. As he put it last week, “There’s something not quite Jewish about trying to deny someone a public forum to discuss public issues.”
– Jay Bookman