Peter Beinart calls for a ‘Zionist BDS,’ but he’s not finding many takers

Peter Beinart, who called this week for a boycott of West Bank goods, meets students at the J Street national conference in February 2011. Beinart is due to keynote this year’s conference by the liberal pro-Israel group at the end of the month.

By Ron Kampeas, JTA

WASHINGTON—Should Jews shun other Jews? And should they shun Jews who call on Jews to shun other Jews?

Peter Beinart’s call in the New York Times recently for a boycott of goods manufactured in West Bank settlements reignited a debate not just about what works and doesn’t when it comes to advancing a two-state solution, but also about what should and should not be said during the debate.

Beinart, a journalist and essayist whose book “The Crisis of Zionism” is about to come out, tried to cast his call in pro-Israel terms.

“If Israel makes the occupation permanent and Zionism ceases to be a democratic project, Israel’s foes will eventually overthrow Zionism itself,” he wrote.

Beinart referred to his boycott proposal as “Zionist BDS”—a play on the pro-Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions movement targeting all of Israel, which Beinart firmly condemned in his Times essay as an effort to dismantle the Jewish state.

The pushback was immediate and came from multiple camps in the Israel debate: those who rejected Beinart’s thesis but sought to engage him and those who think his latest call places him beyond the pale. More pushback came from advocates of a broader boycott movement targeting all of Israel.

Beinart has been a high-profile figure in the debates over Israel ever since he penned a much-discussed 2010 essay in The New York Review of Books suggesting that what he depicted as an Israeli slide away from democratic values would alienate American Jewish youth. The essay won him plaudits from the pro-Israel left.

Even the dovish J Street was cool to his boycott proposal. Its president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, said that boycotting settlements was unlikely to yield positive results.

“We favor a border not a boycott—we want to get the political process going to arrive at a border,” he said.

Ben-Ami hastened to note, however, that the idea of boycotting settlements was not out of place in the Israeli discourse. Another J Street conference keynoter, he noted, was Amos Oz, the widely respected Israeli novelist who has signed onto a letter supporting Israeli artists who refuse to perform in the West Bank settlement of Ariel.

“It’s a legitimate point of view that a lot of passionate two-state Zionists share,” Ben-Ami said. “And Peter is within the mainstream in Israel.”

Seth Mandel, writing on the Contentions blog at the conservative Commentary magazine, assailed Beinart’s boycott proposal as well as his labeling of Israel proper as “democratic Israel” and Israeli settlements as “nondemocratic Israel.” Mandel called these arguments “both morally reprehensible and a dangerous slippery slope.”

“The slippery slope, of course, is that the ‘legitimate’ vs. ‘illegitimate’ argument will immediately be applied to those, anywhere and anytime, who voice any support for the Jews Beinart says to stay away from,” Mandel wrote.

Jeffrey Goldberg, a writer for The Atlantic who also has harshly criticized the West Bank settlement enterprise, chose the path of engagement, parrying with Beinart in a much-watched exchange on Twitter.

“What’s your alternative for stopping the settlement growth that dooms Israeli democracy?” Beinart asked Goldberg.

Goldberg replied: “Longer discussion, but int’l boycott will only make mainstream Israelis more sympathetic to settlers, not less.”

Centrist Jewish groups were critical of Beinart’s proposal.

“I don’t think a JCRC would support any organization that would support any kind of activity that would bring any harm to a segment of Israel,” said Ronald Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.

Halber said he did not think Beinart would become a pariah in the Jewish community, arguing that it “sounds like he wrote the piece more to start a discussion than advance the proposal.”

“I find it a less than serious proposal from a person I consider thoughtful,” he said.

David Harris, the American Jewish Committee’s executive director, said that questions of whether Beinart was in or out of the discussion were rendered moot by the welcome Beinart received in venues like the pages of The New York Times—and that meant he would continue to score speaking gigs from Jewish groups.

“Peter Beinart is not knocking at a proverbial tent; Peter Beinart has been let in by The New York Times,” he said. “I only wish he were as open to some of the ideas of the hosting Jewish institutions as they are to hearing his thoughts.”

Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, said that Beinart’s proposal would alienate Israelis and so violated a basic tenet of first heeding what another Jewish community was considering before recommending action.

“We don’t have the Palestinians, and with a campaign like this you won’t have the Israelis—that’s a great accomplishment towards peace,” Foxman said sarcastically.

One Jewish group, however, has taken a similar line to Beinart. Americans for Peace Now, which is a member of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, announced its backing for settlement boycotts last July.

The debate is sure to continue, if only because Beinart was stoking it at the virtual meeting place he hosts at the Daily Beast/Newsweek. The newly launched blog, called Zion Square, has assembled an array of prominent contributors, predominantly hailing from the left of the political spectrum.

One of Zion Square’s writers, Raphael Magarik, chided those who said Jews boycotting Jews should be out of bounds, and noted that such actions have been commonplace throughout Jewish history.

“To cut from our playbook the best tactic Jews have for censuring other Jews, a tactic that dates at least to the Talmud and has as its targets the likes of Leon Trotsky, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, and Baruch Spinoza—well, that’s what I call painful and unnatural,” he wrote.