Peter Beinart is the author of three books and a senior political writer for The Daily Beast, as well as the editor-in-chief of “Open Zion,” its new blog about Israel, Palestine, and the Jewish Future. In 2010, he published an essay titled “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” where he made the case that the Establishment’s uncritical stance toward Israel was pushing many young liberal Jews away from Zionism.
Beinart’s most recent book, “The Crisis of Zionism,” argues that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank threatens the democratic ideals upon which Israel was founded. His book and March 18 op-ed in The New York Times—both of which call for a boycott of goods produced in the occupied territories—have provoked much conversation and debate within the Jewish community.
On April 4, Beinart joined Barry Shrage, who leads Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies, in Emerson Hall, at an event entitled “Can Israel Survive the Next Generation of American Jews?” The audience was composed of students and community members alike, representing a broad spectrum of political beliefs.
FM spoke with the author about his recent book and his efforts to reconcile contemporary liberalism and Zionism.
1. Fifteen Minutes: You’re a journalist and a writer by craft. What got you started in this career path?
Peter Beinart: I didn’t have the temperament to be an academic. [I’m] not patient enough to spend years in the archives. I liked the fact that journalism allows you to write quickly for a larger audience. I’ve always enjoyed reading good writing, and that’s what inspired my writing.
2. FM: What inspired you to write “The Crisis of Zionism”?
PB: I wrote about this a bit in the introduction. I had a mounting sense of unease with regards to the direction of Israeli politics and toward the threat the occupation gives to Israel, to the Jewish state. I also began to worry that my own children would be forced to choose between embracing a Jewish state that didn’t cling to the democratic ideas of its founders or turning away from a Jewish state altogether, which would be a tragedy.
3. FM: What, in your own words, is the crisis of Jewish youth? What burden will they be shouldering in the years to come?
PB: For American Jews, you have an Orthodox population, which is very connected to Israel and Judaism…what they value about Israel is not necessarily Israel’s democratic ideals, but a Zionism of the land without guaranteeing rights and dignities of those on the lands, particularly non-Jews. Outside of the Orthodox community you have a large young population of Jews who have a weak connection to Israel and Judaism, because America has done a terrible job of establishing a joy in and fascination with Judaism.
4. FM: What sort of pressure do you think that the U.S. government should put on Israel?
PB: I think the U.S. government should always guarantee Israeli military advantage, and we should have a security relationship with Israel which is rock solid. America should also be willing to pressure the Palestinians to make difficult compromises. However, it should help Israel to confront the subsidies [that promote the occupation of the West Bank] which are a grave danger to Israel as a democratic Jewish state.
5. FM: I know you’ve had some thoughts and input regarding the occupation. Have you had the opportunity to talk with politicians or diplomats about your ideas?
PB: No, I haven’t talked to many politicians and diplomats about it. Several Jewish authors inspired me with their own personal boycotts of the occupation of Ariel, and I thought that we as American Jews needed to find a way of supporting the actions of these authors while reaffirming Israel. It isn’t an issue with politicians so much as citizens throughout the Diaspora and our commitment to Israeli democracy and to oppose those who would oppose the two-state solution and thus destroy the future of an Israeli state.
6. FM: Where do you fall on the spectrum that you have set between Zionism and liberalism?
PB: I’m interested in reconciling the two as much as possible, in trying to find ways in which a Jewish state can offer as close to full equality as possible to its non-Jewish citizens. That places me in between the people on the left who think the two are incompatible and the people on the right who aren’t concerned with whether or not Zionism has a democratic ethos.
7. FM: Your books and articles have been quite polarizing, provoking staunch supporters and vitriolic critics alike. Is that to be expected?
PB: I didn’t exactly know what to expect. I don’t take any pleasure in being polarizing or controversial. I think my arguments were actually quite moderate. I am a very strong believer in Jewish schooling, and generally a firm supporter of Judaism. But I actually think that if people think that I’m radical, then they really don’t understand that virtually every time I give a speech on a college campus, I end up trying to sell the idea of Zionism to a liberal Jewish college student. My position of supporting the Zionist enterprise has opposition on both the left and the right.
8. FM: What was your ideal takeaway for your talk at Harvard?
PB: Judaism itself is implicated in what happens in Israel because it’s a test of Jewish power, a test of whether the ethical tradition we forged when we were weak functions now that we are in power over others. As Jews, we fight for the survival of democracy.
9. FM: What is your favorite place in Israel?
PB: Wow, difficult question. I love the beaches of Tel Aviv, walking down the promenade. I love the old city and the Kotel [Western Wall]. I have kind of lovely memories from when I was a kid of having gone to the Dead Sea. I even have powerful memories of having traveled through the West Bank. In different points of my life, I have had a whole range of experiences, many of which have been memorable and meaningful for me.
10. FM: Do think that this experience has given some emotional weight to your writing it otherwise might not have?
PB: Of course. Israel has had a presence in my life and this is an issue that is very close to my heart.