Philly Diarist: Beinartism writ small

Beinartism (Read this post by our friends at Fresno Zionism to get up to speed on the term.)

Thursday, May 3, 2012. Philadelphia:

Me: “Can I please have a bag for my kippah? I live overseas and don’t want it to get lost on the trip back.”

Sales attendant: “Sure. Where do you live overseas?”

Me: “Israel.”

Sales attendant (after a brief pause and a troubled look): “What do you think about the Palestinian issue ?”

Me: “What do you mean?”

Sales attendant: “Do you think they deserve a state? Because I believe they deserve a state.”

Me: “Well, many Israelis are concerned that a new Palestinian state wouldn’t in fact bring peace and may only lead to more terrorist attacks and, as in Gaza, give rise to a government led by a radical, undemocratic and violent movement.”

Sales attendant: “Well, I just believe that the Palestinians deserve a state.”

Me: “And I just replied to your question.”

This exchange, on my last day visiting my family in Philadelphia, didn’t take place in just any old Judaica store. It took place between me and a middle-aged Jewish woman who worked in the gift shop of the newly opened National Museum of American Jewish History, across from the Liberty Bell in the city’s historic district.  

I had been in the U.S. for nine days prior to this encounter and never received similar queries from anyone else when I mentioned in passing, in the context of the conversation, that I was from Philly but now a citizen of Israel.

To my family and close friends back in the U.S. my Israeli citizenship is a source of pride, and a topic of conversation which typically revolves around my day-to-day life in Jerusalem, my job, whether my Hebrew has improved and suchlike. 

The woman I encountered, however, conveyed a palpable discomfort at my first mention of the “I” word.  

I couldn’t stop wondering if it was even conceivable that she would have challenged a Turkish visitor to the museum to defend their policy towards the Kurds. Or would she have challenged a Chinese visitor she just met to a debate about Tibet?  Would she have begun a conversation with a guest to her shop from a European nation with troops in Afghanistan or Iraq how they felt about high civilian casualty numbers?

This question actually wasn’t even about Israel. It was about her  an act of morally posturing. She was setting herself apart from me. 

She didn’t attempt to refute the brief argument I presented regarding Israel’s security concerns, but simply repeated what she “believed”. It wasn’t really a conversation at all.

So convinced are such people, with something approaching a secular faith, that peace would be the inevitable result of Israeli withdrawals from the disputed territories they often can’t be bothered to defend their premise. Their argument – any serious observer of the region would have to admit – has at the very least been called into question following the results of Israeli withdrawals from southern Lebanon and Gaza.

While it’s possible the saleswoman I encountered never read Peter Beinart’s recent musings on the Israeli Palestinian Conflict, she certainly shares much of the former New Republic editor’s hubris.

Indeed, the most gnawing omission in Beinart’s original essay on (as he titled his subsequent book) “the crisis of American Zionism” – published at The New York Review of Books under the title “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” – is that it doesn’t mention what should be expected of Palestinians at all.  In fact, Beinart only refers to Palestinians a few times, and always as passive actors.

He writes of the urgent need to promote a “Zionism that recognized Palestinians as deserving of dignity and capable of peace”, and commends Jews (like himself) deeply devoted to human rights for all people, Palestinians included”. [emphasis added]

In the spirit of my interlocutor’s query, Beinart, in his more than 4500 word essay, did not (even in passing) meditate upon the security implications of his proposals. 

If Israelis are to take criticism by Jewish Americans seriously we must first be convinced that their opinions are informed by a rigorous and morally sober understanding of the political realities of the region in which we live.  As such, perhaps we can expect a bit of humility in the face of the ascendancy of Hezbollah and Hamas following our experiment with the “Land for Peace’ formula in 2000 and 2005.  And I think we can be forgiven for asking why they believe a future Palestinian state will necessarily produce peace, tolerance and co existence  values clearly lacking in the political cultures in Gaza and the PA. 

I truly want to believe that such critics are motivated by more than just moral vanity, but the longer I live in the Jewish state (especially in the midst of an ‘Arab Spring’ which hasn’t produced a thaw in our neighbors’ antipathy towards our very presence) the harder it is to take their desperate desire to ‘save us from ourselves’ seriously. 

Israelis – who will have to suffer the real world consequences of any future peace agreement – aren’t in any way asking for ‘uncritical support’ from American Jews: only that the premises of their critiques be supportable.

And, finally, if you work at a Jewish institution and meet someone from Israel please consider being as polite and courteous as you would with a visitor from any other country. You may want to make friendly small talk. And, if you absolutely must discuss the politics of his or her country then, whatever you ask, at least be open-minded and truly listen to the answer. 

I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

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