December 7, 2016
In Blog News
By Peter Beinart | Dec. 7, 2016 | 12:42 PM
With every passing year, the American Jewish establishment poses a greater threat to free speech in the United States.
The reason is simple. With every passing year, Israeli control of the West Bank grows more permanent. And so, with every passing year, more American progressives question Zionism.
After all, if Jewish statehood permanently condemns millions of West Bank Palestinians to live as non-citizens, under military law, without free movement or the right to vote for the government that controls their lives, it’s hardly surprising that Americans who loathe discrimination and cherish equality would grow uncomfortable with the concept.
And the more those Americans voice this discomfort, the more establishment American Jewish organizations work to classify anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism, punishable by law.
The latest example is The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, which the Senate passed unanimously on December 2. The Act – pushed by AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Federations of America – instructs the Department of Education’s Civil Rights office to follow “the definition of anti-Semitism set forth by the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat anti-Semitism of the Department of State in the Fact Sheet issued on June 8, 2010.”
Sounds innocuous enough. Until you look at what the Fact Sheet says. Following the definition hatched by Soviet dissident turned Israeli right-winger Natan Sharansky, the Fact Sheet defines anti-Semitism as, among other things, “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, and denying Israel the right to exist.”
This is nuts. Across the world, numerous peoples desire “self-determination.” Kurds have been seeking their own state since the late nineteenth century, roughly the same period when Jews hatched Zionism.
So have Basques. Sikhs have been agitating for their own country, in Punjab, since India’s creation. The Igbos of eastern Nigeria actually created one, Biafra, for three years between 1967 and 1970.
There are reasonable arguments in favor of these efforts at self-determination. There are also reasonable arguments in favor of requiring Kurds, Basques, Sikhs and Igbo to live in multi-ethnic countries based upon a national identity that supersedes their own.
Either way, bigotry has nothing to do with it. If opposing a people’s desire for self-determination makes you bigoted against that group, then a lot of American Jewish leaders should report themselves to the Department of Education’s Civil Rights office right now.
After all, Palestinians want their own state. Many American Jewish leaders oppose it. Why aren’t those leaders bigots under the very principle they’re trying to write into law?
The truth is that political Zionism – the belief that Jews enjoy the greatest safety and self-expression in their own state – has always been controversial even among Jews. In the early twentieth century, many Orthodox Jews called Zionism a violation of Jewish law.
Many American Reform Jews argued that Jews were a faith, not a people, and thus had no homeland other than the United States. Other prominent Jewish thinkers – including Judah Magnes, who founded Hebrew University,
Henrietta Szold, who founded Hadassah and the philosophers Hannah Arendt and Martin Buber – argued that a Jewish state would dispossess Palestinians and bring war. They argued for a binational state instead. That didn’t make them anti-Semites.
As the twentieth century progressed, these arguments against Zionism faded. The Holocaust buttressed the case for a country of Jewish refuge. Israel became an established fact, and in many ways an extraordinary success.
Then, in 1993, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat declared that “The PLO recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security.” In 2002, the Arab League offered to “sign a peace agreement with Israel” if it returned to the 1967 lines and found a “just” and “agreed upon” solution to the Palestinian refugees.
Once even Palestinian and Arab leaders publicly declared that they could accept a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian one, the historic debate over Zionism dwindled.
It is returning in the twenty-first century because a Palestinian state was never born. (A failure for which both sides deserve blame). That failure, combined with decades of Israeli settlement growth, has convinced many progressives that a Palestinian state is now impossible.
Thus, they argue, the only way West Bank Palestinians can win their rights is in one state – including the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Israel proper – that does not privilege Jews.
This is not my view. Despite everything, I still consider the two state solution more realistic than the binational alternative. But you don’t have to be an anti-Semite to disagree.
Anti-Zionism never died; there have always been people – Jewish and non-Jewish – who oppose any kind of Jewish state within any borders. But anti-Zionism is growing because deepening Israeli control of the West Bank makes it harder to reconcile Zionism with basic Palestinian human rights.
Faced with the growing number of Americans who deny that Zionism is compatible with liberal democracy, establishment American Jewish groups could try to make Zionism more compatible with liberal democracy. They could publicly challenge Israel’s undemocratic occupation of the West Bank. But that would require confronting Benjamin Netanyahu, and many of their own donors.
So they’ve chosen an easier path: get the Department of Education to define anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism and thus threaten the campus activists who are challenging Jewish statehood with legal sanction. The Senate bill claims that “Nothing in this act…shall be construed to diminish or infringe upon any right protected by the First Amendment.”
But that’s exactly what the bill does. In the words of Michael Macleod-Ball, chief of staff of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington, DC legislative office, it “opens the door to considering anti-Israel political statements and activities as possible grounds for civil rights investigations.”
It’s an old story: When people in power fear a debate, they try to criminalize it. It won’t work. If Zionism means permanent control of millions of Palestinians who lack basic rights, Zionists will gradually lose the contest of ideas in the United States. And the American Jewish establishment – which chose silencing Zionism’s opponents over fighting for a Zionism they could honestly defend – will bear some of the blame.