Commentary  Zionism with nuance

Peter Beinart speaks about Jewish youth and ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is paralyzed and hope is scarce for reanimation. In North America, discussions of the conflict are similarly stuck and opposed viewpoints still manage to stir up unbridled vitriol in people of diverse backgrounds. The debate is even polarized and acrimonious within the North American Jewish community. A widening division exists between those who support Israel’s current security policy and those who yearn for a more progressive and proactive path to peace.

For many, the crux of the debate is the occupation of the West Bank. Though arguably a security necessity, it jeopardizes Palestinian human rights and threatens to erode the democratic values upon which Israel was founded. To increasing numbers of North American Jews, particularly the youth, this reality is a source of moral torment. Yet the conservative consensus is that any admission of Israeli wrongdoing in the West Bank is unacceptable, even traitorous or anti-Semitic. How did such fissures open up in the Jewish community? How can peace advance with such a profound split?

American political commentator Peter Beinart addressed this crisis in his first-ever appearance at McGill on October 24.. A Jew and avowed Zionist who has built a career on criticizing Israeli policy, Beinart is a controversial figure in the North American Jewish conversation. Speaking concisely before an audience mainly of students, he began by reaffirming his commitment to Israel as the Jewish homeland before outlining his criticism of Israeli policy.

Beinart denounced the Israeli settlement of and military rule over the West Bank on the same basis: that it is unacceptable for two populations to live side by side with unequal rights. Such a state of affairs, he argued, is in fundamental contradiction to the democratic principles upon which Israel was founded and the social justice concerns of the Jewish people. How could it be, he asked, that North American Jews stood at the forefront of the push for peace in Darfur while remaining so silent on the human rights abuses perpetrated in their homeland?

His answer lies in the Jews’ perception of themselves in the world. Since the end of the Second World War, Jews have emerged from two millennia of marginality to become a globally powerful group. For the first time in modern history, Jewish challenges “stem not from our weakness but from our power.” To Beinart, the source of the puzzling Jewish neglect for Palestinian human rights lies in the absence of “a language to talk about the ethical responsibilities of Jewish power.”

The unique position of North American Jewish youth allows them to see the conflict in a fundamentally different way from their parents. Temporally isolated from the horrors of the Holocaust and spatially distant from the insecurity of life in Israel, they “have only seen Israel and Judaism as powerful.” As such, Beinart asserts that they have less discomfort demanding accountability from Israel.

On this basis, Beinart ended his talk by emphasizing the duty that North American Jewish youth have to help end the occupation and establish the Palestinian homeland. With an intimidating sense of urgency, he set the deadline for peace at twenty years from now, after which a two-state solution would cease to be possible and Israel would become an “international pariah” inextricably entangled in human rights abuses.

An unusually orderly and respectful question period followed the talk, and many questions responded to an obvious ambiguity in the lecture: what ought Jewish youth do with their power? Beinart proposed that the Jewish mindset would be more sympathetic to Palestinian plight if it had greater exposure to it. After all, the current state of Palestinians so closely resembles the Jewish condition over the past millennium. But he acknowledged that to do so requires strategic engagement with leaders of the Jewish community,  who tend to hold conservative views on the conflict.

Beinart’s comical suggestion was for progressive Jewish youth to approach their rabbis, who tend to be eager to involve Jewish youth in the faith, and offer to attend synagogue services in exchange for hosting a Palestinian speaker. He also expressed dismay at how few Jewish youth visiting Israel make a trip to the West Bank or Gaza.

But it will prove difficult to encourage concern and sympathy for the Palestinians among older North American Jews, many of whom so deeply hold animosity and resentment toward them. But for Beinart, ending the occupation is not merely a matter of social justice but a measure to preserve Israel as it ought to be: democratic and peaceful. Progressive Jewish youth should thus advocate a fundamental reinterpretation of what it means to be pro-Israel, emphasizing the community’s commitment to the founding principles of the country. Doing so may restore crucial sense to a critically irrational debate.

Corey Lesk is a U2 Earth System Science student. He can be reached at