Professor and Commentator Peter Beinart Offers History, Advocacy on Israel-Gaza

On Tuesday, Feb. 20, professor and commentator Peter Beinart visited Swarthmore for the first event in the “South Africa to Gaza: World History and the Politics of Accountability” series. The series is hosted by the Aydelotte Foundation, the President‘s Office, Swarthmore College Libraries, Arabic, Art History, Black Studies, Educational Studies, English Literature, History, the Intercultural Center, Islamic Studies, Philosophy, and Sociology & Anthropology as “a timely response to the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) hearings on genocide in Gaza that invites prominent academics, artists, and writers to advance a scholarly understanding of issues related to human rights and social justice today.”

Beinart is a respected voice on international affairs, Zionism, journalism, American Judaism, and politics at large. Beinart was born in Cambridge, MA, to Jewish immigrants from South Africa. After graduating from Yale University and completing a Rhodes Scholarship in philosophy in international relations at the University of Oxford, he went on to serve in teaching and editorial positions. Currently, he is the Associate Professor of Journalism and Political Science at the City University of New York and the Editor-At-Large of Jewish Currents.

He has also served as an editor at The New Republic magazine since 2006 and as a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Beinart has risen to fame over the years for his writing in numerous prominent publications, critique of the Israeli government’s actions towards Palestinians, and insights on American Zionism. Most recently, he has written on Judaism and Zionism in an era of heightened violence after Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks on Israel and Israel’s subsequent assault on Gaza.

Swarthmore’s event started with introductory remarks by Associate Professor of English Literature Sangina Patnaik on the recent hearings at the ICJ, as well as background information on recent violence. She discussed the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and its role in a world of unequal international politics. Patnaik remarked: “Our series sheds light on how the question of Palestine has become a major arena of struggle in the shape of the global world.”

Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Educational Studies Edwin Mayorga served as event moderator. Mayorga started the discussion by asking Beinart to introduce the audience to his career, citing the evolutions of thinking that Beinart has gone through on issues relevant today. Beinart took that opportunity to begin by stressing the importance of diverse points of view. 

“If you’re the person in the room that feels like, after listening to me, you disagree with me more than anyone else, then you’re the person that I’m most grateful is here,” Beinart said. He referenced the Jewish text Pirkei Avot, reciting “Who is wise? The one who learns from all.”

Beinart shared how his views on Israel were originally shaped by his grandmother, who was born in Egypt before moving to the Belgian Congo and then to South Africa. Growing up in America, he was told by her not to “get too comfortable in America,” and that Jews are “never permanent anywhere outside of Israel.”

“To call Judaism a religion misses a lot,” Beinart said. “I think the central metaphor for me in Judaism is the metaphor of family. The story of Genesis tells the story of an extended family, that in the Book of Exodus becomes a nation.” 

Continuing on themes of Jewish teachings and core values, Beinart remarked, “Judaism also has – as I interpret it – a universal ethical message. It’s not coincidental that the Jewish people were born in slavery, and that they are told again and again to remember that experience.”

Beinart discussed the combination of a “clear recognition of the moral obligation to help people and this familial obligation to Jews” and began thinking how to balance these. 

For Beinart, for a while, the balance was a two-state solution – involving split but protected nations for Israel and Palestine – that he believed in from the age of eighteen until his late 40s. 

His recent shift in thinking came from evidence of the two-state solution’s lack of likelihood as more settlers moved into the West Bank: “I needed to find a different formulation trying to capture the values that I hold dear.” Beinart shared that he then found himself convinced by the need for “one state based on the principles that I believe in: equality under the law, irrespective of race, religion, sex.” Reading Palestinian literature helped Beinart overcome the fears instilled in him that the lack of a Jewish state would result in “the long history of Jewish powerlessness and danger reasserting itself.”

“When everyone is represented in government, instead of when they’re divided into two societies where one group is locked out of each, it wasn’t just intellectual, that seemed to me to make sense,” Beinart said. 

In Beinart’s view, political representation is a way to protect from violent terrorism, and he invoked the example of South Africa to make this point 

“When Black people got the right to vote, the military rule of the African National Congress (ANC) would cease to exist. Because Black South Africans actually had a mechanism for getting the government to listen to them that didn’t require them to take up arms.”

He continued on against the idea of exclusive states, saying “I don’t feel comfortable with people who talk about the language of racial and demographic majorities in the United States and say, well, we’ve got too many Hispanics, we’ve got too many people who aren’t from Europe… [people saying these things] are not my people. And as a Jew, I don’t trust those people. So why would I feel comfortable with that language in Israel-Palestine?

Stressing the true importance in Jewish texts of a yearning to return to the land of Israel, Beinart reflected that this taught him that he could then not deny that return to someone else. Citing a wide variety of institutional oppression of Palestinians – blocking the ability to hold land, to vote, to be elected, to be free from unfair prosecution –  in the West Bank and “Israel proper,” Beinart contested the idea of a simply Jewish state, saying that, in the modern world, this means a Jewish supremacist state that works to secure rights for Jews greater than that of others. 

Beinart continued to address frequent topics of discussion. A common accusation against Zionism is that it is a “settler colonial movement.” Beinart agreed, but was careful to enforce that it was “also other things” and that there is more to the story. 

“I also think it’s true that Zionism was experienced for many, many Jews as a movement of refuge, right?” Because after the atrocities of the Holocaust, most of the world’s countries weren’t accepting many survivors, so the idea of Israel was as a place of refuge for survivors.

“Because in the late-19th and early-20th century, there was an explosion of nationalism all over Europe. It was a moment of great nationalist fervent: Hungarians, Poles, Ukrainians. And Jews are asking themselves, ‘What does our nationalism look like?’” Beinart said. “And because of the depth of the religious connection to the land of Israel, for many people, the only form of nationalist expression that made any sense would be in the land of Israel.”

With that in mind, however, Beinart reframed the conversation, saying “I don’t think that Israel-Palestine is really a foreign policy debate in the United States,” Beinart theorized, saying “I think it is very often a kind of proxy debate for American national identity.”

“So it seems to me, the more deeply invested you are in America’s founding, right about a promised land in a hostile country, the more sympathetic you are likely to be to Israel because it’s the same story. And the more skeptical you are, the more skeptical you are likely to be of Israel,” he hypothesized.

“But I also think that’s why the Palestine solidarity movement is so threatening to Americans. Because they feel like, oh, once they decolonize that place, then they’re going to keep on at this point, ‘What does that mean for us?’”

As a fervent defender of Judaism and commentator on antisemitism, when asked for his thoughts on discrimination on college campuses, Beinart stated that “holding Jews responsible for the actions of Israel is also a form of antisemitism.”

But, Beinart thinks this lesson is crucial for people on all sides of the Israel-Gaza topic. 

“The lesson for [pro-Palestine people] is: it is wrong for you to make any assumptions about Jewish students about their position on Israel. A Jewish student has just as much of a right to have no opinion, and not to be engaged in this question as any other person. To interrogate Jewish people and demand that they give you an answer, to me, is a form of holding people responsible in a way that’s not correct.”

On the other hand, “One of the problems is that many organized American Jewish institutions and the Israeli government say that being pro-Israel or being Zionist is not a choice that you make, but an inherent part of Jewish identity,” Beinart said, citing Hillel and the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom as examples of such Jewish institutions that require strong Zionism for Judaism.

Continuing on, Mayorga asked Beinart about a recent statement that the term anti-Palestinian being uncommon in mainstream discourse “not because it is rare, but because it’s ubiquitous. It’s absent precisely because if the concept existed, everyone in Congress would be guilty of it except for a tiny minority of renegade progressives who are regularly denounced as antisemites.”

Beinart reflected that in terms of policy, “the vast majority of American members of Congress are very happy for the situation in which Palestinians live in with a kind of legal inferiority.”

Beinart used that concept to develop a discussion on the Free Palestine protest slogan “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” “Now, let me put my cards on the table: I don’t love that slogan because it doesn’t reflect the fact that this territory [between the river and the sea] is made up of two collectives – of two groups that have a heavy desire for self-determination,” again arguing for a binational state with equality for both collectives.

But Beinart criticized what he calls a double standard in American politics concerning the slogan, discussing how “if you use the phrase like [Congresswoman] Rashida Tlaib did, you get denounced as antisemitic because of the possibility that a future Palestine might not treat Jews equally. But when it comes to the State of Israel that exists today and controls all the territory between the river and the sea, we don’t have to imagine theoretically how it would treat Palestinians: we know how it treats Palestinians!”

Mayorga closed the first part of the event with a question about the role of higher education on this topic. Beinart, in response, offered that “there were a lot of people who were saying not that long ago that being made uncomfortable on college campuses was a good thing, that it was part of the process of learning,” Beinart agreed with those voices, saying that everyone “has to think that maybe you need to see the world in a different way.” 

Warning about new partnerships between the American pro-Israel Jewish community and right-leaning voices in favor of shutting down speech (Florida Governor Ron DeSantis being mentioned as one), Beinart finished the organized discussion by clarifying that the singling out of students, or the use of threats and intimidation, is wrong no matter what.

During the question and answer portion of the event, Beinart got some pushback from students about his problems with the phrase “from the river to the sea,” and on whether the one-state solution that Beinart supports would protect the rights of Palestinians within it.

Beinart reinforced his view of such a state that would “provide equality under the law to everybody,” contrasting this to the current Israeli state, which doesn’t grant citizenship to most Palestinians, let alone legal equality.

Beinart was also careful to push back on comments about the role of a “white supremacist regime” that might preclude a unilateral state from providing equality. He remarked that this framing would “take an American concept and impose it there. I do think there is a form of ethno-religious supremacy, but I think to call it white supremacy doesn’t really actually do it justice,” citing the multi-racial background of Israeli Jews, among other differences.

On this topic, Beinart asked the audience, “If you want to create a state that’s going to be based on equality, is it realistic to try to create a national identity that ignores the lived sense of who they are for half of the population?” In the long term, Beinart hopes that “the settler becomes native,” citing a phrase from anthropologist Mahmood Mamdani, but was also quick to emphasize that “Jewish history is deeply deeply tied up with Israel,” and that people who only discuss Israeli Jews as only people who come from Europe are “not going to understand the ways Jews really see themselves and the realities of Jewish history.”

Building on that, one student asked Beinart about responding to the fear that “all of the atrocities that their grandparents told them about in Europe and beyond would come back,” were Israel not heavily protected.

“That sense of fear is very deep among most Israeli Jews, and I would say it’s partly a fear based on Jewish trauma, which is very real,” Beinart responded. But, while acknowledging that is important, “it’s also typical that groups of people who have a form of supremacy tend to see the prospect of equality as subjugation and domination.” 

On this note, Beinart also stressed the importance of interaction and conversation between Israeli Jews and Palestinians as a way of reducing fears. 

“I find that the Jews who spend the most time listening to Palestinians tend to be the least afraid.”

Citing the tendency of violence from victims of violence, Beinart reflected: “that’s what terrifies me from the perspective of Jewish safety about what’s happening in Gaza today. Beyond the absolute horror from any kind of universalistic moral human perspective, it terrifies me for Jewish safety: people are afraid of Hamas, what do they think is gonna come out of this level of carnage?”

Towards the end of the event, Beinart discussed the political landscape of this issue, sharing that the political environment has shifted in recent months, citing growing Democratic support for conditioning aid to Israel. He also concluded that he doesn’t “agree with every slogan, I don’t agree with every packet,” but that seeing a multi-religious and multi-racial pro-Palestine movement has been moving to him nonetheless.

Beinart closed the event by offering the idea of “loving pressure.” The idea of this, in his words, would have the message of, “We love you. We want to liberate you,” he said. “We want to live alongside you, but we will not accept anything less than full equality. And that’s what I hope that the Palestine solidarity movement could come to.”

1 Comment

  1. Curious, was this talk, which was obviously very critical of Israel at many points, met with violent, psychotic protests and threats? Or is it just the other side that does that?

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