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The Phoenix in Conversation with Commentator Peter Beinart

After professor and commentator Peter Beinart kicked off Swarthmore’s “South Africa to Gaza: World History and the Politics of Accountability” series, he spoke to The Phoenix about the Israel-Gaza violence, public discourse, American politics, and the media. Below is an edited transcript.

Daniel Perrin: First of all, at Swarthmore, there’s been a lot of protest calling for our endowment to divest from companies that are involved with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) or are identified as contributing to the violence in Gaza. Those calls are not just at Swarthmore – they’ve been at colleges around America. I’m wondering about your thoughts on demands for divestment? Beyond divestment, what are your thoughts on the roles of individual organizations that are not directly involved in Israel-Gaza violence but still have demands made of them?

Peter Beinart: I think I would want to look more specifically at an understanding of exactly what people were calling for the college to divest from. But as a general principle, I would say that I’m sympathetic to calls for divestment because a college is involved in the places that it’s investing its money, whether that’s in fossil fuels, or whether that’s in companies that are doing business with the IDF. And it seems to me if one believes that denying millions of Palestinians basic human rights is wrong and you oppose Palestinians resisting through attacks on Israeli civilians, as I do, you want Palestinians to resist in a way that conforms to international law. And that, ideally, is nonviolent, so then you need to support efforts that are non-violent and speak in the language of human rights and international law. You can’t expect Palestinians to simply accept their subjugation, right? So [divestment] is a non-violent movement. It’s not an Islamist movement. It’s a secular movement based on international law modeled on the anti-Apartheid movement. And it seems to me one of the things that made it easier for Hamas to commit the massacre and atrocity that it did on Oct. 7 was that Palestinian efforts at non-violence had been successfully defeated by Israel – by the United States – so many Palestinians felt like that wasn’t working. And that seems to be actually a dangerous message sent to Palestinians, including for the safety of Israeli Jews.

DP: Next up might be an unanswerable question. But, what are tangible steps that you think should be taken all the way from colleges like Swarthmore to the highest level of national politics, that balance the need for good civil discourse based on evidence and reasoning with the very real emotional ties that all sides of the Israel-Gaza conflict feel? What are things that voices at different levels of power can tangibly do to foster those conversations in a way that makes sure that they’re civil yet passionate?

PB: First of all, I don’t think you can. You can urge people to be civil, but you can’t require them to be civil. What I think you can do is you can require people not to use threats, intimidation, and harassment at individual students. You can encourage and try to model civility in your own behavior, but sometimes students will be assholes, regardless of their political perspective. And they have the right to be assholes as well, as long as they’re not threatening another student. You have to defend the right of students to free speech, even if you don’t like the principles that they’re arguing for, and even if they don’t argue for them in a polite way. Protest movements historically have not always been polite or very nice. A lot of people were pretty obnoxious in the anti-Vietnam-War movement as well. And, in terms of U.S. policy, I would say the United States should stop allowing American weapons and American money to be used for the destruction of Gaza. And we should stop shielding Israel from accountability in international institutions like the U.N., the International Court of Justice, and the International Criminal Court. 

DP: There’s been a lot of debate about the U.S.’s role, and therefore President Biden’s role, in this violence since Oct. 7. Some believe that the U.S. has control over everything that Israel does, and some believe that power has diminished and Israel will do what it wants. What are your thoughts on the effective power that the U.S. has in 2024 over Israel?

PB: I think the U.S. has a significant amount of influence. Israel looks to the United States to resupply it with weapons to continue its military operation in Gaza. Israel also looks to the United States to protect it diplomatically in international institutions. The United States has issued many vetoes at the U.N. Security Council. It’s not likely that there’s another country on the U.N. Security Council with the kind of diplomatic muscle that the United States has that would play that role were the United States not to play it. However, the United States doesn’t, by any means, have total control over what Israel does. But I do think it has enough power to make Israel pay a price for its actions that it’s not paying now, which could, I think, change the political discourse inside Israel. I think one of the reasons Benjamin Netanyahu has been so successful politically is he’s told Israelis that they could basically do whatever they wanted, and it would not impair their relationship with the United States and Europe. He’s been proven correct so far, and I think if he’s proven wrong, that changes the nature of Israeli politics.

DP: The U.S. has been allied with Israel since its founding, and U.S. foreign policy is so ingrained in world structures. What are your thoughts on the malleability of foreign policy from the US with a new administration or with new politicians? How much control does any leading politician in the U.S. have over foreign policy when the U.S.’s role in the world has been so ingrained throughout history as a friend to Israel and has established relations to many other countries?

PB: The truth is, actually up until the 1990s, it was not uncommon for U.S. presidents to threaten to withhold American military aid. The last president to do that was George H.W. Bush in the early ’90s. But before that, virtually every President –  Reagan, Carter, Nixon, Eisenhower – all did, and I think the Democratic Party is moving in that direction. It’s not there yet. But I think that’s where Democratic public opinion is. And I think it’s still probably a minority, but a growing minority of Democratic politicians believe that. So I think for me, one of the unfortunate things is that Joe Biden, instead of capitalizing on that and strengthening that point of view, has held it back, but I think the next Democratic president could have support in his own party for a policy that returned to the policy of previous American presidents that did not give Israel unconditional military aid.

DP: On the topic of American politics, are we headed towards a massive restructuring of U.S. politics because of this issue? What are your takes on the progressive anger at Biden and establishment Democrats, as well as the anger from Jewish communities that are potentially more pro-Israel? Is that going to be a major factor in the 2024 election? It seems like constituencies are shifting, but do you believe that U.S. political conventional wisdom is shifting because of this issue?

PB: I do think that Biden’s policy on Gaza is contributing to his weakness among younger voters, Black voters, and certainly Arab-American and Muslim voters. So I think that’s true, and I think it’s part of a longer-term shift that could very well change the center of gravity for the Democratic Party. I don’t think that the Democratic Party moving left on Israel-Palestine is going to lead to a significant number of Jews leaving the Democratic Party, because most American Jews don’t vote based on Israel. They’re driven by primarily a set of cultural questions, abortion above all, that route American Jews into the Democratic Party. American Jews are a very, very secular population outside of Orthodox Jews who are already voting Republican and the most likely to vote based on Israel. But non-Orthodox Jews essentially vote like atheists, and their political behavior is essentially determined more by their secularism than by their Jewishness.

DP: There have been shifts in not just America’s and the Biden administration’s, but the international community’s actions on this issue since Oct. 7. If you look at Biden on Oct. 8, it’s very different from Biden now proposing a temporary ceasefire to the U.N. like he is rumored to be planning. Biden has also talked about growing distant from Netanyahu and trying to allow Palestinian aid in, but there’s also a lot of criticism that these are empty words. What is your take on that? Are these shifts real and meaningful? Or are they temporary and empty?

PB: I mean, so far, they haven’t been important. They haven’t really tangibly put real pressure on Israel to stop doing what it’s doing. [Biden’s] just been hoping that he can convince Israel to agree to a ceasefire and hope that the ceasefire ultimately becomes permanent. But since Netanyahu doesn’t seem to be interested in that so far – and Israel and Hamas don’t seem to be able to agree on the terms of the ceasefire – because Hamas is demanding that the ceasefire would require Israel to stop the war, I think the Biden Administration may ultimately have to have a public confrontation with Israel if it wants to try to change his behavior. Biden has tried to avoid doing that so far. But I don’t know if he’ll be able to continue to avoid that forever if he wants the war to ultimately end.

DP: There’s been a lot of discussion about the role of both American and Israeli media in this issue, and a lot of criticism towards publications like The New York Times for aspects of their coverage. As a professor of journalism speaking to a college newspaper, what do you think about these claims? Are you worried about progressive mistrust of the press? Do you think that mistrust is worthy? Is it dangerous? And, what do you think about the role of newsrooms as small as Swarthmore Phoenix up to the New York Times on this issue?

PB: I think it’s good to have a healthy skepticism of any individual media institution and to try to expose oneself to a variety of different perspectives. But, I think that it’s worth reading The New York Times and The Washington Post. It’s worth reading Israeli media, not just Haaretz, but also something that is kind of more politically to the right, like Yedioth Ahronoth, which has an English language version. I think it’s also really, really important on this subject in particular to read non-American media, to read media from the Arab world and the Global South because the perspective can be so different. Unfortunately, those voices aren’t very well expressed in American media, so you can’t necessarily get them very frequently in the United States. I think you need to read them and find them in other places. I think Karen Attiah at the Washington Post, whose parents are from West Africa, or Nesrine Malik at The Guardian, offer that perspective a little bit, but it’s rare in Western media, so oftentimes one has to look to media outside of the United States. 

DP: Finally, I think it’s fair to say that you’ve changed your philosophy on Israel, but also on foreign policy topics like the War on Terror and Iraq. In an era when it seems like people don’t really change their minds even when exposed to new information or evidence that might lead someone to contrast with their beliefs, what types of information or perspectives do you look out for that have changed your mind in the past? What do you look for in terms of information and perspectives that tend to change your mind these days?

PB: I try to seek out, and read consistently, people with whom I disagree, but I also try to look for people who have a particular expertise on a particular subject. So for instance, I’ve had mixed feelings at various points about Ukraine. But I think the thing that has led me to err on the side of supporting arming Ukraine is… reading Ukrainians. So I think that it’s valuable to go to the population that has the most intimate understanding of a particular subject, especially when it’s a subject of people who are suffering, and to listen to what those folks are saying. So I think that’s been one of the things that I found very valuable. When I think back to earlier parts of my career and the early views that I had about American foreign policy, I think that I was not listening. I was not listening enough to people, for instance, after 9/11, who were speaking from the Muslim world and the Middle East. And so I’ve tried to not make that mistake again.

Daniel Perrin: Thank you so much.

Peter Beinart: Thank you, it’s been nice to meet all of you at Swarthmore.

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