Peter Beinart, Israel and the Labour Party

It is time for liberal Zionists to abandon the goal of Jewish-Palestinian separation and embrace the goal of Jewish-Palestinian equality.”

Peter Beinart, Yavne: A Jewish Case for Equality in Israel-Palestine

The recent decision by Peter Beinart, a liberal Zionist (prominent in America Jewish society and media) to abandon support for Israel as a Jewish state, is symptomatic of the increasing disgust of sections of American Jews with the Israeli state. Beinart still considers himself a Zionist but views it as supportive of a ‘Jewish home’ rather than a ‘Jewish state’. He does not see how a two state solution can be any solution at all, given the fact that 650,000 Jewish settlers inhabit the West Bank. He envisages a bi-national state; a country in which Jews and Arabs live together as equals but in which individual and national rights were protected. Whilst this may appear utopian and impossible he points to the resolution of other conflicts which equally seemed impossible, such as South Africa and Ireland.

Beinart sees the struggle for democracy in which Jews and Arabs have equal rights as offering more prospects of building a movement which might overcome the seemingly impossible, than a two state solution in which a Palestinian pseudo state would be dominated by Israel which controls the borders and air-space of Gaza and the West Bank. There can be no sovereignty in a state without contiguous boundaries, faced with an overwhelming military force which can enter with impunity whenever it chooses.

There are those who will say that Beinart’s opposition to Israel being a ‘Jewish state’ is anti-Semitic in terms of the IHRA definition. Isn’t it denying the right of Jews to self-determination? In fact those who have used the IHRA definition to attack fellow Jews who are non or anti Zionists usually ignore an important caveat in relation to the examples. It says that contemporary examples of anti-Semitism could, taking into account the overall context, include” the eight examples listed. The context is that Beinart is a supporter of the Israeli state only he wants it to be a democratic state rather than an ethno-religious one. It would be nonsensical to accuse him of anti-Semitism.

This political evolution of Beinart throws a light onto the dispute in the Labour Party over anti-semitism real and counterfeit. One of the canards of apologists for the Israeli state is that opposing the existence of it as “a democratic and Jewish state” is necessarily anti-Semitic. In my view Israel cannot be both a ‘Jewish state’ and a democratic one. Some Israeli Jews share this opinion, supporting the democratic demand that it be “a state of all its citizens”. The so-called democracy in Israel prevents Israeli Jews (or others) from standing for the Knesset if they call for an end to the “Jewish and democratic state”. So the struggle for democracy is excluded from the political and (very constrained) democratic structures

It would be difficult to imagine the Labour Party supporting an ethno-religious state anywhere else in the world. Necessarily, a Jewish state reduces non-Jews to second class citizens. It is a country with Jews only roads and Jews only towns. There is nothing anti-Semitic in supporting the struggle for democracy and equality in Israel and the end of privileges for anybody on the basis of their ethnicity or religion.

Peter Beinart’s article, his political trajectory, is a salutary reminder that Labour should not support an ethno-religious state that oppresses a minority population within its own boundaries and within the occupied territories. It was certainly a step forward for Lisa Nandy to announce that Labour would support a boycott of goods from the occupied territories if Netanyahu went ahead with annexation. But irrespective of your point of view on the question of a two state or single state future, Labour should support the struggle for the widest democracy in Israel, and that means a ‘Jewish state’ is unsupportable. It stands in absolute contradiction with equality for Jews and Arabs.

Martin Wicks

29th July 2020

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