Peter Beinart participated in a discussion last December 15 panel with Representative Rashida Tlaib, Professor Marc Lamont Hill, Professor Barbara Ransby and moderated by Rabbi Alissa Wise. He was told he was betraying his people.The opposite is true. His people are betraying Judaism. by blindly linking a foreign state with the essence of Judaic values.
I’d be lying if I said the accusation doesn’t bother me. It bothers me immensely. For years, I’ve tried to criticize Israel in a way my fellow Jews can hear. I’ve tried—not just in my work, but in the way I live my life—to be what Michael Walzer has called a “connected critic”: someone who shows love and loyalty to the community with whom he disagrees. The attacks make me worry I’ve failed. I’ve frittered away whatever communal goodwill I had left by sharing a panel with not just one but two people—Tlaib and Hill—who have been labelled anti-Semites. It’s hard enough to defend myself. Why associate with them?
Answering that question requires understanding the perverse way in which charges of anti-Semitism often function in the contemporary American debate over Israel. Frequently, they serve not to combat bigotry but to excuse it. In the West Bank, which Israel controls, millions of Palestinians live alongside hundreds of thousands of Jews. The Jews enjoy citizenship, free movement, due process and the right to vote for the government that controls their lives.The Palestinians enjoy none of these rights. (Defenders of the Israeli government sometimes claim that West Bank Palestinians actually live under the control of the Palestinian Authority. But the PA is not a government; it is Israel’s subcontractor. When PA officials do things Israel doesn’t like, Israel arrests them).
Two peoples live in the same territory under a different law. That’s legalized bigotry. Former Israeli Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert have both likened permanent Israeli control of the West Bank to apartheid. But, with every passing year, Israeli control grows ever more permanent. In 1982, the then-deputy mayor of Jerusalem warned that 100,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank would make a viable Palestinian state impossible. Today the number is close to 650,000, and rising. Last week, the Associated Press reported that the Israeli government was planning a new network of roads connecting the West Bank to Israel proper, which would “pave [the] way for massive growth of Israeli settlements.”
As Israel has bound the West Bank every more tightly into a single state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea—a state in which millions of Palestinians lack basic rights—Israel’s defenders have claimed ever more vehemently that questioning the Jewish nature of that state constitutes anti-Semitism. It’s Kafkaesque. The very people who are making a two-state solution impossible label anyone who imagines one equal state—the only alternative for granting West Bank Palestinians citizenship in the country in which they live—Jew-haters. Thus, if you believe an independent Palestinian state is no longer possible, the only way to avoid being labelled a bigot is to accept the bigoted status quo.
Fundamentally, this is why Tlaib and Hill are labelled anti-Semites: Because they support replacing the current one state—in which millions of Palestinians lack citizenship and the right to vote—with one state in which Jews and Palestinians live under a common law. Because they hold this view, and because they are people of color, their statements are interrogated in ways that the statements of American politicians and commentators who support one unequal state rarely are. I’ve sat on many panels with supporters of one unequal state, people who openly justify denying Palestinians equal rights to Jews. Yet my presence at such events has never garnered significant controversy.
Take, for instance, Tlaib and Hill’s declarations that Palestine should be free “from the river to the sea.” By employing this phrase, their critics allege, they are signaling that they want a single state that denies Jews safety and freedom. But Israel is, today, a single state—from the river to the sea—that denies millions of Palestinians safety and freedom. Mike Pompeo celebrates this reality. Joe Biden pledges to fund it, no matter what Israel does. America’s most prominent politicians support, in practice, the ethno-religious domination that Tlaib and Hill are chastised for supporting in theory. Yet if you search for “Tlaib” or “Hill” and “anti-Semitism,” Google will cough up an unending series of references. Google “Pompeo” or “Biden” and “anti-Palestinian bigotry” and you’ll find almost nothing at all.
If Tlaib and Hill really did desire a single state that oppresses Jews, that would constitute anti-Semitism—and would absolutely merit condemnation. Critics note that some who use the phrase “Palestine from the river to the sea,” such as the leaders of Hamas, have advocated an Islamic state that subjugates Jews. But the phrase long predates the birth of Hamas, and has historically encompassed a variety of Palestinian visions, including a secular democratic state. Luckily, we don’t have to guess whether the one state that Tlaib and Hill desire would offer equality to Jews. They have both told us. In the very 2018 speech in which he used the phrase “a free Palestine from the river to the sea,” Hill repeatedly cited the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as his guide for the rights that a single state should safeguard. He subsequently explained that he supports a “single bi-national democratic state” that offers “peace, safety, security, and self-determination for both Israelis and Palestinians. Justice requires that everyone, not just a single side, is free and equal.”
But Hill and Tlaib’s detractors don’t want to debate them. They want to ostracize them. They want to delegitimize support for a single, equal, state even as they defend the legitimacy of a single, unequal, state.
Whatever our differences, Tlaib, Hill, Ransby and I share a belief in the infinite value of human dignity. So central is human dignity to Jewish tradition that, according to the Babylonian Talmud, it supersedes all rabbinic commandments. According to the Jerusalem Talmud, it supersedes most Torah commandments as well. For me, therefore, participating in a conversation aimed at defending human dignity—including the dignity of Palestinians—constitutes not an act of betrayal but an act of loyalty, loyalty to ethical principles that the Jewish people, my people, have helped bequeath to the world.