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“American Jews Isolate Themselves from Palestinian Experience,” Says Peter Beinart

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
December 2013

The American Jewish community has, argues Peter Beinart, the author of “The  
Crisis of Zionism,” largely isolated itself from the experience of Palestinians  
living under Israeli occupation and live in what he calls “the American Jewish  
Writing in The New York Review of Books (Sept. 26, 2013), Beinart declares:  
“Speak to American Jews long enough about Israel and you begin to notice  
something. The conversation may begin with Israel, but it rarely ends there. It  
usually ends with ‘them.’ Express concern about Israeli subsidies for West Bank  
settlements and you’ll be told that the settlements don’t matter because ‘they’  
can’t accept Israel within any borders. Cite the recent warning by former Shin  
Bet head Yuval Diskin that ‘over the past 10-15 years Israel has become more and  
more racist’ and you’ll be told that whatever Israel’s imperfections, it is  
‘they’ who teach their children to hate and kill. Mention that former prime  
minister Ehud Olmert has called Mahmoud Abbas a partner for peace and you’ll be  
told that what ‘they’ say in Arabic is different from what they say in English.”  
Beinart reports that, “This spring I watched the documentary ‘The Gatekeepers’ —  
in which six former heads of the Shin Bet sharply criticize Israeli policy in  
the West Bank — with a mostly Jewish audience in New York. Afterward a man  
acknowledged that it was an interesting film. Then he asked why ‘they’ don’t  
criticize their side like Israelis do. I used to try clumsily to answer the  
assertions about Palestinians that so often consume the American Jewish  
conversation about Israel. But increasingly I give a terse reply: ‘Ask them.’  
That usually ends the conversation because in mainstream American Jewish  
circles, asking Palestinians to respond to the endless assertions that American  
Jews make about them is extremely rare. For the most part, Palestinians do not  
speak in American synagogues or write in the Jewish press. The organization  
Birthright, which since 1999 has taken almost 350,000 young Diaspora Jews —  
mostly Americans — to visit Israel, does not venture to Palestinian towns and  
cities in the West Bank. … The American Jewish Committee’s Global Forum earlier  
this year, which advertised sixty-four speakers, did not include a single  
Guidelines adopted by Hillel, the group that oversees Jewish life on American  
college campuses, Beinart points out, makes it almost impossible to invite  
Palestinian speakers. These guidelines, he writes, “codify the de facto  
restrictions that exist in many established American Jewish groups — make the  
organized American Jewish community a closed intellectual space, isolated from  
the experiences and perspectives of roughly half the people under Israeli  
control. And the result is that American Jewish leaders, even those who harbor  
no animosity toward Palestinians, know little about the reality of their lives.”  
One consequence of this isolation from Palestinians, Beinart believes, “is a  
lack of information, the other is a lack of empathy. Because most American  
Jewish leaders have never seen someone denied the right to visit a family member  
because they lack the right permit, or visited a military court, or seen a  
Palestinian village scheduled for demolition because it lacks building permits  
that are almost impossible for Palest¬inians to get, it is easy for them to  
minimize the human toll of living, for forty-six years, without the basic rights  
that your Jewish neighbors take for granted.”  
The lack of familiarity with Palestinian life, Beinart argues, “also inclines  
many in the organized American Jewish world to assume that Palestinian anger  
toward Israel must be a product solely of Palestinian pathology. … By walling  
themselves off from Palestinians, American Jews fail to understand the very  
behavior they seek to prevent. … Ignorance is dangerous. I recently spoke to a  
group of Jewish high school students who are being trained to become advocates  
for Israel when they go to college. They were smart, earnest, passionate. When I  
asked if any had read a book by a Palestinian, barely any raised their hands.  
Even from the perspective of narrow Jewish and Zionist self-interest, that’s  
folly. How effectively can you defend Israel’s legitimacy if you don’t even  
understand the arguments against it? But the students are simply reflecting  
their elders. … ‘Who is wise?’ asks the Jewish ethical text Pirkei Avot. ‘He who  
learns from all people.’ As Jews, we owe Israel not merely our devotion but our  
wisdom. And we can’t truly provide it if our isolation from Palestinians keeps  
us dumb.”  
Of all people, Beinart states, Jews “can relate to stories of dispersion and  
dispossession … In strange ways, encount¬ering Palestinians — the very people we  
are trained to see as alien — can reconnect us to the deepest parts of  
ourselves. Tommy Lapid, the late father of Israel’s most recent political  
sensation, Yair Lapid, was a hawk. But one day in 2004 watching an elderly woman  
in Gaza’s Rafah refugee camp searching on hands and knees for her medicines in  
the ruins of a house destroyed by Israeli bulldozers, he blurted out something  
astonishing. He said she reminded him of his Hungarian grandmother.”  
Beinart concludes: “By seeing Palestinians — truly seeing them — we glimpse a  
faded, yellowing photograph of ourselves. We are reminded of the days when we  
were a stateless people, living at the mercy of others. And by recognizing the  
way statelessness threatens Palestinian dignity, we ensure that statehood  
doesn’t rob us of our own.” •

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