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Elliot Leven

Peter Beinart
photo by Rhonda Spivak

Elliot Leven: Beinart’s call for settlements-boycott flawed

By Elliot Leven, April 12, 2012

In a March 18 op-ed piece in the New York Times, New York Jewish academic Peter Beinart calls on progressive Americans to boycott goods made in West Bank settlements. He also calls for other measures aimed at attacking Israel’s settlement policy without attacking Israel itself. His motives are commendable, but his reasoning is flawed.
Beinart is a professor of journalism and political science in New York. He is also a blogger, a freelance journalist and the author of two books about politics. He has often written in defence of Israel, but has been critical of Israel’s West Bank settlement policies. He supported America’s invasion of Iraq, although he later concluded that it was a mistake.
Beinart begins his op-ed piece (titled “To save Israel, boycott the settlements”) by criticizing Israeli leader Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu for effectively promoting a “one-state” policy by “erasing” the Green Line (the 1967 border between Israel and Jordan). Beinart of course favors a “two-state solution” which would see Israel withdraw from most of the West Bank in return for peace. Beinart is clearly not a Netanyahu fan.
Beinart also opposes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (“BDS”) movement, promoted by some critics of Israel, including some who oppose Israel’s right to exist.
Beinart proposes a sort of middle ground, designed to stigmatize West Bank settlements without stigmatizing Israel. Beinart urges Americans who feel the same way that he does to lobby the American government to exclude goods produced by West Bank settlers from America’s free-trade agreement with Israel. He also urges Americans to lobby for an end to tax-deductions for donations to settler charities.
Beinart distinguishes between the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem. He points out that Palestinians living in eastern Jerusalem can obtain Israeli citizenship (although very few do).
Beinart also urges semantic changes. He argues that the term “West Bank” is an anachronism. The area should be called “nondemocratic Israel”.
Also, when American newspapers call Israel a democracy, Beinart asks Americans to urge the newspapers “to include the caveat: only within the green line.”
Beinart balances his proposals by opposing the BDS movement with the same intensity as he promotes his settlement-boycott. He also asks Americans to take the money they are not spending on goods made in the settlements, and spend it on goods made in Israel.
I share Beinart’s concerns about Israel’s West Bank settlement policies. I have said so in these pages before. I also share his concerns about Netanyahu’s leadership – if I lived in Israel, I would certainly not vote for Bibi. Needless to say, I share Beinart’s support for a two-state solution.
Having said that, I think Beinart lives in an ivory tower. His point that the term “West Bank” is an anachronism because it was first used to distinguish between the east and west banks of the Jordan River when both were controlled by Jordan, is true but academic. The term “West Bank” is now so widely used that it is here to stay.
Yes, it is true that Palestinians living in the West Bank are not allowed to become Israeli citizens and to vote in Israel. Therefore, it is true that Israel’s administration of the West Bank is in a sense “nondemocratic”. And it is true that many journalists fail to draw this distinction, particularly when they are writing brief articles or producing brief TV or radio reports. But the history of the Middle East is very complex, and short news reports will never capture all of the complexities. They will always oversimplify many aspects of the conflict. Beinart does not seem to realize that, outside of academia, that’s how things are.
Furthermore, as a purely practical matter, it will be difficult if not impossible to distinguish between West Bank goods and Israeli goods. Today, most manufactured goods contain components from numerous locations. Even simpler goods often contain components from more than one source. For example, a canned or packaged food product might contain food produced in Israel plus packaging produced in a West Bank settlement, or vice versa. It may be that the average American (or Canadian) consumer will never come across a “purely West Bank” item for sale.
That does not mean that there can be no distinctions at all. Beinart points out that some progressive Israelis refuse to visit the West Bank settlement of Ariel. When Beinart visits Israel, he should avoid visiting the West Bank. He is free to urge his friends to do likewise. 
In fact, if Beinart wants to support Israel while opposing its West Bank settlement policies, he should start a campaign to encourage all Americans to visit Israel as tourists, but to stay out of the West Bank while they are there. That would be a way of providing enormous concrete support for the people of Israel, while expressing symbolic opposition to Israel’s settlement policies.
Sadly, only a minority of American (and Canadian) Jews have visited Israel as tourists. Perhaps Beinart can apply his considerable intellectual skills to the challenge of encouraging Jewish tourism to Israel. It would not be as high-profile as publishing an op-ed in the New York Times, but it would be much more useful.
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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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