Boycotts Simplify Ongoing Issues In West Bank

Apr 3, 2012
Originally published on April 3, 2012 5:03 pm

In many American Jewish families, Israel is an extremely difficult subject to talk about. Generational and political divides have stalled discussions about the occupation of the West Bank in numerous households.

On Tuesday's Fresh Air, we talk to journalist Peter Beinart about his book The Crisis of Zionism, which argues that Israel cannot be a true democratic state as long as there are settlements in the West Bank, where Jews are citizens of the Israeli state and Palestinians are not. In his book and in a recent New York Times op-ed, Beinart has proposed a boycott of goods made in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Many American Jews think this is a misguided idea. Among them is journalist Gary Rosenblatt, the editor and publisher of the The Jewish Week of New York, who monitored the reaction to Beinart's piece.

"I think to a certain degree he jumped the shark with that op-ed piece in The Times," Rosenblatt tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I think if he was appealing to the mainstream or establishment Jewish community, many of whose members have conflicted feelings about the settlements, I think the proposition of a boycott just went too far and the reaction was pretty negative."

Rosenblatt says he agrees with Beinart that Israel can never be a fully democratic state as long as there are an occupation and settlers in the West Bank as there are now.

"But I disagree with his approach in that I think he started with a thesis and he's made the facts fit in. And if they don't fit, he ignores them or refutes them," he says. "I think Peter makes the Israel-Palestinian conflict look very simple. And I think it's really a much, much more complicated and nuanced situation. I think Israel's real problem is dealing with people who don't want a Jewish state in the region."

Rosenblatt says that Israel would be entirely democratic if it wasn't at war or under various forms of continuous attack.

"I'm weary of anyone on the left or the right who sees the Arab-Israeli conflict as one with simple solutions," he says. "I think Peter proposes basic, simple solutions. I think it's far more complex and that Israel's only enemy isn't Israel — it's the people surrounding them who reject the idea of having a Jewish state in the region."


Interview Highlights

On the tension between Israel being a Jewish state and a democratic state

"I think that tension is what we've been talking about in terms of a vibrant democracy and also being a Jewish state where the government is supportive of a Jewish state, for not only the people of Israel but also Jews all over the world, and how does one treat a minority within the state? A Christian minority, an Arab minority? And how does one fulfill the Declaration of Independence and all of those ideals, [while] at the same time recognizing that since the day the state was declared, Israel has been in a state of war and people who are under siege and in a state of war sometimes have to respond differently than they would like than a state that doesn't have that situation."

On the occupation

"I think in hindsight, it's a reasonable way of looking at things, as saying, 'Maybe this wasn't the best idea,' but that's looking 40 years back. It seemed like a great idea to many people of establishing facts on the ground. I think the ways wars are waged now has changed some of that equation. I think that's part of the problem. You don't have armies meeting on a battlefield. You now have people dressed as civilians either blowing themselves up in the middle of civilian areas or shooting rockets at civilians in Israel from Gaza and surrounding themselves around civilians — children, schools, hospitals — and counting on the fact that Israel has a moral impulse on the part of its army and is reticent about firing back."

On what the left thinks vs. what the right thinks

"Yes, the left is correct about Israel never being a fully democratic country as long as there's an occupation. But I think the right is correct in saying that solving the settlement issue won't solve the larger Arab-Israeli conflict."

On the difficulties Jewish people in America face in talking about Israel in their own families

"I've talked to a number of rabbis in the community from various denominations who tell me that of late, talking about Israel in the sermon is the third rail, as one [of them] described it. They just don't want to go there [because] it is such a contentious issue. I think that's unfortunate. Part of it is a lack of real knowledge about what's going on in Israel, and reading American press that tends to see things in simplistic terms about the situation there. And it's a combination of guilt and belief and lots of strong emotional pulls and ties and how people respond."

On guilt

"I think American Jews realize that we are essentially on the sidelines as spectators in this great drama. In our lifetime, we have this miracle of the modern state of Israel, and we're over here in the Diaspora, in America, watching as Israelis put their lives on the lives and have suffered in wars and many other ways. Whether we say it out loud or not, it's like, 'Who are we to criticize Israel when we're over here?' "

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Earlier on the show we heard why Peter Beinart, author of the new book "The Crisis of Zionism," has called for a boycott of goods made in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. That proposal has outraged many American Jews.

We're going to talk about that reaction with Gary Rosenblatt, the editor and publisher of The Jewish Week of New York, the largest Jewish newspaper in the U.S. Before joining that publication in 1993, he served as editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times for 19 years.

Gary Rosenblatt, welcome to FRESH AIR. What reaction do you think Peter Beinart's call for boycotting goods made in Jewish settlements in the West Bank has gotten from the Jewish community in America?

GARY ROSENBLATT: I think to a certain degree he jumped the shark with that op-ed piece in The Times, in that I think if he was appealing to the mainstream or establishment Jewish community, many of whose members have conflicted feelings about the settlements, but I think the proposition of a boycott just went too far and the reaction was pretty negative.

Even Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street, the group that identifies itself as pro-peace and pro-Israel and who calls Peter the troubadour of the movement, he took exception to that call for the boycott as well, and part of it is based on just on the pragmatics of a boycott like that. But more I think it would be easily slide toward a general sense of boycotting Israel.

GROSS: Now, Beinart sees the settlements, the growing settlements in the West Bank as possibly leading to the demise of a two-state solution, since the more Jewish settlements there are in the West Bank, the more difficult it becomes to make the West Bank into a Palestinian state and the more impossible it may become to have a contiguous state that's not broken up with Jewish communities. What do you think of that? Do you think that the settlements are making a two-state solution less likely to ever happen?

ROSENBLATT: Well, I guess in general I agree with I'd say half of Peter's thesis in the book, that Israel can never be a fully democratic country as long as there's an occupation and people living in the settlements as they are now. But I disagree with his approach in that I think he started with a thesis and then he's made the facts fit in. And if they don't fit then he either ignores them or refutes them. So, you know, yes, the left is correct about Israel never being a fully democratic country as long as there's an occupation, but I think the right is correct in saying that solving the settlement issue won't solve the larger Arab-Israeli conflict. I mean, just ask Hezbollah or Hamas if that would end the conflict.

GROSS: Does the occupation weigh on you as an American Jew?

ROSENBLATT: I mean, lots of things weigh on me about what's going on in the Middle East and Israel as well. I think in hindsight, it's a reasonable way of looking at things, of saying that, you know, maybe this wasn't the best idea, but that's looking, you know, 40 years back. It seemed like a great idea to many people of establishing facts on the ground. And I think the way wars are waged now has changed some of that equation. You don't have armies meeting on a battlefield. You now have people dressed as civilians either blowing themselves up in the middle of civilian areas or shooting rockets at civilians in Israel from Gaza and surrounding themselves among civilians - children, schools, hospitals - kind of counting on the fact that Israel has a moral impulse in terms of its army and is reticent about firing back.

So I guess my major point here is that I think Peter makes the Israel-Palestinian conflict look very simple and it's really Israel's enemy is Israel. And I think it's a much, much more complicated, nuanced situation and I think Israel's real problem is dealing with people who don't want a Jewish state in the region.

GROSS: I think a lot of Jewish people in America find it very difficult to talk within their own family about Israel because there are so many disagreements within American Jewish families about, you know, the occupied territories, what Israel's, you know, military position should be versus, you know, on say Iran, how to deal with the Arab countries and the Palestinians. And I think in some Jewish families it's like just better not even to go there, like don't even talk about Israel because you know what the conversation is going to be. It's going to get into an argument. No one's going to enjoy it. And you're going to end exactly like you finished, with everybody believing what they believed before the argument started. Has it ever been that way in your family?

ROSENBLATT: Not to that degree, but I think your description is pretty accurate and I've talked to a rabbi, a number of rabbis in the community from various denominations - orthodox, conservative, reform - who tell me that, of late, talking about Israel in a sermon is the third rail, one described it as, that they just don't want to go there because of what you're describing, that it's such a contentious issue. And I think that's unfortunate and part of it is a lack of real knowledge about what's going on in Israel and perhaps reading American press that tends to see things in kind of simplistic terms about the situation there. And, you know, it's a combination of guilt and belief and lots of strong emotional pulls and ties in how people respond.

GROSS: So in terms of the difficulty of talking about Israel in some Jewish families, you mentioned guilt as one of the reasons. Where does guilt come in? What do you think some people feel guilty about?

ROSENBLATT: Well, first of all, guilt always comes into a Jewish discussion.

GROSS: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROSENBLATT: But more seriously, I think it's not necessarily on a conscious level but I think American Jews realize that we are essentially on the sidelines as spectators. We're over here in the Diaspora in America watching as Israelis put their lives on the line and have suffered in wars and in many other ways. And so that's what I was thinking of in terms of guilt, that whether we say it out loud or not it's like who are we to criticize Israel when, you know, we're over here.

GROSS: So both you and Peter Beinart have talked about how Israel is a Jewish state and a democratic state and that there's some tension between those two things, being a Jewish state and a democratic state. What do you see as that tension being about?

ROSENBLATT: I think that tension is, you know, what we've been talking about in terms of a vibrant democracy and also being a Jewish state where the government is supportive of a Jewish state for not only the people of Israel but Jews all over the world and how does one treat a minority within the state, a Christian minority and an Arab minority. And how does one fulfill the, you know, the declaration of independence and all those ideals, at the same time recognizing that since the day the state was declared, Israel has been in a state of war. And people who are under siege and in a state of war sometimes have to respond differently than they would like and than a state that doesn't have that situation.

So I think that's a struggle and a very real struggle that Israeli people and the Israeli governments have tried to deal with.

GROSS: Americans in America have various levels of support for their own government. A lot of Americans are really opposed to one president's policies and support another president's policies. So their support for, like, the government varies according to who's in power. When it comes to you personally, let me ask this without generalizing about, you know, all Jews in America.

ROSENBLATT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So, like, you personally, does your support, you know, quote for, quote, Israel depend on who's in power, whether it's, you know, a liberal government or a very conservative government like is in power now?

ROSENBLATT: I think I have varying degrees of criticism for each government. It might be about different kinds of issues. I think the core values that all of the Israeli governments have I certainly share in terms of defending the state of Israel, the modern state of Israel, and having it be a democratic and a Jewish state. And that sometimes there are difficulties in being a Jewish state and being a democratic state and it's, you know, a continually evolving process.

But I think so much of the criticism and the discussion leaves out the Palestinian responsibility for creating such a difficult situation for Israel. It takes two to tango and there is often not as much criticism, I think, as I think is warranted on the Palestinian side and on why we don't have peace after all these years.

GROSS: Gary Rosenblatt, thank you so much for joining us.

ROSENBLATT: Thank you.

GROSS: Gary Rosenblatt is the editor and publisher of the Jewish Week of New York. You'll find a link to his recent columns on our website, freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.