Robert Scheer SI Podcast

Joel Beinin: Is It Over For Israel? [AUDIO]

Historian Joel Beinin uses his personal experiences to paint a picture of Israel, past and present, as a country and an idea.

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Israel is anticipating its “most right-wing government ever” after Benjamin Netanyahu took back power in last week’s Israeli elections. 

Joining host Robert Scheer on this week’s Scheer Intelligence to discuss Israel’s past and present is historian Joel Beinin. Beinin is the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and Professor of Middle East History, Emeritus at Stanford University. He has studied at top universities across the country including graduating from Princeton University, Harvard University and the University of Michigan. He has written a number of highly regarded books including “Workers and Thieves: Labor Movements and Popular Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt,” “The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry,” and others.

Beinin dives into his unique look into Israel beginning with his first visit to the country as a young labor Zionist in sympathy with the Labor Party then securely in power. He lived and worked on a kibbutz but soon began questioning a fundamental assumption of the new state: “Israel has the law of return, which permits Jews to come back, to go to Israel, even if they have no historic connection to the place and to become citizens. And on the other hand, Palestinians who were expelled from the country when it was established, 750,000 of them or thereabouts, are not permitted to return. So, in that sense, there is no difference between the policies of the most far right Zionist and the far-left Zionist. They agree on Jewish supremacy,” Beinin said.

Despite the rise of an ultra-nationalist far right government in Israel, Beinin thinks and hopes that exposure of the country’s extremist identity should bring about a broader understanding of Zionism and its contradictions, especially to younger people. “According to a recent Pew survey, 25% of all American Jews think that Israel is an apartheid state, and the number goes up to 35% for Jews under 35. So, there’s a young sector of the Jewish community who won’t accept this and maybe it will be a small minority. Hopefully there’s room for that minority to grow,” Beinin said.

Credits

Host:

Robert Scheer

Producer:

Joshua Scheer

Transcript

Robert Scheer:

Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guest in this case, Joel Beinin, and somebody I’ve known for through his writing. We had a couple of encounters when I was at the L.A. Times, and I interviewed him for different stories. But we’re here to talk about the third rail issue of Israel. And if you’ve been a journalist, you try to write about it, just almost anything you say is going to get you in trouble. And I remember I went to Egypt and Israel at the time of the Six-Day War, and I was then the editor of Ramparts. My goodness. What I wrote back from there put the magazine into bankruptcy. But Joel Beinin has these great academic credentials. You’re now what, an emeritus professor at Stanford. You had some fancy title, I forgot. But you’ve been at Harvard, you’ve been at Hebrew University. You’ve been everywhere. University of Michigan. In Princeton I think you did your undergraduate work. You were intimately involved, you learned Arabic and Hebrew. Were you one of the… Juan Cole recommended… Juan Cole is one of the people I most admire in this field. He said, you got to talk to Joel Beinin if you want to talk about the Israeali election. So what I really want to ask is a very simple question. If we had a sea change about Israel, Israel’s relation to the United States, and no one, no lesser a personality and certainly a supporter of Israel, than Thomas Friedman has actually written that last week. He wrote that, no, this is as if the right wing in America under Trump came in and brought all the worst characters and put them in and accuses the Israeli government now being made up of racist, jingoist people who have no respect for tradition. And when I say sea change, the Israel that I visited at the time of the Six-Day War was still run by a Labor Party and I believe the left Zionists like Hashemite. So you were in that government and I remember interviewing Dayan and Allon and all these people and I said, Look, can you occupy another people who, after all, didn’t fight with you? Your war was with Egypt and Jordan and Syria, but the Palestinians, you now are occupying them and they said things like, I remember Allon telling me, if you come back from ten years and we’re still occupying, we will not be the Jewish state that we have imagined. Now, I don’t know if you were stuck to that much longer, but give me the historical perspective, really what has happened in this experiment of Zionism and democracy and Jewish nationalism. 

Joel Beinin: 

So thanks for having me, Bob. First of all, I think Thomas Friedman is wrong, as he almost often is when he talks about the Middle East because the Israel that he thinks he knew never existed. That’s to say his Israel doesn’t include things like the Palestinian Nakba the catastrophe of 1948, the dozens of laws that discriminate against Palestinian citizens, the military government that existed between 1949 and 1966 over Palestinian cities in the Kafr Qasim massacre of 1956, the cross-border massacres like Qibya in 1953 and many others. The lack of separation of church and state, which means that Orthodox Judaism systematically denies women, LGBTQ people and other currents of Jewish practice of their rights. Israel was never, never a liberal democracy. It was a democracy, even a very vibrant democracy, especially in its early days, but never a liberal democracy, which is to say that respect for minority rights, respect for difference in the public sphere, anything like multiculturalism simply was not accepted. And it should have added to all those other disabilities that I listed before: systematic discrimination against Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. And a lot of that still continues. Now, when Trump came into office, a lot of Americans threw up their arms, oh, you go vote. We’ve lost our country, got it out and Trump came from somewhere. Their roots of Trumpism go all the way back to the era of Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats and Richard Nixon and the Southern Strategy. And exactly the same is the case in Israel. The neo-fascistic ideas that Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, who are the people that most horrified Tom Friedman are expressing, were always present in a more polite form in Israel from day one. For example, Friedman and others have written that Itamar Ben-Gvir is like Giorgia Meloni in the sense that he is a Jewish supremacist. She is an Italian supremacist, and that much is true. But now let’s look at the actual concrete policies of one of the things that characterizes the new hard populist right in Europe. Giorgia Meloni, Viktor Orban, Marine Le Pen, even if she’s a little bit more polite about it and others is they want to control immigration so that only people of their ethno national group are permitted to immigrate, and that will preserve the superior position of their particular ethno national group Hungarians, Italians, French people, real French people, which is to say not Arabs and Muslims in the French case. Well, that has been Israeli policy since day one. Israel has the law of return, which permits Jews to to come back to go to Israel, even if they have no historic connection to the place and to become citizens. And on the other hand, Palestinians who were expelled from the country when it was established, 750,000 of them or thereabouts, are not permitted to return. So in that sense, there is no difference between the policies of the most far right Zionist and the far left Zionist. They agree on Jewish supremacy. 

Scheer:

Okay. But you’ve taken me to school on this. But again, my experience, personal experience in Israel was at the time of the Six-Day War and before you had the full on occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, there was an, if you like, an illusion that one could have a democratic society. And I accept the restraints that you say were built in from the beginning. They were determined to have a primarily Jewish state. Nonetheless, the Arab Israelis that I interviewed are a member, Abraham Shabbat was one, you know, they donated their blood to the war effort. They felt they were Israeli. They could find justice in Israel. And certainly there was a vibrant Jewish Israeli left that you said you encountered with their contradictions, because even the Kibbutz that you were on, that I think 70% of the officers in the Israeli army came out of the Kibbutz Movement of one kind. There was a certain amount of idealism. And the occupation transformed Israel fundamentally, at least, I mean, it’s suddenly you have all of these human beings that are going to be denied their rights and you, you know, to a much more greater extent than the existing Jewish Israeli Arab population. You’re basically suggesting, I’m suggesting that what we have now is a logical outcome of occupying another people. You’re suggesting it would have happened anyway. 

Beinin:

Well, as a historian, I don’t like to put things in such black and white terms. What I meant to say is that there ain’t no such animal as a democratic Jewish state. There’s either a democratic state, which is a state that belongs to all of its citizens, which, in the case of Israel today would include 20, 21% who are Palestinian Arabs. If we go back to 1949, 11% of them would have been Palestinian Arabs. In 1967, some number in between those two. And those folk have never had equal rights. And the reason that they have never had equal rights is because of Jewish supremacy. It would be like going to the Jim Crow South and saying, oh, have your white democracy. Well, you know, no American to the left of Attila the Hun would accept that as a viable situation. Now, you’re absolutely right. I first went to Israel in 1965, I lived on a kibbutz for six months at that time to become trained as a socialist Zionist youth leader, which I then did become. And it was wonderful. It was truly wonderful. There was a vibrant democracy for Jews. Even some Arabs were allowed to participate in it. I asked the kibbutz to teach me Arabic because I already knew Hebrew and it was absolutely no problem. They were happy to do it. They found an Iraqi-Jewish member of the kibbutz. They didn’t tell me. Why is there one Iraqi-Jewish member here? Well, because he came with a group of youth and youth Aliyah, youth immigrants from Aliyah, and they were all treated so badly that he was the only one left on the kibbutz. But okay, he stayed and he was the Arabic teacher in high school and a very nice guy. There’s actually a novel called Scapegoat by Eli Amir that tells that story. So you have the impression that, yes, there is a vibrant democracy. The people who were associated with overt fascism like Menachem Begin then were absolutely excluded from the government. Ben-Gurion would not allow them in any way, shape or form to participate in power. That changed after 1977. You had a certain number of Palestinian-Israeli citizens who in ’65 they were still the military government. Nonetheless, there were journals that they wrote in. They expressed their opinion. There was a Communist Party, often quite harshly repressed, but there was a Communist Party. It had Arabic newspapers and magazines they wrote, and it didn’t look like, okay, we have some problems here, but in the long run we’ll work them out. So, yes, you’re right. The occupation of 1967 was a point of inflection for two reasons. One, it marked the end of, or the beginning of the end, of the hegemony of various flavors of Labor Zionism, and the rise of religious national Zionism. The vanguard of the movement to settle the occupied territories was a group called Gush Emunim, Bloc of the Faithful. They were modern Orthodox Zionists who transformed themselves as a result of the war from a relatively dovish group into a messianic hardcore group. And the trajectory of somebody like Itamar Ben-Gvir or Bezalel Smotrich, these are the guys that Thomas Friedman in particular doesn’t like. I don’t like them very much either, to be sure that that’s their lineage. They come from a lineage that says the most important of the 613 Commandments in the Bible is: settle the land. The Six-Day War was a sign that the days of the Messiah are coming, and we should prepare ourselves by settling the land. Okay, so that’s the ideological current that replaced the kind of Labor Zionism that you’re fondly remembering. And even that I would fondly remember, even if it was a big illusion. 

Scheer:

Well, that’s not just fondly remembering. I mean, okay, first of all, let’s go back to your own idealism, which I assume existed at the beginning, and not that you don’t have idealism now, but you went to Israel as somebody who accepted that there was a need for greater protection of Jewish people after the horrors of the Holocaust and which, by the way, were endorsed not just in Germany, but in large part of Europe and, the horrors were, and I assume that when you went there, you accepted some of the arguments of the left. First of all, many of the people you encountered were secular Jews. Right. These were progressive Jews from the overwhelming. 

Beinin:

Overwhelmingly secular. 

Scheer: 

Yeah. And so a journalist like I.F. Stone, Izzy Stone went there with one of the first groups and he was not alone, was the great hope that a multicultural state. I’m agreeing with you. There was a contradiction from the beginning if you must enforce a Jewish majority. But there certainly was a vibrant peace movement. And the reason I keep bringing up the West Bank is because I remember maybe you know, I was a journalist, maybe Moshe Dayan lied to me and Allon and these people. But they seem to be aware that one could not occupy a large number of people that you have defined as alien, deny them their human rights, and preserve your own democratic society. I mean, it’s actually an argument that, you know, has currency in the world. And I just wondered if you’ve seen the documentary. It’s an older one now, The Gatekeepers. 

Beinin:

Yeah. 

Scheer: 

Yeah. And there you have the members of the what, Shin Bet, the group that. Right. That administers the West Bank and these are the leaders of the state security agency, one after another. Now, they were all retired when they spoke in the documentary, but they all said what I’ve been trying to say, which is that you can’t occupy a people and preserve your own decency, forget about democracy, your own claim to being civilized. And this is I think this moment now is a rude awakening, report card. I mean, for Thomas Friedman, which is what we began with to say there, come on, this is Trump to the ninth power. And this is a society that is an enormous embarrassment now to Jewish people in the United States and elsewhere and in Israel. Many, some hopefully you’re kind of denying the importance of the moment. 

Beinin:

I am denying the importance of the moment. I mean, I’m not saying the moment has no importance. What I’m saying is that while it’s in a point of inflection, it’s not a qualitative transformation. There is a history to how we got here. And I don’t know what Dayan and Allon told you in 1967, but I do know that Dayan and Allon both intended to annex substantial parts of the West Bank, different parts, because they didn’t like each other and so on. But both of them were annexationists, so there were very, very, very few people in the late sixties and early seventies when I lived in Israel, who were prepared to say, okay, let’s give it all back in exchange for a peace treaty. In 1971, but let’s not even talk about the Palestinians, because that’s a harder problem. In 1971, Anwar Sadat answered a UN questionnaire whose import was Are you willing to recognize Israel if Israel is willing to return all the territory that it conquered in 1967? Sadat said yes. Israel said no. And Dayan in particular said: better Sharm El-sheikh, the tip of the Sinai Peninsula that commands the entry to the Straits of Tehran. Better Sharm El-sheikh without peace than peace without Sharm El-sheikh. In other words, Dayan was clearly on record as an annexationist and the entire Israeli government backed him up on that. 

Scheer: So let me just interrupt you for a minute, because the irony of this whole thing is that the countries that waged a war against Israel, we can argue about whether the Six Day War, how it happened and what they provoked and so forth. But the fact of the matter is, Israel has been at peace with Egypt, and Egypt was supposed to be the existential threat. It turned out they didn’t have much of a military force. The Israelis had infiltrated their security and they knew which were the dummy planes and the real planes. And. I remember because I was in Egypt at that time right after, and then I went over to Israel. So the whole idea of Nasser as this formidable military force threatening the very existence of Israel really didn’t hold up. And any rate, Egypt is not a threat to Israel. Nor was Jordan. Nor really was Syria in that we were in negotiation there. The only people that ended up really losing as a result, because they were the people who didn’t wage the war, which were the Palestinians. And the fact of the matter is, the issue of what, are you saying Dayan and Allon were going to expel all the Palestinians or keep them in a permanent state of servitude and assume you could be a democratic society? Because the guys I interviewed, maybe they were lying to me. I mean, they don’t have any, you know, 1,000th of your expertise in this area, so I’m here to be educated. But as a journalist, when I interviewed these people and I interviewed, you know, some hundred people or so, they seem to be aware that you can’t for long occupy a whole people and retain the decent human values, let alone honor democratic values. 

Beinin: 

People said that. People said that to me when I was there, too. So it’s quite possible that you heard that. It is even quite possible that people who told you that may have meant it up to a certain point. Well, let’s start from day one, 200 or 250,000 Palestinians were expelled from the West Bank during and after the ’67 war, point number one. Before the war was even over, three Palestinian villages were flattened to straighten out the road from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and the square in front of the Western Wall, The Wailing Wall, as it’s historically called, was flattened and the entire Moroccan quarter was evacuated and several hundred people were made homeless as a result of that. So Israel did not start the war in order to occupy territory. That’s a long, long discussion about why Israel began the war. But once it became easy to fight the war, occupying more territory was right at the top of the list of things that people, especially in the army, wanted, and especially the branch of the army, the people in the army who were affiliated with the political party that was historically Ahdut HaAvoda. That’s Yigal Allon, and that’s Yitzhak Rabin. First and foremost, Dayan was never part of that party, but his views were similar to theirs, which is to say they thought that the land of Israel extends from the Jordan River to the sea. And Allon is on record as saying that he was outraged with Ben Gurion in 1948 because he didn’t let us finish the job. Why? Because the Israeli army was strong enough to have gone conquered the West Bank in 1948, and they didn’t do it because they were afraid of what the United States in world opinion would say, because there was a U.N. partition plan which said that there should be a Palestinian state, but neither the Arab states nor Israel wanted there to be a Palestinian state. So they split it between them, between Jordan and Israel. So there’s always been an irredentist element in Israeli politics. That’s not the reason for the war in ’67. But once the victory was so overwhelming, it came to the fore. It came to the fore in a secular form in terms of what Yigal Allon and Moshe Dayan argued that the government should do; it came to the fore in a religious form, in the form of the Bloc of the Faithful. And it’s that religious form which in the long run had more ideological, a lot more willingness for self-sacrifice and perseverance, which is what you need to do if you’re a frontier society. So gradually, as the conflict deepened and people became embittered by suicide bombings and intifadas and more wars and more people on both sides are being killed. So people become entrenched. And then oh, and then there is no partner for peace. And 9/11, those terrorists are the same as the Palestinian terrorists. Ariel Sharon ran to the United States 5 minutes after 9/11 to tell that to George W. Bush. So a whole discourse has been built up about how horrible the Arabs, all of them and the Muslims, all of them, and especially the Palestinians, are. And therefore, we can’t have peace with them. And, by the way, we don’t need to have peace with them, because, look, all the rest of the Arab world is making peace treaties with us. And so we’ll just live with our foot on the neck of the Palestinians forever. And Benjamin Netanyahu is about to become yet again prime minister of Israel…So are you saying that we have to live forever by our sword? And you said yes. So that’s the new ideal of Israel that has replaced the ideals which you could say they were honored in the breach of Labor Zionism. So it’s a new discourse, but the practice is not all that different. 

Scheer:

So you’re saying that basically, Thomas Friedman, in his New York Times column, is really upset that the mask has been taken off and that we now see the real Israel that was there all along, that it was inherently oppressive. It will never give, they never believed in a two state solution, that there never was going to be rights for the Palestinians. They were never going to be accommodated. And so this moment is simply a moment of greater clarity. Irreversible clarity. And that’s what’s troubling Thomas Friedman rather than a new reality. 

Beinin: 

I couldn’t have said it better myself. 

Scheer: 

Well, that’s kind of depressing. So let me, as someone who like you, comes out of a view that Jewish life could be enlightened and supportive of human rights and certainly prevent the anti-Semitism and so forth. This is really a formula since the Jewish life now is so intimately connected with Israel and its culture and its politics. And if Thomas Friedman is right that this new government of Israel is racist and, you know, intolerant and the worst of Donald Trump, then what happens to any kind of Jewish idealism, any kind of respect for Jewish history and Jewish values? 

Beinin: 

So there are two main agglomerations of Jewish people in the world today. One, obviously the state of Israel. The other, the United States. And then there are much smaller but still important Jewish communities in France, in the United Kingdom, in Argentina and elsewhere. And it wouldn’t be the first time. In Jewish history. That one Jewish community went in a particular direction and other Jewish communities resisted it. So the task, therefore, is to bring the American Jewish community up to speed in understanding what a catastrophe Zionism has created in the state of Israel. And to the extent possible, detach ourselves from it and to reimagine our Jewish identity on the basis of a fusion of universal humanistic values and the particularities of Jewish history and culture. I’ve been dedicating a lot of my time to doing that. I never thought that after retiring from Stanford, I’d be teaching adult education classes in synagogues because I never imagined that I’d be allowed to do it. But I am. And the fact that there are synagogues who are inviting me to teach the history of Israel-Palestine is a sign that some sector of the American Jewish community, still a small one, but I would think, I think a growing one, does not by the traditional Zionist narrative. And that’s if you’re concerned with maintaining some kind of progressive Jewish community and progressive Jewish values. That’s the arena for struggle. 

Scheer:

Well, you know, it’s not a frivolous matter when you consider that the idealism of the Jewish community throughout the world, certainly in the world that you and I grew up in, was very important to progress. It’s very important to the American civil rights movement, for example. It’s important in Russia and raises questions of freedom under Stalinism and so forth. Jewish intellectuals, writers. There was once a Jewish working class of people who obviously you look at the Russian Revolution, there’s a strong Jewish presence there, but also in support for progressive causes around the world. And I assume that when you and you are really one of the major public intellectuals of Jewish life, I haven’t given you a proper introduction, but you devoted your life to understanding the connection between the Jewish experience and the experience of others, beginning with, say, Egyptian workers, right? This is what a lot of your academic work is about. You know, sort of answer the basic question about anti-Semitism, which was to isolate Jewish people and make them seem exploiters and bad. And then, you know, and yet the irony was that in country after country, the Jewish were so progressive and cared about others and believed in universal values. Right? And so when you look back at your own life, what do you think about this whole experience? You really think there will be a survival of a progressive, secular Jewish presence in the world? Or will it be mostly identified with louts like Netanyahu and the use of the boot and power wealth? 

Beinin

I’m not sure. I’m a historian and I’m not a prophet and I’m not so good at predicting. It’s true that even in the United States, the more orthodox you are, the more right wing you are. And in New York, for example, the ultra-Orthodox community overwhelmingly voted Republican to the extent that the Satmar Rebbe rebuked them and said, no, they should have voted Democratic. So, okay, that shows you somebody is thinking there is an understanding of what even the most rigid and strict interpretation of Jewish tradition requires is not Trumpism. So that’s a struggle that’s going to unfold in the Jewish community here. I’m thinking that as the face of Israel becomes more and more clear. Some people are going to go with it. Most of the ultra orthodox and modern orthodox are going to go with it. Some people are going to make excuses for it. AIPAC and the traditional Zionist lobby types. And some people are going to say, no, not for me. According to a recent Pew survey, 25% of all American Jews think that Israel is an apartheid state and the number goes up to 35% for Jews under 35. So there’s a young, a particularly young, but not only young, I’m not so young myself, after all, a sector of the Jewish community who won’t accept this and maybe will be a small minority. Hopefully there’s room for that minority to grow. But historically, Zionism was supported by a tiny minority of Jews until Hitler came to power. It was only the Holocaust that made Zionism into the majority opinion among Jews. So there’s room to go back and say: Oh well, maybe that looked like a good answer under very dire circumstances, and we were abandoned by the rest of the world, but maybe that was a mistake. 

Scheer:

So let me finally wrap this up and you’ve been generous with your time. It’s interesting. I mean, Trump himself, the figure invoked by Thomas Friedman, he goes both ways. I mean, after all the basic reasons Zionism became popular in the Jewish community was the horror of the genocide. You know, I mean, you know, I’m just thinking back to that time, I mean, where, you know, the argument was made, if we don’t take care of ourselves, who will? And so forth. Now you have somebody, fascism is in the air, power and so forth, and somehow it’s gotten separated from the use of anti-Semitism to inform it. And a complex figure like Trump, I mean, yes, he seems to get along with Israel and even get along with Jewish people in his own family at work. And yet there is this echo of divisiveness, of fascism, that brings up the memory of that all the time. And can Jews find security in an alliance with the richest of the Arab world or the most militant warriors of actual racism? I mean, I know you keep telling me you’re a historian, but the reason we read historians is because they also have some brilliance and insight. Where do you think things are going? You know, we’ve just gone through, you and I have just been talking about sixty or more years of history since you were in Israel as a young person. Where are we headed now? 

Beinin: 

So you mentioned Jewish participation in the civil rights movement and the Russian Revolution, and we could go from the French Revolution up through the next 200 years. And in every democratic, progressive social movement in Europe and North America, there was a disproportionate Jewish presence. Why? 

Scheer:

Thankfully, but thankfully, too. 

Beinin:

I think it’s a good thing. Absolutely. I think it’s a good thing. Why did that happen? One, because there is a very easy way to translate the values and the texts of the Jewish tradition into universal democratic values. The Bible says the stranger who lives among you shall be a citizen to you. That’s thousands of years old. And it’s not just that, 24 times the Bible tells us that we have to be kind to strangers and we have to respect strangers and give them rights and so on. And why? Because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. So Jews know this, and it’s very easy to say: Oh, right. So it’s really important that we stand up for the rights of minorities. It’s really important that democracy doesn’t mean whatever 50% plus one of the people want is what goes. That minority rights are vital. Religious pluralism is vital because if we don’t support that for everybody, then it’s our neck on the block. So that sentiment, plus the secularization of Jewish culture translated into a high Jewish presence in socialist movements, trade union movements, liberal movements of all sorts. And guess what? That’s still the case. Our strongest and most reliable allies are black people, Native American people, LatinX people, the women’s movement, the gay and lesbian movement. And in all of those places, you will find that there are Jews and I think still disproportionate numbers of Jews, even in the Palestine solidarity movement. You will find disproportionate numbers of Jews, not all the Jews. So it was never the case that all the Jews supported the civil rights movement. There were Jewish slumlords in Detroit. I remember my friends in Detroit picketing a synagogue on Rosh Hashanah because one of the members and prominent members of the synagogue was a Jewish slumlord who was exploiting black people. So no, all the Jews were never on the left, but there was and continues to be a Jewish left, and I think that will continue into the future, regardless of of where the state of Israel is headed and maybe even in some respects because of where the state of Israel is headed, because young Jews with a social conscience won’t accept that. 

Scheer: 

Well, that’s I think, from my point of view, a positive view. And we want to thank you really for taking this time. And I want to list your works, but I want to ask you one final question. The whole issue really, in terms of ethics is to what degree are these different religions, tribal? Preoccupied with their own group. And to what degree are their values universal? To what degree are there human values? And that applies to the Palestinian question, clearly. But it’s in the Old Testament, you know, that you treat a Jewish slave different than your non-Jews, but you could still have a Jewish. There are still class differences. But the real rub of it is there a common, and this is a question you could put to Christians and Muslims and you can picture people of different faiths? To what degree are your values universal? And to what degree do they surrender to tribal, parochial concerns? And it seems to me that’s the big issue here with Israel, that even with it and, you know, allow a heck of a lot more about Israel than I do, but I assume that there’s still a majority of Israelis that accept certain human, universal values. They just don’t apply them now in their voting and so forth to the Palestinians. 

Scheer:

Correct me in the way I’m putting the question, but I think you know what, I’m getting at here. 

Beinin:

So I would say that the various flavors of Labor Zionism aspired but failed to connect the particular Jewish issues that they were engaged in with universal values. Some did it more. Some did it less. Some failed more miserably than others. But there was the aspiration. To connect Jewish culture with universal values. And that’s where you got the formula that Israel is a democratic and Jewish state. They really wanted it to be that. It never was, but they wanted it to be that. Today in Israel, people say the most important thing is that this is a Jewish state and if democracy has to go by the board, so be it. So there’s been, as I said, a shift in the discourse. So there are still, of course, some Israelis who are connected to that sense that, well, if we abandon altogether universal human values, then we’ve given up being part of human civilization. We can’t accept that. But there’s an increasing number of people who are putting the emphasis on Jewish particularism in Israeli cultural politics, this is spoken about as Jews versus Israelis. The Jews are more religious, more particularistic, the Israelis are more secular, more universalist. Every religious culture, every great religious culture has this tension within it. So if you go back to Spain, when Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together in relative, not total, but relative harmony for hundreds of years. You have great philosophers like Maimonides, Averroes, Thomas Aquinas. They completely agreed on all the main things. And we said a person should follow the religion that they’re brought up in, because otherwise it creates social disharmony, but really it’s all the same. And they agreed on that. And all of them are engaged in this process of reformulating religion in neo Aristotelian terms. Or if we go to the other end of the Mediterranean, Jalaluddin Rumi, a philosopher, poet, Sufi mystic. Always, in his poetry is doesn’t matter Muslim, Christian, Jew, the oneness of the world, everything is one, I’m with the one. A Unitarian, if you will. So there have always been those interpretations of religious tradition. If we’re talking about the three monotheistic religions, because those are the ones I know something about. And then there were the Crusades. And there was the Inquisition. So both things can come from the same place. And that’s equally the case in the Jewish tradition. 

Scheer:

Yep. And ultimately, I guess more secular forces come to dominate in whatever was written or received is used in a kind of cynical way to justify power, corruption and so forth. 

Beinin:

In an idealistic way. 

Scheer:

Yeah. Okay. You know, I didn’t give you a proper introduction, so let me conclude by thanking you. And I just want to say something about your academic significance and your work so that you take me through it. Now, you was a brilliant student at Princeton, and then just give me your journey.

Beinin:

I did my undergraduate degree at Princeton and then went to live forever and ever in Israel, which obviously I didn’t do since I’m here now, but on the way back to the United States. 

Scheer: 

But you believed it.

Beinin: 

Oh, I really did. 

Scheer: 

And what did you believe? Tell me, I mean I want to know that. 

Beinin: 

I was a socialist Zionist. And I believed. 

Scheer:

You didn’t become you know, you didn’t go to Princeton and say, hey, now I can join. Maybe they’ll let me in some of these exclusive clubs and maybe, you know 

Beinin: 

I was an outsider at Princeton because… 

Scheer: 

You have strong Jewish roots. That’s what I’m trying to get right. 

Beinin: 

I was a leader in [inaudible] here in New York while I was a student at Princeton. So I lived in New York and commuted to Princeton. It was a very odd Princetonian experience. I went to live in Israel, where… 

Scheer: 

So you believed in this Labor Zionism gave absolutely a bit of criticizing throughout this talk. And you went there and what happened? 

Beinin: 

I went to the kibbutz and it wasn’t anything like what I was taught it was and what I had taught other people it was. I mean, first of all. 

Scheer: That the kibbutz that you were working at, the land had been taken from Palestinians. 

Beinin:

It was literally sitting on the remnants of three Palestinian villages. One particular expression of that tension, the kibbutz, of course, wasn’t supposed to hire labor, but we did have these two Bedouin workers. The family of one of them had been the owner of the land that the kibbutz was on. Now he’s the hired laborer of the kibbutz. They worked in the field crops. And when they would come in with the Jewish guys that they work with, so they all stood at the same table in the collective dining room. But if for whatever reason, they came in separately, nobody would sit next to them. And I would sit next to them because I would practice my Arabic, but other kibbutz members wouldn’t sit next to them. And one time I asked, what’s up with this? And one of the Jewish guys told me, well, they don’t want to sit with, they don’t want to sit with the other Jewish people and the other Jewish people don’t want to sit with them. I asked a similar question one day because I worked in the cattle, so I’m riding around very romantically on my horse and seeing the remnants of the village. And I said to one of my coworkers, isn’t this a problem? I mean, because we were brought up on Zionism, Socialism and the Brotherhood of Peoples. That was the slogan. And he looks at me like he didn’t understand the question. So well like they were here, now we’re here. Is it a problem that we took this from them? No. The question made no sense to him whatsoever. And there were just a series of incidents like that at the kibbutz that after six, eight months made it clear that this is not for me. So I went with my wife, who is still my wife of 56 years, to Jerusalem, where I began an MA program in Middle East history. And then eventually I left Israel and finished that at Harvard and finished my Ph.D. at Michigan. 

Scheer: 

And you also, though, did you know, because I was mentioning the Six-Day War and I was in Egypt and then I went over to Israel. You ended up working, I think, in what, Cairo University? 

Beinin: 

Yeah. In 2006, after I’d been at Stanford for a long time, which is its own complicated story. And I was never a big fan of Stanford. I moved to Cairo and became the director of Middle East Studies at the American University in Cairo for two years. 

Scheer: 

And you were able to function and you were able to? 

Beinin:

I was able to function but to be fair or honest, there is an enormous amount of anti-Semitism among the Egyptian intelligentsia, which is, overwhelmingly a product of the conflict. It was not there in that way. 

Scheer: 

Well, that’s what I know. We’re taking a long time. But that’s what confused me, because I always felt. I mean, I’m of a mixed marriage, you know. So my father was not Jewish, my mother was. But when I traveled, particularly when I went to Egypt at the time of the end of the Six-Day War, I always identified myself as Jewish. I figured, you know, I’m not ashamed of it and people should know I’m not going to lie to anybody. And I found there were some Jewish people in prominent positions in Egypt, and there had been some acceptance in the community. And I wondered to what degree and now there’s a claim that they’re getting back together based on some trade and all that. But I wonder, did the creation of the state prevent tolerance or did it increase it or what? 

Beinin: 

Yeah, in Egypt and in every Arab country, the establishment of the state of Israel, ultimately, all but destroyed the local Jewish communities. There is still a small Jewish community left in Morocco and there are tiny remnants of Jewish communities elsewhere. But in one way or another, Zionism brought an end to what had been a fairly good level of tolerance and cultural exchange between Jews who lived in the Arab and Muslim world and their Muslim and Christian neighbors. 

Scheer:

Okay. Well, we’re going to wrap this up, but I will put up a list of your writing because your academic work really deals with labor issues and the quality of life and including much of the Arab world, you are one of the leading experts on all this. And so I want to thank you for your wisdom and your hard work and your willingness to educate. And I wish you were more optimistic about this being maybe a moment in which people were awakened. But I guess you think it’s going to be business as usual? 

Beinin: 

Oh, no. I think some people are going to be awakened and others will become more entrenched. 

Scheer: 

Oh, okay. On that note, thank you so much.

Scheer: 

Yeah I want to thank Laura Kondourajian and Christopher Ho at KCRW for posting these sites. Joshua Scheer, our executive producer, for getting it up and the JKW Foundation for the memory of Jean Stein, who actually was very concerned with these issues and quite bravely wrote about some of them and you probably know her through a connection with Edward Said, who she was very supportive of his work. We have some funding that allows me to do these programs. So thank you for participating. 

Beinin:

Thank you.


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5 comments

  1. If only Palestinians were Ukrainian. Israel is a racist, aggressive apartheid state with a nuclear arsenal. It interferes in our elections, our government and is nobody’s friend. That said, it is only a branch of the larger cancer that threatens the world — witch is the U.S.. We need a global boycott and divestment aimed at the U.S. until we pull back our myriad bases troops and missiles. until we stop interfering in or threatening other governments, until we cease support of human-rights abusing governments and until our own human rights conditions improve to a globally acceptable standard.

  2. Identically Unethical Narrations of Comparative Politics seems to be a Universal Human Flaw

    Bantustans were rooted in Land Acts promulgated in 1913 and 1936, which defined a number of scattered areas as “native reserves” for Blacks. Some expansion, consolidation, and relocation of these areas occurred in the following decades.

    A new constitution effectively abolished the Bantustans with the end of apartheid in South Africa in 1994.
    ‘Palestinistan’: Area reserved (set aside) for indigenous Arab Palestinian members of population; the identical definition of a racist era South African Bantustan: Area reserved (set aside) for indigenous black African members of population.

    For the more non-critical minded among the international population: “if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck”.

    The ‘state’ of Israel is in the throes of – what is now becoming the fulfillment of the Jewish racist Zionist Nationalist dream of a singular – one-state Greater Israeli hegemon, in all of western Asia.

    In 1962 the South African government established (institutionalized) the first of the Bantustans, the Transkei (equivalent to Areas A, B as well as C, in the ‘West Bank’ of what once was UN designated Palestine), as the homeland of the Xhosa people, and granted it limited self-government in 1963…. later becoming nominally independent, within the borders of Apartheid South Africa. Ring, Ring! Is anyone hearing the bell?
    When one does not walk the talk, one is merely a bigot and a hypocrite.

    So, in fact, the fantasy ideology of Bantustans lasted for a total of thirty-two years, in Apartheid South Africa, before the entire fantasy edifice collapsed in on itself and ‘south’ Africa gained its political sovereign independence, from long-time white racist, Calvinist bible thumping colonial settlers!
    The Palestine/Israeli ‘peace process’ has not yet legitimately even begun!

    The cost, so far, only speaking of South Africa, is the loss of hundreds and thousands of innocent lives; the vast majority Black, and pigment lacking others too.

    The legacy of highly disparate poverty, unemployment fraud and violence, persists. It is the unwelcome descendant collateral damage of the psychological trauma, inflicted by inhumanity, onto what remains of humanity’s intrinsic humaneness.

  3. Mr. Beinin’s credentials as an historian are indeed impressive and because of that it is curious why he prefers not to mention many significant facts which are part of any objective description of the Israeli Arab conflict. A few such examples are for instance that the West Bank and Gaza have been under Arab control from 1948 to 1967 but no Palestinian State has been established. The West Bank has been occupied in 1967 only because King Hussein decided to attack Israel, despite repeated Israeli warnings not to get involved.
    For some reason the 1973 War, which was a close call to a real existential danger for Israel and showed the essentiality of buffer zones like the Golan and Sinai, is not mentioned. Neither are the Oslo Accords , which enshrined the two state solution and cost Rabin his life. Also the unilateral retreat from Gaza and its aftermath , which demonstrated the pitfalls of the “land for peace” equation. Fact is that both Hamas (overtly) and Fatah ( covertly) still think that the destruction of Israel is the only solution to the conflict, which for sure makes any change in the status quo very difficult to achieve. This is in direct continuation of the Palestinian refusal to agree to partition in 1937, 1948, 2000 (when at Camp David Arafat was offered the possibility to have a Palestinian state on 92% of the West Bank and all of Gaza and refused, preferring to go to the Second Intifada ), 2008.
    And a few more specific comments
    ” Palestinians who were expelled from the country when it was established, 750,000 of them or thereabouts” . A honest telling of history would have mentioned the context of the civil war instigated in Palestine by the Arabs, in which hundreds of Jews were killed and the attack by ALA and the armies of all Arab countries in 1948.
    ” Israel was never, never a liberal democracy.”
    In the 2021 Democracy Index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit , Israel occupies 23rd place to USA 26th (both of them are in the flawed democracy category). I hope that in 2022,2023 and so on it will keep at least this spot. The Arab minority has the same political rights and it has a number of parties represented in the Knesset, one of them was part of the outgoing coalition.
    “But historically, Zionism was supported by a tiny minority of Jews until Hitler came to power. ”
    Zionism as a mass emigration movement to Israel has been limited by the British during the Mandate, but significantly increased after the establishment of the State of Israel. Jews from all over the world , even after Hitler’s defeat , preferred to come to Israel, in fulfillment of the dream to return to Zion that has been a constant of Jewish life throughout the years. The nuptial vow that “If I forget you Jerusalem may my right hand wither” is not a Zionist slogan and did not originate at the Congress in Basel.
    “Zionism brought an end to what had been a fairly good level of tolerance and cultural exchange between Jews who lived in the Arab and Muslim world and their Muslim and Christian neighbors. ”
    Jews were barely tolerated as “infidels “in Muslim countries and were prey to pogroms as in Europe (Granada 1066, Fez 1465, Libya 1785, Algiers 1805, 1815,1830 etc.) well before Zionism. The Jews from Arab Countries , with first hand experience of “tolerance” have been the main electoral force behind the parties of the right, and had a crucial role in bringing them to power.

  4. The headline is still true, even if the word “Israel” is replaced by “America.”

    An administration that had zero interest in any progressive ideas in its failed first two years, now goes into overdrive with war, austerity, and inflation.. If anything, the Democrats are going to drop the fake ‘nice’ mask that they’ve been wearing, and become even more openly the party of Wall Street and the Generals. And of course, agreeing with anything that Israel does is and will always be a key agenda item.

  5. Americans do consider it unacceptable, outrageous, that Israel is not a mirror reflection of us. Regarding all the wrinkles on Israel’s face that look ugly to you, compare them to the wrinkles on the faces of the list of Arab apartheid countries.

    There is something our bourgeoisie finds repellant about the very concept of Zionism — the right of the Jewish nation (as tiny as it is) to exist on the land to which Jews are indigenous. Yet, they find this same trait in other countries (commonly called “patriotism”) to be the acceptable norm. (Not that any of this is about anti-Jewish racism, mind you.)

    Now then, with Thanksgiving coming up, let’s discuss this matter of who should have the right to own and govern which land.

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