It was one of the most electric moments in the years I spent as a student at McGill University.
On January 31, 1961, Hillel House on Peel St. was packed with students and professors who were sitting on tables and stairs to hear controversial British historian Sir Arnold Toynbee debate Yaacov Herzog, then Israeli ambassador to Canada.
Toynbee had been challenged to defend his thesis that Judaism was a fossil religion, destined to disappear as part of his theory of history as a series of cycles, with peaks followed by inevitable declines and disappearance. Herzog argued the rebirth of Israel was among the post-Holocaust developments that proved his thesis wrong.
Times appear to have changed, at least when it comes to allowing students at Hillel to hear the controversial views of American author Peter Beinart.
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In his book The Crisis of Zionism (Times Books, Henry Holt and Company), he calls for a targeted boycott against goods produced by Jewish settlements in the West Bank, land occupied by Israel since 1967, to pressure Israel to withdraw as part of a peace deal.
Introducing Beinart last month to an audience of 150 at an N.D.G. church, Stephen Scheinberg, Concordia University professor emeritus of history, denounced what he said was pressure from the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) not to cooperate with Canadian Friends of Peace Now in enabling Beinart to speak to Hillel groups during his cross-Canada tour. (CIJA says it is the official voice for all issues concerning the Canadian Jewish community—the Canadian counterpart to AIPAC in the U.S.)
In his well-documented book, Beinart challenges the view that the Palestinians are the only ones to blame for the lack of a peace deal based on the two-state solution. He denounces the situation in the West Bank, which he prefers to call “undemocratic Israel”—an “ethnocracy” where Jews enjoy the rights and benefits of citizenship and Palestinians do not.
While all governments since 1967 participated in the growth of the settlement enterprise, Beinart challenges the argument that these “created facts” are but temporary, pending a final solution.
Israel has subsidized hundreds of thousands of Jews to move there and built bus, road, rail, water and telephone systems and an electricity grid that are linked directly to those in pre-1967 Israel.
The Green Line that was Israel’s eastern border until 1967 is steadily fading, he argues. In 1980, 12,000 Jews lived east of the line, with another 70,000 in East Jerusalem.
Today a total of half a million Jewish Israelis live in these areas, including 200,000 in east Jerusalem.
And the Jewish population in the West Bank is growing at three times the rate of the Israeli population inside the old border.
He quotes former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg as warning that in the very new future, West Bank settlers will have grown so numerous and entrenched within the government, rabbinate and army that it will be impossible to remove enough of them to create a viable Palestinian state.
Will this emerging Greater Israel be able to provide full equality of social and political rights to all—6 million Jews, 1.5 million Arabs who live inside the green line, another 2.5 million Arab resident of the West Bank and 1.5 million in Gaza, “which, according to international and the U.S. government, Israel still occupies”? he asks.
The result will be either “suicide as a democratic state,” or two sets of standards, one for its Jewish inhabitants and another for the Arabs.
The slide toward the latter is alienating younger North American Jews who remain overwhelmingly liberal, believe repairing the world is at the core of their values, but find it increasingly difficult to support an Israel that negates these values.
“By supporting settlement growth, you are pushing Palestinians in exactly the direction we don’t want them to go,” he said.
“Every time Israel subsidizes more Israeli Jews to move to the West Bank we make those Palestinian leaders who will reluctantly accept Israel’s right to exist and who are today cooperating against terrorism … we make them look like fools,” he said.
“We don’t know whether Palestinians will ultimately make the concessions on the right-of-refugee return and other issues necessary to allow a two-state solution to come to pass, but we can be darn sure they won’t make those concessions if they won’t even get a viable contiguous Palestinian state in return.”
One of the most robust critiques of Beinart’s arguments came last year during a debate in New Orleans with Reform Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan.
Hirsch agreed with Beinart that, “in the long run, continuing Israeli rule of Palestinian-inhabited territories is untenable.”
He countered that American Jews identify with Israeli if they identify with Judaism. If they do not, they tend not to have strong feelings for Israel. Assimilation is the root cause of alienation.
He drew a red line when it comes to Jews advocating boycotting Israel or pressuring Congress to reduce aid because “these views threaten the very existence of Israel” by threatening its capacity for self-defence.
He found the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign Against Israel to be “morally outrageous, especially if you express them in the name of the Jewish people.”
“Anti-democratic regimes are boycotted, not democracies. … Divest from China if you care about human rights, not Israel.”
As for Israel’s relationship with the Arab Spring, Hirsch said its primary cause is corrupt Arab regimes that cannot deliver food, medicine and decent standards of living.
“If Israel plays any role at all, it is that Arabs look at Israel and ask themselves: why over there and not over here?”