Peter Beinart in the middle of a storm of debate heading into his talk at the JCCSF

Journalist Peter Beinart, author of “The Crisis of Zionism,” has in the past year become a lightning rod in the debate over what is and isn’t open for discussion in the American Jewish conversation about Israel.

In March 2010, in a much-discussed essay in the New York Review of Books, Beinart blamed what he called Israel’s slide away from democratic values, as well as the hard-line political stance of the American Jewish establishment, for young American Jews’ increasing alienation from Israel and organized Jewry.

Last month he took the debate up a notch, when in the New York Times he called for a boycott of goods produced in West Bank settlements — an action he defended as pro-Israel.

Peter Beinart discusses “The Crisis of Zionism” in Washington, D.C., on March 26. photo/creative commons-new american federation

On Monday, April 16, he will discuss his book, and his views on Zionism, at the JCC of San Francisco in a talk hosted by Janine Zacharia, former Jerusalem bureau chief for the Washington Post.

“The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” Beinart’s 2010 essay, won him plaudits from the pro-Israel left. He was the keynote speaker at last fall’s New Israel Fund gala in San Francisco, and a featured speaker at last month’s J Street national conference in Washington, D.C., among other prestigious gigs.

His March 19 essay calling for the boycott was considerably less popular.

Beinart cast the proposal in pro-Israel terms, calling it a “Zionist BDS” — an answer to the pro-Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions movement that targets all of Israel. In fact, he firmly condemned that larger BDS movement in his essay, calling it an effort to dismantle the Jewish state.

His aim, he says, is to save Zionism, even from itself. “If Israel makes the occupation permanent and Zionism ceases to be a democratic project, Israel’s foes will eventually overthrow Zionism itself,” he wrote.

The pushback was immediate, and came from multiple camps in the Israel debate: those who reject his thesis but seek to engage him, and those who think his latest call places him beyond the pale.

Just after the Times article came out, J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami said the boycott proposal is unlikely to yield positive results.

“We favor a border not a boycott — we want to get the political process going to arrive at a border,” he said.

Ben-Ami hastened to note, however, that the idea of boycotting settlements was not out of place in the Israeli discourse. Another J Street conference keynoter, he said, was Amos Oz, the widely respected Israeli novelist who has signed a letter supporting Israeli artists who refuse to perform in the West Bank settlement of Ariel.

“It’s a legitimate point of view that a lot of passionate two-state Zionists share,” Ben-Ami said. “And Peter is within the mainstream in Israel.”

That may be true, but the boundaries of the Jewish conversation on Israel often are less flexible and more volatile outside Israel than within.

That is notably so in the Bay Area, where 2-year-old Jewish Community Federation guidelines place strict limits on Israel speech in determining what the S.F.-based organization will fund.

In mid-March, the JCC of the East Bay withdrew its co-sponsorship of an April 17 Beinart talk in Berkeley — not because of Beinart, but because the center learned the event would be moderated by Jewish Voice for Peace board member Penny Rosenwasser.  Beinart subsequently pulled out of the KPFA-sponsored event.

The JCC of the East Bay is not within the purview of the San Francisco federation, but it is part of the same Bay Area Jewish community that gave rise to the new funding guidelines.

Beinart gave a preview of what the JCCSF audience can expect when, at an April 4 appearance at Harvard University, he assailed Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, warned that young American Jews are abandoning Zionism and criticized American Jewish leaders for what he depicted as their unquestioning support of the Israeli government.

Jewish leaders have “told young Amer-ican Jews not to ask hard questions, to avoid Palestinians, to start with the assumption everything the Israeli government does is right and we’ll help them reason backwards to figure out why,” he said.

Beinart also criticized the Birthright program, which takes young Jewish adults on free 10-day trips to Israel, for its lack of interaction with Palestinians.

“Ethically, how do we explain the fact that we send all of these kids to Israel and pretend as if essentially Palestinians don’t exist?” he asked. “In terms of a matter of education and educational honesty, to avoid that is intellectually insulting and dishonest.”

The pushback against Beinart’s settlements boycott proposal continues.

Seth Mandel, writing on the Contentions blog at the conservative Commentary magazine, assailed the proposal as well as Beinart’s labeling of Israel proper as “democratic Israel” and Israeli settlements as “non-democratic Israel.” Mandel called these arguments “both morally reprehensible and a dangerous slippery slope.”

Centrist Jewish groups also were critical.

“I don’t think a JCRC would support any organization that would support any kind of activity that would bring any harm to a segment of Israel,” said Ronald Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.

“I find it a less-than-serious proposal from a person I consider thoughtful,” he added.

But David Harris, the American Jewish Committee’s executive director, said questions of whether Beinart is in or out of the Jewish tent are rendered moot by the welcome Beinart receives in venues such as the New York Times — and that means he will continue to score speaking gigs from Jewish groups.

At least one Jewish group has taken a similar line to Beinart’s. Americans for Peace Now, which is a member of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, announced its backing for a settlements boycotts last July.

J. staff contributed to this report.

Peter Beinart
will speak at 7 p.m. Monday, April 16 at the JCC of San Francisco, 3200 California St., S.F. $10-$20. (415) 292-1200 or