Journalist Peter Beinart discusses American Jewish identity, Israel-Hamas war

New York Times journalist and MSNBC political commentator Peter Beinart addressed a filled Sanford lecture hall during a moderated discussion on the ongoing Israel-Hamas war and the history of Israel.

The Tuesday conversation, which touched on many of Beinart’s personal experiences, was moderated by Professor of Cultural Anthropology Rebecca Stein and was packed with Durham and Duke community members. 

Candis Watts Smith, vice provost for undergraduate education, prefaced the panel by calling upon the audience to abide by the tenets of open-minded civil discourse and engage critically and respectfully with guest speakers espousing their views on highly contentious political issues.

“The University … is one of the few institutions in American society that allows people who have incredibly diverse experiences and views of the world, to come together to learn more about themselves and about others,” Smith said. “We can only do this kind of work through civil discourse.”  

Beinart’s evolving views on Israel

Beinart described himself as a former “liberal Zionist” whose initial support for Israel was shaped by frequent visits to Israel as a child and by his grandmother, who was born to a Sephardic Jewish family in Egypt before moving to the Belgian Congo and later to South Africa.

“I always thought of her as a connoisseur of fragile Jewish communities,” he said of his grandmother. “I could tell that for her, there was a psychic security that was very powerful about the existence of a Jewish state.”

As a young adult, Beinart witnessed his maternal grandfather and his father’s positive reception of Israel as a safe haven for the Jewish community, both of whom he described as “never as happy as they were [when] in Israel.” 

A visit to the West Bank in his early 30s forced Beinart to confront his unwavering support for Israel’s sovereignty, his conception of the so-called “two-state solution” and the very legitimacy of a Jewish state.

“Within hours of being there, and spending time with Palestinians in the West Bank, I realized that I was going to have to rethink some pretty fundamental things, and ask myself some questions that I had not previously asked myself,” he said. 

Now, Beinart believes that Israel promotes “Jewish supremacy,” subjecting Palestinians in the West Bank to a different legal system and a government for which they cannot vote. 

“[Palestinians are] dealing with a state that is just fundamentally not accountable to them, which means that the state can do whatever it wants to them with impunity,” he said. “I never had the experience of going to the Jim Crow South, but I imagine that maybe there would have been something similar.”

Beinart said that Israel’s retaliatory strikes in Gaza have made the region “unlivable,” and called establishment American Jewish organizations’ limited opposition to Israel’s response the most “chilling” aspect of ensuing political debates. 

The October 2023 attack and its roots

Beinart stressed that while Hamas carried out a “horrifying” military attack, Israel’s conflict in Gaza is fundamentally political, with its roots in the creation of the Jewish state.

“Eighty percent of the people in Gaza are the families of refugees from people who were expelled or fled in fear during Israel's creation,” Beinart said. By denying Palestinians the right to return along with basic human freedoms, Beinart argued that Israel created fertile soil for violent uprising.

“Palestinians are going to resist that because all people generally resist their lack of freedom,” he said. 

Beinart added that nonviolent Palestinian resistance — such as general strikes and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement — failed to produce significant change in Israeli policy, paving the way for a violent attack.

The solution to the Palestinian problem, according to Beinart, is to grant Palestinians equal rights under the law — to “create a horizon for Palestinian freedom.” 

“I believe that states in which all people have a voice in government, in which no group is locked out of government are ultimately states that even though they're messy and difficult, they are ultimately more peaceful for everybody,” he said.   

Anti-Zionism among younger American Jews

Beinart outlined three reasons for the generational divide among American Jews with regard to their views on Israel. 

For him, younger Jews may be more likely to be anti-Zionist because they grew up in a world in which Israel was powerful and largely right-wing — as opposed to “weak and potentially imperiled” by its Arab neighbors. 

According to Beinart, young American Jews may also draw parallels between Israel and Christian nationalism in the United States, through “legalized hierarchies based on ethno-religious groups and an immigration policy designed to maintain that right.” 

Young Jews may also be more exposed to Palestinian perspectives, especially on college campuses, Beinart suggested.

“Questioning the idea of Jewish statehood … will be a current in American Jewish life, that it has not been really since the American Jewish Zionist consensus was established in the 1940s,” he said.

Congressional hearings on antisemitism

When Stein asked Beinart about his views on the recent December congressional hearings on antisemitism on college campuses, he said that Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik’s viral questioning of the presidents of Harvard, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania reflected a “very frightening development” for older American Jews and Jewish leaders. 

He acknowledged that, identifying as a “liberal Zionist” would not have appeared inflammatory or questionable to university students decades ago, the opposite case has materialized today — one in which anti-Zionist sentiment is now regarded to be synonymous with liberal progressivism. 

“​The rhetoric has been basically, anti-Zionist discourse is a threat to Jewish students and so it needs to be shut down,” he said. “... This is a very convenient way to use the claim of antisemitism to basically try to shut down the changes in universities that have empowered the voices of a whole group of people whose vision of America is fundamentally antithetical to the vision of MAGA.”

What comes next?

Beinart doesn’t see a viable two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Instead, he believes a perilous road lies ahead, with a second front with Hezbollah in Lebanon looking increasingly likely.

Beinart also warned that Israel’s war in Gaza will inspire a new generation of Palestinian insurgents.

“We know that Hamas and other Palestinian groups recruit their fighters from the families of people that Israel has killed,” he said. “What you've produced is a huge number of people who will now be seeking revenge, and who are less likely to do it in the style of Mahatma Gandhi.”

Students asked Beinart about his opinion on the potential distribution of humanitarian aid to terrorists in Gaza and whether Jews and Palestinians can peacefully coexist while organizations like Hamas remain.

“I'm not a fan of Hamas, or the way it's used its money,” Beinart said, adding that Hamas sources a large portion of its money from taxing people who live in Gaza. “Because they have been the de facto ruling party on the ground, they have the ability to tax people in Gaza, that's been the primary source. And yes, they've used a lot of that money for military purposes.”

“If you want to have a legitimate Palestinian leadership, you need to allow Palestinians to choose their leaders,” he added.

A student in attendance from the University of Pennsylvania asked Beinart how organizations can promote civil discourse among those with opposing viewpoints, especially Jews. 

“There may have been a time when Israel was a kind of unifying force among American Jews,” Beinart responded. “I think that time has passed, and I think it will continue to be more of a force of disunity.”

“What I would like people to do is to bring Jews together across the ideological, political and religious spectrum, to study Torah, to study our texts. This is what ultimately unifies us, and I think that it can be a foundation for other kinds of conversations.”

Halle Friedman | Associate News Editor

Halle Friedman is a Trinity senior and an associate news editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.

Mia Penner | Audience Engagement Chair

Mia Penner is a Trinity junior and an audience engagement chair of The Chronicle's 120th volume.


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