A State of Uncertainty

Is Israel occupying Palestine or keeping the hordes at bay? Two Stanford professors debate.

Stanford University history professor Joel Beinin joined colleague Steven Zipperstein, a professor of Jewish culture and history, for an event on June 2, 2010 titled “Israel and Palestine: How To Talk About It and What To Talk About.” It was co-sponsored by the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies and the Taube Center for Jewish Studies—the first such joint sponsorship in the history of the two programs. Beinin lived up to his reputation for holding views whose outlandishness is matched only by the ferocity with which he clings to them.

Beinin began his opening remarks by lamenting the “unhealthy” state of the Arab-Israeli conflict debate—something he chalked up to the allegedly disproportionate influence of pro-Israel groups. Invoking the typical “Israel Lobby” paranoia, he claimed that organizations such as the American Jewish Committee and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) discreetly control the debate with publications such as Commentary Magazine and think tanks such as the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. According to Beinin, these organizations routinely “attempt to ban [anti-Israel academics] from speaking [on college campuses] and attack them politically when they come up for tenure.” Using alarmist rhetoric, he claimed this behavior is tantamount to “a McCarthyite campaign of exclusion.”

As an example, he labeled “ridiculous” the characterization of Columbia University Edward Said professor of Arab studies Rashid Khalidi as anti-Semitic, adding that, “advocating for the rights of the Palestinian people is not anti-Semitism.” Anti-Semitism aside, Khalidi—a former spokesman for the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and a well-known anti-Israel ideologue—is hardly a dispassionate “advocate.” Moreover, neither Khalidi’s academic career, nor that of his likeminded colleagues, has suffered as a result of politicized scholarship; that is, unless one considers mere criticism permanently damaging.

Beinin went on to describe the rhetoric used to discuss the conflict as “demagoguery” in which “Jews whose opinions are similar to the bi-nationalist positions historically held by Albert Einstein [and others]...are effectively excommunicated and labeled self-haters.” Invoking the first of what would be several references to Jewish scripture and morals, he then asked, “Does all of this [name-calling]...help us be a light unto the nations?”

Beinin explained that he had been a member of an Israeli “anti-occupation group” in the 1970s and that “for decades, [he] supported a two-state solution to the conflict...because it seemed achievable and had international support.” Recently, however, he decided that “the failure of the Obama administration to halt the settlement project...[has] made the existence of a sovereign Palestinian state alongside Israel highly unlikely.” He made no mention of the Palestinian failure to govern since the Oslo Accords, nor Hamas’s destruction of Gaza. He continued: “The de facto one-state status quo will continue until the balance of forces changes,” and until that time, American Jews must, as he put it, “[resist] the occupation as best we can.” Resistance to this “oppression” is required of Jews as a biblical duty, he claimed, reading Leviticus 19:16 in Hebrew and then in English: “Do not stand idly by when your neighbor’s blood is being spilled.” This recitation of a biblical commandment felt forced, as if he were trying to placate critics who find his views threatening to Israel or to Judaism.

Beinin concluded his remarks by quoting from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), a section of the Jewish Oral Law, which states that the world has three pillars: truth, justice, and peace. Channeling the misguided preoccupation with viewing Judaism as a vehicle for “social justice,” Beinin focused on that pillar, stating that a solution to the current conflict should begin with “a full hearing...to the grievances of all parties,” since “exacting full retribution” against those responsible for the conflict—in his view, primarily Israel—cannot be determined by human beings “in any case.” “Enough justice must be established,” he continued, “to enable reconciliation and coexistence.”

Then it was Zipperstein’s turn to speak. Although he was to provide the pro-Israel perspective in the discussion, Zipperstein’s speech consisted primarily of elaborating on the overarching theme that both sides of the conflict are equally at fault and thus deserve equal respite. “No one needs to be a saint to be recognized as deserving a state,” he said, and “no people needs to prove that they are a light unto the nations in order to live in peace.” After sharing several gems of wisdom such as “Israel and Palestine remain, for the foreseeable future, linked at the hipbone, wishing the other would go away,” he summed up his remarks by stating, “Neither side in this dispute can be bludgeoned into making peace.”

An open discussion between the participants followed that included topics ranging from the role of American Jews in the conflict, to the nature of the Jewish state, to the future of the Palestinian people. In brief, Beinin argued that “we [American Jews] have no credibility to speak abstractly” about the conflict in a non-academic arena since American Jews do not experience it firsthand; that Israel is “an undemocratic state” which cannot be a democracy until a “civil war between religious settlers and secular liberals” occurs; and that a Palestinian state, if it came to exist, would probably be “a miserable state with dictatorial tendencies.” At least on the last point, he was close to the truth.

Though it was apparent throughout the event that Beinin labored to keep his rhetoric low-key and more nuanced than usual, his radical views inevitably slipped out. And, as much as he would like to wish otherwise, peppering his speech with biblical quotes did not—and never could—make up for that.

Jonathan Gelbart is a senior at Stanford University majoring in International Relations. He is the president of Students for an Open Society and former world news editor of the Stanford Review, an independent publication. He wrote this article for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.

[Editor's note: To see Joel Beinin's profile in Frontpage's Collaborators series, click here.]