Peter Beinart, author of The Crisis of Zionism, came to town last week and defended his much-maligned call for Americans to boycott Israeli products made in the West Bank while continuing to purchase goods made inside the Green Line.
"I think where I disagree with some of my critics, they believe that this plays into and helps the BDS movement," the 41-year-old writer said, referring to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.
"I see it in the opposite direction," said Beinart, an associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York, who spent last weekend as scholar in residence at Or Hadash, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Fort Washington.
During an April 28 talk at the synagogue — one of two speeches he gave there — Beinart said he stands for liberal Zionism while the BDS movement is out to delegitimize Israel and create a one-state solution.
"The BDS movement says, 'You will boycott Israel just like you will boycott South Africa,' " Beinart said, adding that he disagrees with those who call Israel an apartheid state. "The Jewish community is saying, 'Don't do that.' But we have no alternative."
Beinart said his boycott alternative would "be the most effective strategy" because it allows liberal Jews a means of protest while remaining inside the Zionist tent.
In some ways, Beinart's career trajectory has embodied the communal debate over who is considered pro-Israel.
From 1999 to 2006, he edited The New Republic, an influential, center-left publication that defended Israel during the intifada, the Palestinian uprising, while other liberal magazines were withering in their criticism of the Jewish state.
With his 2010 New York Review of Books article, "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment," the father of two kicked up a considerable storm of controversy when he argued that American Jewish youth have been disaffected by Israel's treatment of Palestinians and that American Jewish groups are exacerbating the problem by demanding their loyalty to Israeli policies.
For those on the left, he was considered an articulate critic of Israeli policies — one who sits well inside the pro-Israel tent.
In his own defense, he often points out that he sends his children to a Jewish day school and the family attends an Orthodox shul in New York City.
But for many others, Beinart is seen as misguided at best and insidious at worst. Critics say he missed the point about young American Jews, that it is apathy, not policies, that drive them away.
And they say his opinion piece in the March 19 New York Times calling for even a limited boycott goes over the line.
(Beinart quipped that in going after a number of sacred cows, he's turned his own grandmother into a critic, but fortunately, he said, she's not Web savvy enough to blog against him.)
Even the liberal-left lobbying group J Street distanced itself from Beinart's boycott call, though he was still the keynote speaker at its March policy conference in Washington.
J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami wrote on the group's site that a boycott won't convince Israeli settlers to reverse course and cease expanding their communities.
Beinart had been selected to be the Fort Washington congregation's scholar in residence well before the flare-up over the boycott issue.
For the synagogue, the idea was to hold a year's worth of frank but perhaps illuminating discussions focusing on Israel. In addition to Beinart, Or Ha-dash has also brought in speakers representing J Street and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Rabbi Joshua Waxman, who spent last year in Israel on sabbatical, said that Beinart's boycott call went too far, but he makes some interesting points and deserves to be heard. Waxman said that Beinart, in his writings, has raised some profound questions, particularly regarding American Jewish groups.
But, he added, "I think the answers aren't as good as the questions."
At the start of the April 28 program, Waxman urged the 90 or so people in attendance to maintain a civil tone when questioning Beinart, which they did.
Speaking at a rapid-fire pace, the author went on for close to two hours, covering an array of topics.
The crux of his argument is that Israel's continued presence in the West Bank threatens the state's democratic character, a contention shared by many Israelis and supporters. Despite all the wrongs committed by Palestinians, he said, Israel needs to do far more to reach a settlement. He has urged the United States and Israel to engage Hamas, which he asserted is moderating, even as he called the anti-Semitic organization "loathsome."
He asserted that the ranks of American Zionism is becoming increasingly populated by the Orthodox, who he suggested are experiencing a decline in democratic and universalistic values.
Many non-Orthodox Jews are opting out of Jewish life in unprecedented numbers, and the smaller number of liberal Jews still engaged are being turned off by the Jewish establishment's narrow view of Zionism, he said.
"Support for Israel really is in collapse," he said. "Part of the story is simply assimilation. It is hard to feel connected to a Jewish state when you don't feel that connected to anything Jewish."
And many young liberal Jews "are told essentially that everything the Israeli government does is right and then work backwards to figure out why," said Beinart.
Many in the audience said they were generally receptive to Beinart's ideas, and those who disagreed with the boycott call said it was still within the acceptable range of discourse.
David Metter, 27, has followed Beinart's writings and drove from Exton in Chester County to hear him speak.
"He's a very observant Jew. I think he comes from a position of authority" and has the "ability to articulate what he thinks," said Metter, who did question whether or not a boycott would accomplish anything.
He said he thinks Beinart's writing is "unique and inspiring — although I do not agree with everything he says."