Why American Jews should rename West Bank as ‘non-democratic Israel’
By Peter Beinart, Op-Ed, New York Times
To believe in a democratic Jewish state today is to be caught between the jaws of a pincer.
On the one hand, the Israeli government is erasing the “green line” that separates Israel proper from the West Bank. In 1980, roughly 12,000 Jews lived in the West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem). Today, government subsidies have helped swell that number to more than 300,000. Indeed, many Israeli maps and textbooks no longer show the green line at all.
In 2010, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel called the settlement of Ariel, which stretches deep into the West Bank, “the heart of our country.” Through its pro-settler policies, Israel is forging one political entity between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea — an entity of dubious democratic legitimacy, given that millions of West Bank Palestinians are barred from citizenship and the right to vote in the state that controls their lives.
In response, many Palestinians and their supporters have initiated a global campaign of Boycott, which calls not only for boycotting all Israeli products and ending the occupation of the West Bank but also demands the right of millions of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes — an agenda that, if fulfilled, could dismantle Israel as a Jewish state.
The Israeli government and the B.D.S. movement are promoting radically different one-state visions, but together, they are sweeping the two-state solution into history’s dustbin.
It’s time for a counteroffensive — a campaign to fortify the boundary that keeps alive the hope of a Jewish democratic state alongside a Palestinian one. And that counteroffensive must begin with language.
Jewish hawks often refer to the territory beyond the green line by the biblical names Judea and Samaria, thereby suggesting that it was, and always will be, Jewish land. Almost everyone else, including this paper, calls it the West Bank.
But both names mislead. “Judea and Samaria” implies that the most important thing about the land is its biblical lineage; “West Bank” implies that the most important thing about the land is its relationship to the Kingdom of Jordan next door. After all, it was only after Jordan conquered the territory in 1948 that it coined the term “West Bank” to distinguish it from the rest of the kingdom, which falls on the Jordan River’s east bank. Since Jordan no longer controls the land, “West Bank” is an anachronism. It says nothing meaningful about the territory today.
Instead, we should call the West Bank “nondemocratic Israel.” The phrase suggests that there are today two Israels: a flawed but genuine democracy within the green line and an ethnically-based nondemocracy beyond it. It counters efforts by Israel’s leaders to use the legitimacy of democratic Israel to legitimize the occupation and by Israel’s adversaries to use the illegitimacy of the occupation to delegitimize democratic Israel.
Having made that rhetorical distinction, American Jews should seek every opportunity to reinforce it. We should lobby to exclude settler-produced goods from America’s free-trade deal with Israel. We should push to end Internal Revenue Service policies that allow Americans to make tax-deductible gifts to settler charities. Every time an American newspaper calls Israel a democracy, we should urge it to include the caveat: only within the green line.
But a settlement boycott is not enough. It must be paired with an equally vigorous embrace of democratic Israel. We should spend money we’re not spending on settler goods on those produced within the green line. We should oppose efforts to divest from all Israeli companies with the same intensity with which we support efforts to divest from companies in the settlements: call it Zionist B.D.S.
Supporters of the current B.D.S. movement will argue that the distinction between democratic and nondemocratic Israel is artificial. After all, many companies profit from the occupation without being based on occupied land. Why shouldn’t we boycott them, too? The answer is that boycotting anything inside the green line invites ambiguity about the boycott’s ultimate goal — whether it seeks to end Israel’s occupation or Israel’s existence.
For their part, American Jewish organizations might argue that it is unfair to punish Israeli settlements when there are worse human rights offenses in the world and when Palestinians still commit gruesome terrorist acts. But settlements need not constitute the world’s worst human rights abuse in order to be worth boycotting. After all, numerous American cities and organizations boycotted Arizona after it passed a draconian immigration law in 2010.
The relevant question is not “Are there worse offenders?” but rather, “Is there systematic oppression that a boycott might help relieve?” That Israel systematically oppresses West Bank Palestinians has been acknowledged even by the former Israeli prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, who have warned that Israel’s continued rule there could eventually lead to a South African-style apartheid system.
Boycotts could help to change that. Already, prominent Israeli writers like David Grossman, Amos Oz and A. B. Yehoshua have refused to visit the settlement of Ariel. We should support their efforts because persuading companies and people to begin leaving nondemocratic Israel, instead of continuing to flock there, is crucial to keeping the possibility of a two-state solution alive.
Others may object to boycotting settlements near the green line, which will likely be incorporated into Israel in the event of a peace deal. But what matters is not the likelihood that a settler will one day live in territory where all people enjoy the right to citizenship regardless of ethnicity, but the fact that she does not live there yet. (That’s why the boycott should not apply to East Jerusalem, which Israel also occupied in 1967, since Palestinians there at least have the ability to gain citizenship, even if they are not granted it by birth.)
If moderate settlers living near the green line resent being lumped in with their more ideologically driven counterparts deep in occupied territory, they should agitate for a two-state solution that would make possible their incorporation into democratic Israel. Or they should move.
As I write this, I cringe. Most settlers aren’t bad people; many poor Sephardic, Russian and ultra-Orthodox Jews simply moved to settlements because government subsidies made housing there cheap. More fundamentally, I am a committed Jew. I belong to an Orthodox synagogue, send my children to Jewish school and yearn to instill in them the same devotion to the Jewish people that my parents instilled in me. Boycotting other Jews is a painful, unnatural act. But the alternative is worse.
When Israel’s founders wrote the country’s declaration of independence, which calls for a Jewish state that “ensures complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex,” they understood that Zionism and democracy were not only compatible; the two were inseparable.
More than six decades later, they look prophetic. If Israel makes the occupation permanent and Zionism ceases to be a democratic project, Israel’s foes will eventually overthrow Zionism itself.
We are closer to that day than many American Jews want to admit. Sticking to the old comfortable ways endangers Israel’s democratic future. If we want to effectively oppose the forces that threaten Israel from without, we must also oppose the forces that threaten it from within.
Peter Beinart, a professor at the City University of New York and the editor of the Daily Beast blog Zion Square, is the author of “The Crisis of Zionism.”
For a review of Peter Beinart’s ‘The Crisis of Zionism’, see You can’t sell occupation in a postcolonial age