I came into Peter Beinart’s lecture last Thursday night feeling very nervous. Mr. Beinart, a modern Orthodox Jew and author of The Crisis of Zionism, has received ample criticism from both the left and right on his view of the Middle East peace process, and is a controversial figure in the Jewish community. As a pro-Israel Jew, I naively assumed the worst. Based on what I’d heard from my home community about his controversial views, I feared Mr. Beinart’s lecture would serve as this year’s Jewish attack on Israel. I worried that because Mr. Beinart is Jewish, the student body would use his critical opinion as a way to justify hostility toward Israel. I was wrong.
I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Beinart at dinner before his lecture. Towards the end of dinner, the guests began to discuss a two-state versus one-state solution, tensions within the Israeli government and other pressing issues that would shape the future of the conflict. At this point, nothing Mr. Beinart said had made me uncomfortable, but I waited until his lecture to make a final assessment.
As the lecture began, I mentally braced myself for the Israel attacks I saw coming. I was sure I would object to his claims, but Mr. Beinart’s first point immediately calmed me down. Mr. Beinart stated something I never anticipated: “Israel is a blessing for the Jewish people.” I couldn’t believe it. Had Middlebury seriously invited a speaker who praised Israel? Throughout my Middlebury career, with the exception of Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer who spoke on campus last spring, I’d barely seen or heard anything that framed Israel in a positive light. Just last year, I witnessed a Middlebury community member liken the Israeli government to the Nazis, and I watched a Palestinian movie portraying Israel’s goal to be the eradication of the Palestinian people. I even heard an Israeli speaker condemn Israel to an anti-Israel leaning audience, assuming his attacks would show an understanding of both sides. Unfortunately, too many Israel attacks coming from Jews simply justify the preconceived notions of audiences already leaning against Israel. Criticism of Israel from a Jewish perspective is a difficult and delicate issue: too little shows a bias, and perhaps a lack of objectivity, but too much poses the danger of crossing a very fine line into anti-Israel sentiment. While many Jews agree that Israel is not perfect (and what country is?), it is vital also to emphasize, as Peter Beinart reminded us, that Israel is a “blessing” for Jewish people everywhere.
After framing Israel in a positive light, Mr. Beinart did go on to critique Israeli settlements. He argued that settlements defy the morals of democracy and emphasized the risk of a dichotomy between a Jewish state and a democratic state. Israel’s existence as a democratic state originated in Theodore Herzl’s founding vision for Zionism, and Israel’s dedication to individual rights for all of its inhabitants is stated in its Declaration of Independence. Today, Israel is unique in the Middle East for its liberality regarding women’s and gay rights, protection of free speech, freedom of the press and other democratic values inherent in a modernized liberal state. Mr. Beinart believes that to be true to its core values, Israel must avoid implementing anti-democratic values that would be antithetical to Zionism and the Jewish spirit that runs through the nation.
By the end of Mr. Beinart’s talk, I was truly relieved. Regardless of his sometimes controversial views, in his talk at Middlebury, Mr. Beinart delivered a largely centrist perspective on the Middle East conflict. Mr. Beinart is clearly pro-Israel, yet he sees and understands the country’s flaws. As a Jew, knowing where to draw the line with Israel criticism is difficult, especially with such a diverse audience as the one that attended the talk last Thursday. But Mr. Beinart framed his argument perfectly. I am convinced that those who heard Mr. Beinart speak, regardless of their individual stances on the peace process, gained a valuable perspective: despite its imperfections, Israel is a positive influence in the world, and a true blessing.
Written by SARAH COHEN ’15 of Newton, Mass.