Last Sunday in San Francisco, the Anti-Defamation League sponsored "Finding Our Voice," a conference designed to help Jews recognize and confront the "new anti-Semitism." For me, it was ironic. Ten days before, my own voice was silenced by fellow Jews.
I was to give a talk about our Middle East policy to high school students at the Harker School in San Jose. With one day to go, my contact there called to say my appearance had been canceled. He was apologetic and upset. He expected the talk would be intellectually stimulating and intriguing for students. But, he said, "a certain community of parents" complained to the headmaster. He added, without divulging details, that the Jewish Community Relations Council of Silicon Valley had played a role.
[Editor's note: Diane Fisher, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Silicon Valley, says that although she left a message for the school principal, she never actually spoke to him, and any suggestion that the council was responsible for the cancellation of Beinin's appearance at the school is inaccurate and an "unlikely inflation of JCRC's influence."]
I was raised a Zionist. I went to Israel after high school for six months to live on a kibbutz. I met my wife there. We returned four years later thinking we'd spend our lives on a kibbutz, working the land and living the Zionist dream. Why did the council feel the need to silence me?
In fact, this was not our first run-in. I have long advocated equal rights for the Palestinians, as I do for all people. I criticize Israeli policies. I seem to have crossed the council's line of acceptable discourse. Because I am a Jew, it is not so easy to smear me as guilty of this "new anti-Semitism." Instead, hosts like the Harker School, and others, are intimidated, and open dialogue on Israel is censored.
In 2005, Marin's Rodef Sholom synagogue caved to the council and revoked my invitation, unless my talk could be accompanied by a rebuttal. Roy Mash, a board member, resigned in protest. He asked in his resignation letter whether "given Judaism's long and deep tradition of concern for justice and ethics, a Jewish venue is (not) precisely the setting most appropriate for a speaker like Dr. Beinin?"
I was indeed raised to believe that being Jewish meant being actively committed to social justice. I moved to Israel expecting to pursue that ideal. Yet much of what I saw there called this into question.
I tended livestock on Kibbutz Lahav, which was established on the ruins of three Palestinian villages. The Palestinian inhabitants had been expelled and, because they are not Jewish, were unable to return. One day, we needed extra workers to help clean manure from the turkey cages. The head of the turkey branch said we should not ask for kibbutz members to do the work because, "This isn't work for Jews. This is work for Arabushim." "Arabushim" is an extremely derogatory racial term.
I had participated in the civil rights movement in America, picketing Woolworth's stores that wouldn't serve African Americans. Yet in Israel I discovered the same, stark racism. How could this bring peace between Palestinians and Israelis? While still living in Israel, I began to speak out for equal rights for Palestinians, as I had done for blacks in America.
Organizations claiming to represent American Jews engage in a systematic campaign of defamation, censorship and hate-mongering to silence criticism of Israeli policies. They hollow the ethical core out of the Jewish tradition, acting instead as if the highest purpose of being Jewish is to defend Israel, right or wrong.
No one is spared. New York University Professor Tony Judt also moved to Israel with notions of justice. Judt learned, as I did, that most Israelis were "remarkably unconscious of the people who had been kicked out of the country and were suffering in refugee camps to make this fantasy possible." In October, the Polish Consulate in New York canceled a talk by Judt after pressure from the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee.
Even former U.S. presidents are not immune. Jimmy Carter has been the target of a smear campaign since the release of his latest book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid." Carter's most vociferous critics have not challenged him on the issues. Rather, they discredit him with personal attacks, even insinuating that the man who has achieved more than any other American president in Arab/Israeli peacemaking is anti-Semitic.
Why discredit, defame and silence those with opposing viewpoints? I believe it is because the Zionist lobby knows it cannot win based on facts. An honest discussion can only lead to one conclusion: The status quo in which Israel declares it alone has rights and intends to impose its will on the weaker Palestinians, stripping them permanently of their land, resources and rights, cannot lead to a lasting peace. We need an open debate and the freedom to discuss uncomfortable facts and explore the full range of policy options. Only then can we adopt a foreign policy that serves American interests and one that could actually bring a just peace to Palestinians and Israelis.
Joel Beinin co-edited "The Struggle for Sovereignty: Palestine and Israel, 1993-2005."