Is Peter Beinart the 'Wicked Son'?

The following is adapted from a Passover sermon Rabbi Bernstein delivered at his congregation on April 7, 2012.

In Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland," there is the following exchange between Alice and the Duchess:

"Thinking again?" the Duchess asked, with another dig of her sharp little chin. "I have a right to think," said Alice sharply, for she was beginning to feel a little worried. "Just about as much right," said the Duchess, "as pigs have to fly."

Lewis Carroll is satirizing a society that limits people's freedom of thought and, by extension, speech. The Passover seder presents the opposite scenario. We gather to discuss our great national story in ways that bring meaning to each of us. The Haggadah's interpretation of the four sons, or the four children, reminds us that at least four different kinds of people are invited to the seder. We traditionally call these children wise, wicked, simple and the one who does not know how to ask.

Each of these children has his or her flaws. And yet they are all at the table. They are all seeking to engage in the discussion in some way.

Each child has a more complex personality than meets the eye. Consider for a moment the Rasha (often translated as "wicked"):

Rasha, mah hu omer? Mah ha-avodah ha-zot lachem? Lachem v'lo lo. Ul'fi shehotzi et atzmo min hak'lal, kafar ba-ikar. V'af atah hakheih et shinav, ve-emor lo.
Ba-avur zeh, asah Adonai li, b'tzeiti mimitzrayim, li v'lo lo. Ilu hayah sham, lo hayah

The Wicked One asks: "What does this ritual mean to you?" (Exodus 12:26) By using the expression "to you" he excludes himself from his people and denies God. Shake his arrogance and say to him: "It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt..." (Exodus 13:8) "For me" and not for him -- for had he been in Egypt, he would not have been freed.

The very term "rasha" is difficult to translate: As noted in the Haggadah "A Night to Remember" (Mishael Zion and Noam Zion, eds.), "'[W]icked' and 'evil' are very harsh, uncompromising terms for a child. 'Rebellious,' 'mischievous,' 'recalcitrant,' 'chutzpadik,' 'impolite,' 'vilde khaye,' 'naughtly,' 'troublesome,' 'difficult,' 'problematic' or 'alienated' are also possible" (45).

These adjectives are more descriptive and less judgmental than wicked or evil. After all, why would we be expected to have at our table someone who was truly wicked? Our tradition puts great stock in questions, and we have a seat at our table for someone who will do just that. In a sense, he may be the truest yodea lishol, the one who knows how to ask the sharpest questions.

Last week, the Jewish community was publicly challenged to consider what views have a role to play in the discussion around our table and what views are beyond the pale. Peter Beinart is the former editor of the New Republic and senior political writer for the online journal The Daily Beast, a partner of Newsweek. He wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that has created a firestorm of debate within the Jewish community.

A self-proclaimed Zionist, Beinart calls for a boycott of goods and services produced in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Beinart grew up immersed in Zionism. His grandmother -- who had to flee Egypt and then the Belgian Congo because of religious persecution -- made sure that Beinart realized the importance of supporting Israel from an early age.

"What my grandmother conveyed to me was the sense of the fragility of Jewish life in so many diaspora communities -- the sense of rootlessness," he told Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air. "She made it very clear to me that Jews should see Israel as a place that would take us in -- the place of permanence, the place that could give us, even if we didn't go there, the psychological comfort of knowing there was a home if we had to be on the run."

Beinart describes a moment in his thinking about Israel after seeing a video sent to him from Israeli friends. The video showed a Palestinian man being arrested after attempting to connect his village to water pipes in the West Bank, where there is a massive disparity in water allocation resources and where Jews are citizens of the Israeli state and Palestinians are not.

"It had a powerful effect on me and it was one of a series of experiences that I would say led me to be willing to face ... the reality of what Israel's occupation is," he says. "It also made me concerned about how I would tell my own children [about] my love of Israel and try to make them devoted Zionists, while also not ignoring the reality of what happens when you hold millions of people for more than 40 years as noncitizens in the places in which they were born."

Beinart has called for American Jews to embrace what he calls "democratic Israel" -- the part of Israel that does not include settler-occupied territories. He has also called for a boycott of goods made in those settler-occupied areas, which he calls "nondemocratic Israel." As he said on NPR:

"We have to invest and spend our money in the original Israel, which offers the right of citizenship to all people, but I don't think we should be spending our money in the West Bank, which is a territory where Israel's founding ideals are desecrated," he says.

He said further:

"I know that this is a controversial and painful suggestion for many Jews, because we feel ourselves to be part of something called the Jewish people. I feel that very strongly as well. I don't feel any hostility to Jews who live in the West Bank -- I feel a strong sense of kinship with the entire Jewish people. But I do feel that we are sleepwalking towards the destruction of Israel as a democratic Jewish state, and we have to find ways of starting a conversation to rebuild the distinction that will allow Israel to remain a democratic, Jewish state."

Beinart offers fellow Zionists a challenge:

"If you disagree with the proposal I've put forward, then please suggest to me how you think differently [about how] we can stop the process of subsidizing people to move to the West Bank that threatens Israel's future as a democratic Jewish state. ... We have to have that conversation. It may not be an easy conversation. It certainly should not be a conversation to the exclusion of Palestinian culpability, which there certainly is. But we have to have that conversation if we're going to fulfill our obligation to the next generation, which is to pass on a Jewish democratic state to them."

On this point, he elaborates:

"If you want to talk to younger American Jews and try to engage them and find language that is meaningful to them, a language just of victimhood and survival ... is not actually a storyline that speaks to the realities of their lives. There is so much in Jewish tradition that talks about the Jewish use of power, our struggle to wield it ethically. That seems to me to be very, very important for us to have a conversation about because it shows our tradition has relevance today to the lives of our children. ... Younger American Jews are alienated precisely because of the Jewish community's inability to talk openly and honestly and in an unafraid way about these subjects. That's why, I think, we lose a lot of younger American Jewish kids. They want the right to voice their questions and criticisms openly without being written off. And the American Jewish community hasn't done a good job of that."

Indeed the response to Beinart from Israelis and American Jews has been fast and furious. Israel's Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren said:

Beinart's position ... absolves the Palestinians of any responsibility for the current situation, including their rejection of previous peace offers, their support for terror, and their refusal to negotiate with Israel for the past three years. By reducing the Palestinians to two-dimensional props in an Israeli drama, Beinart deprives them of agency and indeed undermines his own thesis. Without an active Palestinian commitment to a two-state solution -- irrespective of boycotts -- the peace Beinart seeks cannot be achieved.

Gary Rosenblatt, editor of the New York Jewish Week, opposes Beinart but with a more nuanced approach: "I think to a certain degree he jumped the shark with that op-ed piece in The Times," Rosenblatt told Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air. "I think if he was appealing to the mainstream or establishment Jewish community, many of whose members have conflicted feelings about the settlements, I think the proposition of a boycott just went too far and the reaction was pretty negative."

Rosenblatt says he agrees with Beinart that Israel can never be a fully democratic state as long as there is an occupation and settlers in the West Bank as there are now.

"But I disagree with his approach in that I think he started with a thesis and he's made the facts fit in. And if they don't fit, he ignores them or refutes them," he says. "I think Peter makes the Israel-Palestinian conflict look very simple. And I think it's really a much, much more complicated and nuanced situation. I think Israel's real problem is dealing with people who don't want a Jewish state in the region."

Even Jeremy Ben-Ami of J-Street, the self-proclaimed Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace lobby, differs with Beinart:

"I think the ideologues driving the settlement enterprise - not necessarily the settlers themselves - will never change their views. Pressure will only reinforce their belief that the whole world is against them, causing them to dig in even more deeply.

I believe that the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement should focus on borders, not boycotts, as it is a recognized border that will save Israel's democratic and Jewish character."

My own view is that I agree with many of Beinart's critics that boycotting the Jewish West Bank settlements is not appropriate, and it won't be effective in stopping who are boycotting Israel as a whole. At the same time, I find myself wondering where Beinart falls on the spectrum of the four children. I don't consider Beinart a "Rasha" in the traditional understanding of that term. Rather, I see him bringing challenges to our communal conversation that should make us all take stock of the values that we hold dear. Even as we set the Rasha's teeth on edge, he is still part of the conversation and we need to engage in discussion with him. He is not beyond the pale. While I haven't seen Beinart invoke the four children metaphor, he has voiced concern about engaging younger Jews who don't relate to classical Jewish notions of suffering. He calls on resurrecting the democratic aspect of Zionist ideology so that we don't lose these Jews. Through the way he frames the issue, younger, unengaged Jews might be the Tam and Sh'Eino Yodea Lishol. Beinart in taking on a controversial Rasha-like roll is stirring the pot for the sake of Jewish continuity. Some in the community may be moved to "set his teeth on edge," but we have to engage in conversation with him and not ignore him.

I have no doubts about Beinart's commitment to Zionism. Indeed, many Israelis share his views. Though I disagree with one particular action he calls for, I regard him as very much in the fold. I can understand how some may regard Beinart a Rasha in the classical sense because of his call to cause economic harm to fellow Jews in the West Bank. However, he deserves a seat at the table. If he is a Rasha, he is the kind who is yodea lishol, he knows how to ask questions. In so doing, he sharpens the thinking of everyone else. We dare not shun him nor say he does not belong. Through having open conversations at our seder table and throughout the year, I pray that the Jewish people will indeed realize our dream of the State of Israel as a Jewish democratic state in secure and universally recognized borders. May we be so blessed.