Whether one’s political leanings are left, right or none of the above, it is refreshing to hear two brilliant people engaging in a pointed yet polite debate about an important topic. Members of the Orange County Jewish community who heard Daniel Gordis debate Peter Beinart (“Israel, American Jews; What Matters Most?”) at Congregation B’nai Israel on Sunday, September 11, got that and much more.
According to Rabbi Elie Spitz of B’nai Israel, moderator of the debate, “The goal from this exchange is greater clarity, not only as to where these two important thinkers stand, but as to the divide in our community. The goal is to better understand each other and in the end to support Israel as we see wisely.”
Peter Beinart is an American columnist, journalist and political commentator who is often seen on Sunday morning national talk shows. He is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York, a senior columnist at Haaretz and a contributor to The Atlantic and National Journal. His recent book, The Crisis of Zionism, offers deep research.
Beinart, who encouraged President Barack Obama to use financial pressure to halt settlement construction, believes that right, left and center are relative. “I’m on the left as a Zionist Jew, but my Palestinian friends see me as a defender of certain kinds of Zionism. One has a right as a Jew to have concern for one’s own people and balance it with a concern for liberal democracy.”
He cited “tension between a country that protects one ethnic group but is also a liberal democracy that protects the equality of everyone.” He finds the treatment of people in the West Bank “problematic.”
Daniel Gordis, who “made aliyah” with his family from Los Angeles eighteen years ago, had served as the founding Dean of the Ziegler Rabbinical School at American Jewish University. Several years after their arrival, the second intifada broke out, and his first book in Israel, If a Place Can Make You Cry: Dispatches from an Anxious State, was a personal account of the terrorism he and his family and friends endured. While he came to Israel as a seeker of social justice, he has experienced Palestinian hatred. In Israeli terms, he is very much in the middle of the political spectrum, but in American terms, he is right of center. The author of seven more books, Gordis heads Israel’s first liberal arts college for the Shalem Center in Jerusalem..
“Israel’s presence in some parts of the West Bank is not tenable, and in the long term, the situation is not viable,” Gordis said. “Jews across the world have a right to talk about Israel, but living in Israel allows one to see things differently.”
According to Gordis, “Most conversations about Israel are about who’s doing Israel in or about the conflict, but Israel is a national liberation project that has succeeded as the three-dimensional life of the Jewish people has defined itself.”
Both men agreed that various groups in the Middle East have put the West under attack since 9/11. While Gordis worries that the US does not understand the magnitude of the attacks and the challenge to freedom here and elsewhere, Beinart believes that ISIS “is evil but logical” in its attacks of countries that have joined the US military attacks.
As to the two-state solution, Beinart thinks that Palestinians largely support it but do not believe that Zionism is a good thing. He took exception to the Palestinians in the West Bank “living under separate laws” and does not want Israel to pay Jews to live there.
Gordis counter-charged that Palestinians pay suicide bombers and their families. He said that 80 percent of Palestinians do not accept the Jewish state and that the Oslo agreements collapsed when terrorism skyrocketed after the treaty was signed. “If we stop building settlements, we give in, and the Palestinians give up nothing,” he explained.
Both men cited challenges in the US-Israel relationship. According to Beinart, “The fundamental problem is Jewish illiteracy. Jewish parents tell their kids to care deeply about something they know nothing about. When you speak in a secular environment in the US, you have to convince people to care about Israel.”
Gordis believes that American Jews “have to move the devotion needle.” He added, “If we are too critical of Israelis, we reinforce the negatives.” While “something magical is happening in Jerusalem, something problematic is happening in a Jewish world that is overcritical of Israel.”
Beinart is “not an optimist,” because “the lack of democracy in the West Bank will have repercussions.” He is concerned that Israeli politics have been hijacked and that US politics can be hijacked as well.
While Gordis finds the nature of the occupation problematic, he believes that Israeli democracy is not in doubt. He concluded, “The Israeli population cares deeply and needs a supportive America. Israeli democracy is vibrant, Zionism is successful and great projects can be beset by challenges. Israel needs great loyalty and endless love.”
Video: Peter Beinart v. Daniel Gordis Debate
Daniel Gorids and Peter Beinart, two leading Jewish thinkers, debate on the nature of Zionism and Jewish belonging moderated by Rabbi Elie Spitz