“Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you know who these two men are,” began Bari Weiss, Tablet Magazine’s news and politics editor. “Peter Beinart, who is on the far-left,” she continued, getting laughter as she gestured to the man sitting, yes, farther to her left. “And Dr. Daniel Gordis slightly to his right.”
The debate held last night at the Columbia Hillel’s Rennert Hall in Morningside Heights and sponsored by The Current and Tablet had all the makings of, as was advertised, a “heavyweight fight on Zionism.” If you want, you can watch the whole thing here.
Beinart, a senior writer for The Daily Beast and the editor of its Open Zion blog, and Gordis had for weeks been engaged in an acrimonious argument in print over Beinart’s controversial new book, The Crisis of Zionism. Gordis, the senior vice president of the Shalem Center, had written in the Jerusalem Post that his earlier belief that Beinart “loved Israel” was dashed by Crisis. “This book convinced me I was horribly mistaken.”
Beinart, for his part, had accused Gordis in the same publication of a selective reading of the book and called his accusations “a blatant act of deception.”
Republican congressional candidate Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and philanthropist Michael Steinhardt were among the boldfaced names (relatively speaking) in attendance. But the chance to see some intellectual fireworks drew a diverse—at least in age and opinion—crowd to the Columbia Hillel, which reached capacity thirty minutes before the debate began.
Mordecai Newman, a lawyer for the city of New York, described himself as an admirer of Beinart who had been disturbed by ad hominem attacks against him. “I find it disturbing because it makes it hard to have a substantive debate,” he said.
Samuel Frank, a Ph.D student at CUNY Grad School (where Beinart is a professor of journalism), agreed, adding that “people who wouldn’t otherwise oppose Beinart’s perspective” have been “scared to death” by the force of his argument.
Nehama Wyner, a retired lawyer from New Jersey, however, felt that the difference between the two men was one of idealism and realism.
“Beinart thinks everything should be perfect,” she said. “Gordis has a much more realistic point of view.”
Amidst the disagreements, however, there were still members of the crowd who came with no horse in the race.
Talia Klein, an undergraduate psychology student at Barnard College, said she had attended simply because she was “invested in Israel as a Jew, so I thought it’d be an opportunity to educate myself.”
The debate, no less fierce than expected, was nonetheless amicable. The debated proposition, “Zionism is failing and American Jews are hastening its decline,” perhaps inevitably became entwined with Gordis’ critique of Crisis, with each men rehashing their points. Gordis, in particular, cited passages to accuse Beinart of a double standard, saying that he was “a realist with Israelis, and a romanticist with Palestinians.”
Beinart retorted that he had in his book pointed out failures in Palestinian action, but that the argument was in fact moot. “Even if I conceded every nasty thing about the Palestinians that you could say, it is still not Palestinians who are paying Israelis to go across the Green line and settle there,” he argued. “It is this Israeli government that legalized settlements. We’re not talking to the Palestinians because this government has no interest.”
Although at times the discussion became mired in a line-by-line reading of Crisis, as the conversation got off-book it became thoroughly engaging. Both men were equally informed on their subjects and capable of going toe-to-toe. Gordis, however, who is also a rabbi, was from the start the more comfortable speaker and turned out some well received rhetorical flourishes.
Beinart argued that Zionism, which was endangered by the perpetuation of what he described as “nondemocratic Israel” in the West Bank, argued that American Jews had a responsibility to work against the settlements.
“Democracy is not the whole of the Israeli dream,” Beinart said. “It should not be a secular democracy like the United States. Israel is a mix of the tribal and the universal. If democracy is not the entirety of the Zionist dream, it is essential.” Attempting to maintain the settlements, he added, would only lead to a solely Jewish non-democratic state that would make Israel a pariah, and while he acknowledged that removing settlements would not ensure peace, he suggested that not to do so would close the door on it forever.
“Zionism is not failing,” countered Gordis. “But it is hurting.” Not because of the settlements, but because in the shadow of the Second Intifada, “this generation of Israelis is the first to realize it is incapable of ending the conflict,” creating, he said, something of a generational malaise.
However, Gordis submitted, it is American Jews calling for the settlements to be bulldozed before negotiations which was delaying peace, because it only emboldened the Palestinians.
In fact, both men were critical of American Jewry on a number of points. Later in the Q & A portion of the evening (questions were submitted via Facebook, Twitter, and low-tech index cards), Gordis accused American Jews of giving up on Jewish peoplehood, putting it on the path to becoming “Hebrew-inflected Protestantism.”
Responding to a request from Weiss (whom partisans on both sides full-heartedly praised for her moderating) for a “two minute pitch” to an un-engaged American Jew, Gordis noted that he had always found Rabbi Hillel’s “teach Torah while standing on one foot” request to be obnoxious.
“I wouldn’t take two minutes to try to convince someone to be a moral human being,” explained Gordis. “I wouldn’t try to explain why loving someone is more complicated, but worth it. Two minutes isn’t enough to take the place of years of upbringing. We are too used to trying to fit big ideas on an iPhone screen.”
Agreeing with Gordis that at that point it is too late, Beinart quipped that on this subject he wished that Gordis was his rabbi.
Both men spoke to the importance not only of Birthright trips, but also argued that they should be expanded until two-thirds of American Jews had been to Israel. Beinart further called for the trips to also include visits with Israel’s non-Jewish communities, which he suggested would only strengthen ties to Israel.
And with that Michael Steinhardt walks from the front row out of the room. #BeinartVGordis
— Matthew Ackerman (@MatthewAckerman) May 3, 2012
In their final remarks, Beinart argued that American Jews should be willing to engage with non-Zionists and anti-Zionists in similar debates, and called for them to help Israel maintain both a military and democratic advantage.
Gordis unsurprisingly disagreed about talking with anti-Zionists, but after two hours of debate, only a single heckler, and #beinartvgordis trending on Twitter in New York City, the men agreed on the value of such discussions as these.
“As the future leaders of American Jewry,” said Talia Klein, the Barnard student, this morning, “I think it is important that we got to hear discussions like this and educate ourselves.”