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Debating Israel From Afar

Jeffrey Goldberg and Jeremy Ben-Ami lock shofars

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Jeffrey Goldberg.(

At one point last night Jeffrey Goldberg opined on the unparalleled, shaky status of the state of Israel. “Bolivians,” he joked, “never wake up and ask ‘will Bolivia be here tomorrow?'” His comment captured the mixture of lightness and gravity in the evening’s conversation. Goldberg, the venerable Atlantic correspondent (and Tablet Magazine contributing editor), joined J Street leader Jeremy Ben-Ami for the herculean task of unraveling the evolving relationship between American Jews and Israel. Before a crowd of roughly 400 packed into the New York Society for Ethical Culture, the pair handled their task well, refusing to shy away from difficult questions that linger over the issue. (J Street has posted video of the entire conversation here.)

As Marissa Brostoff predicted yesterday, Goldberg both sat and positioned himself to Ben-Ami’s right. It was Ben-Ami’s home court: his “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group organized the event under the rhetorical title, “Who speaks for me?” But Goldberg was the agitating gadfly, prodding his interlocutor with questions on a broad range of topics, from J Street’s overall role to the sanctity of the Temple Mount. Ben-Ami revealed his experience as a communications pro, crafting his responses clearly and carefully.

The two departed significantly on the tactics and pragmatism of America’s Middle East policy, which Goldberg promptly put down in his blog this morning. But I found another point of contention in their dialogue far more interesting. Early in the discussion, Ben-Ami voiced his adamant concern that Israel was increasingly becoming “illiberal,” a shift he saw as a fundamental affront to “Jewish values.” Goldberg countered with a sharp critique that, essentially, called into question much of J Street’s work. “What if you, as an American Jew,” he asked, “don’t have a stake in Israel?” The reality, Goldberg asserted, is that critics here, thousands of miles away, would not directly “suffer the policy consequences” of certain proposals as viscerally as Israelis would. “I’m still not sure,” Goldberg said, “that it is the right of American Jews to lecture Israel.”

Later, Goldberg questioned Ben-Ami on the validity of Jewish claims to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The J Street founder responded firmly that the Israeli Jews should concede the religious symbol to neutral control. The “concept of ownership and sovereignty,” he asserted, is the kernel of the problem, and has led to unnecessary bloodshed. His claim that, in order to achieve peace, he would give up a “little bit of land” was met with thick applause. As it subsided, Goldberg demurred: “Unlike you, I defer to the Israelis.” A more scattered but still strong applause followed.

But Ben-Ami stood his ground, insisting on a “Zionist imperative to tell Israel the truth,” to “hold up a mirror” to the nation. And the men agreed that the reflection is not pretty. Ben-Ami stated, repeatedly, that Israel was swiftly becoming a “pariah state.” Their discussion about Israel’s further isolation in the region invariably turned to Peter Beinart’s recent claim of a serious departure of American Jews from Zionism. Contra Beinart’s narrative, Ben-Ami suggested that the true rift was “ideological and religious” and not national or generational.

The hour-plus dialogue veered in a host of interesting directions, including a spirited debate on the successes of and threats to Israeli’s hard-fought civil liberties. (One of my favorite moments was Goldberg’s description of his discomfort with living as a foreigner in Israel: He shortly learned the nation was not simply “Great Neck with sand.”) .

Unfortunately, most of the audience questions did not elicit fascinating commentary. Curated by a J Street board member, they were primarily sweeping, near impossible inquiries on the peace process (i.e. “What is the greatest single obstacle to peace?” “The settlement enterprise,” Ben-Ami responded.) One audience member asked about the best book on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The hosts listed a few but both agreed that there was, as Goldberg put it, a “striking lack of books” that include the sincerity and depth of their conversation. He just might write one, he offered. We’ll take you up on that, Jeff.

Me and Jeremy Ben-Ami Down By The Schoolyard [Atlantic]
Earlier: Boycotting Hits the Mainstream

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Bryna Weiss says:

I know I should listen to the debate, but I just can’t bear to hear Jeremy Ben Ami voice his arrogant, know-it-all criticisms as he pursues attention and power. He is a dangerous man. And I am not a rightwing Jew. I am quite the opposite… an acitivist Liberal. I believe in a two state solution (sooner than later), I resent the settlers and believe the ultra Orthodox should be put in their place. But I cannot abide Ben Ami’s behavior. If he really cared only about Israel making what he considers the right decisions, he could have gone to the Israeli government and as loudly as he could, put forth his reactions and his ideas. Humiliating Israel in the eyes of the world only serves to elevate himself in the eyes of the do-gooders, the so-called ‘peacniks’. I have no use for this opportunist.

Mazel Tov on a great first year. We the public need this kind of conversation and information. Keep up the good work and high standards. Keep asking hard questions.Thanks.

Specifically, Goldberg said that there were few recent books that addressed these issues in a way that was responsive to concerns voiced across the political spectrum, I believe.

He did say that “Operation Shylock”, by Philip Roth, offered a profound take on issues of identity, and the relationship of the diaspora to Israel.

Rather than read questions in the order in which they were submitted by audience members, Dan Fleshler saw fit to organize them in some thematic fashion to suit his taste, the result being that the evening’s program concluded before he had the opportunity to read all submissions. Thanks, Dan!

Norm Cone says:

I fully agree with everything, Bryna Weiss said before me. But if I had to choose between Jeremy Ben Ami and Nasrallah I would get caught in a very embarrassing situation. Ben Ami may stand for “peace” but certainly not for Israel. I’m not a liberal activist as Bryna is, rather more conservative, I have not voted for Obama and don’t intend to do so next time, but I too am for a two state solution (sooner than later), resent the settlers and as Bryna I too believe the ultra Orthodox should be put in their place. But so should be Jeremy Ben Ami and his friends. Because it’s not a question of “a little bit of land”. I’m convinced that the Palestinians won’t accept Israel in any form, within any acceptable borders. I hope I’m

Garry says:

“Iliberal”-an affront to Jewish values. Yes Ben-Ami-Too bad you weren’t around at the first Purim to advocate for Haman and his children. No reason they couldn’t be rehabilitated with some psychanalysis. After all, remember the whole business started because Mordechai, the Jew, refused to bow to Haman. So it was the Jews’ fault. It alwasys is. Oh, by the way, Ben Ami-too bad you weren’t in the desert with the terrible Jews. You could have advocated for the Amalekites. Talk about illiberal behavior. Tell me, how come there is no group of Muslims that speaks for Jews? It is time, once and for all, to understand that “liberal” has nothing to do with Judaism. Self-preservation must come first. And if the North Koreans, Indonesians, Iranians and sundry others don’t like it, well, that’s just too bad. Go read Jabotinsky’s “Instead of Excessive Apology” written in 1911. Maybe you can learn something.

miha says:

“One audience member asked about the best book on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The hosts listed a few but both agreed that there was, as Goldberg put it, a “striking lack of books” that include the sincerity and depth of their conversation. He just might write one, he offered.”

Together with question, there are the first books already here.

See “Crossing Qalandiya” Look it up on Amazon. A good reference to mention next time you are asked this question.

I want to second Garry, Jewish values having nothing to do with so-called liberalism.

And that is exactly the problem which Ben Ami. If the religious values and traditions which nurture major aspects of the state of Israel are not understood, and Ben-Ami seems quite far from these traditions and this understanding, then anything said in the US by those on the political left (which liberals are) merely reflects the political agenda of the speakers.

Despite Ben Ami’s thinking otherwise, he does not speak for Judaism but only for those Jewish leftists who value their left/liberal ideology over anything else. They even try to package liberalism as their Judaism.

Ben Ami’s proposals will lead to increased attacks upon Israel, emboldening Arab states and weakening the support for Israel in the US government by giving political cover to those who already are inclined against the Jewish State.

manny says:

ben ami says just a little more land.
ben ami says a 2 state solution
I say ben ami is a punk. How much more land? Did anyone ask him. And who protects ISRAEL when tanks and other military from other countries make the 2nd state a staging area for the final attack.


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Debating Israel From Afar

Jeffrey Goldberg and Jeremy Ben-Ami lock shofars

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