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Beinart, Gordis Debate In Front of Packed House

Here’s what went down; and, you can watch the whole thing

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“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.

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.”

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One wonders how folks like Beinart explain the Arabs vowing to destroy Israel on multiple occasions (and indeed trying to do so), before they ever lost the WB and Gaza? Could it be that they just HATE Israel — in any form?

And why does the hatred seem to increase exponentially everytime the Israelis give up a valuable concession (e.g. all throughout the Oslo accords and especially the return of Gaza)?

    hypnosifl says:

    “the Arabs” aren’t a monolithic group–how would you feel about any sentence complaining about the behavior of “the Jews”, even if the complaint would be a basically accurate one if made about Israeli leadership? It’s unfortunate that the Palestinian leadership has been so unwilling to negotiate in the past, but the entire Palestinian population isn’t responsible for this, and eternal military occupation of them (with all the accompanying lack of rights, like freedom of movement and voting rights) isn’t a solution. And it’s very hard to believe that stopping the growth of settlements would make a two-state solution less likely than it already looks right now (beyond that, it would turn international opinion more in Israel’s favor regardless of the reaction of Palestinian leadership, not to mention it would just be the right thing to do). You may be right that the Palestinian leadership will never be willing become reasonable negotiating partners, but Israel does hold more of the power here–I wish there was more discussion of the possibility that Israel could just unilaterally declare that in some fixed amount of time they would be pulling out of the territories and letting the Palestinian government control it, with the Palestinian leadership being free to negotiate the detailed terms if they wished, but if they refused or made unreasonable demands, it would go ahead anyway under conditions similar to those proposed under the Oslo accords.

      Royq says:

      I’m with you on Israel being more proactive, hypnosfil, but Jews have been treated as a monolithic entity from time immemorial, to as great a degree as any other ethnic group.  Secondly, unilateral withdrawal was precisely what Israel tried in the case of Gaza, a move originally intended as a precursor to a full-fledged pullout from most of the West Bank, a plan conceived by Ariel Sharon.  Not only did the Palestinians fail to parlay their newfound freedom in Gaza into something approximating a civil state, they more or less turned it into a forward base from which to attack Israel, a fact their apologists attributed to the unilateral character of Israeli disengagement.   That said, I still favor a unilateral move at this point, without much hope that it will appease the Palestinians.

        ugluk2 says:

        Pulling out illegal settlers while maintaining a blockade (with the help of Mubarak’s Egypt) wasn’t a way to give Gazans a chance to build a state.   I’ve heard people use this “Israel pulled out and got rockets in return” so many times.  Nobody using this argument seems to understand that blockading an area is a form of occupation, nor do they seem to know that when it comes to violence, neither side has a monopoly on truce-breaking.

        If the control Israel exerted on Gaza even after the “withdrawal” is nothing, then why is the slightest hint of any sort of economic pressure on Israel (even symbolic boycotts in Brooklyn co-ops) treated as the second coming of Hitler?  

          Royq says:

          Yours are the kind of abject apologetics that end up dooming any prospect of Palestinian independence to failure.  You empower the most radically violent elements in their society by arming them with their most potent weapon, a free pass.  By the way,  Egypt is an autonomous state that has maintained a chilly if more or less tranquil relationship with Israel since Camp David.  Israel exerts no influence over Egyptian decision-making.  They blockade Gaza because they rightfully fear the incursion of Islamists intent on subverting their government.  Hamas, who were catapulted to power after a popular vote, abets the infiltration of the border by their militant affiliates.  Israel, in hopes of encouraging a durable peace, not only forcibly uprooted its own settlers in Gaza, it facilitated the peaceful transfer of agricultural infrastructure that remained to the now independent Palestinians, who subsequently burned it all to the ground, after which they desecrated a Jewish holy site.  The moving pen writes, and having writ, not all your excuses and falsification will erase one word of it.

        The problem with the Gaza withdrawal was that it was unilateral.  After 9/11  Dubya  and  Sharon became a mutual admiration society  and Sharon became a man of peace.  Don’t ask me how Dubya would know anything about peace.  Sharon’s action was a imitation of Bush’s unilateralism which he loved so much as did his followers.  oof course, while the Israelis pulled out of Gaza, they increased the settlemenbt activity in the West Bank,.

    sigaba says:

    That sorta misses Beinart’s point, Joseph.  He argues that it doesn’t matter how evil and atrocious Arabs are, they could pledge the death of every Jew daily, they could plot and plan, build weapons and assemble troops; no matter how awful they are, it doesn’t justify settling the West Bank as such.  Taken to the extreme, Arab cross-bred Clone Hitler and a regiment of ODESSA could be parked in Amman and it still wouldn’t justify settling the West Bank, building settler roads, erecting fences, militarization or anything else that follows on the occupation, such as it is.  The issue of settlement or the territorial expansion of Israel is orthogonal to defending Israel from Arab violence, in his estimation.

    I can see how this is problematic, because holding the West Bank obviously has a certain military imperative if Arab Clone Hitler is on your east.  Of course, just because Israel must do a thing to survive, something that it is entitled to do and has the means to accomplish, it does not follow that that thing is healthy for its democracy, for its open culture and politics, for the liberal character of the state.

      Albert Linder says:

      Sigaba please note that holding Yehudah and ashomron has not impacted the health of “its democracy, for its open culture and politics, for the liberal character of the state.” in over 45 years. Andrew’s arguments are baseless.

        sigaba says:

        Who’s Andrew?

          Grantman says:

          Quote: “It’s not really about the land, or if we’re entitled to it, or what name it is or our historical claim. What matters is what you do to keep it. If you need not make a single rifle to hold Judea, than you’re in good shape. If you have to make nukes to defend it, build fences and checkpoints, guard every corner and cut down every errant olive tree, you’re probably in a lot of trouble.”
          The problem as I see it is that Israel needs more than a single rifle to hold Israel inside the green line, too.  The Arabs simply want no part of Israel, or more precisely, want all of Israel and no part should be owned/lived in/occupied by/controlled by Jews.   

          What part of that don’t you understand?  It’s not Judea and Samaria, it’s no Jew should live between “the river and the sea.”

Royq says:

I’m starting to look at the brochures for cave life.

PhillipNagle says:

The only way to stop further settlements in Judea and Samaria is to have a permanent peace.  The longer the arabs take to make peace (and they have had some pretty good offers) the more they will be pushed out.  Beinart is one of those who is basically advocating ceding laqnd in return for nothing.  His total lack of logic is amazing.

    ugluk2 says:

    “Ceding land for nothing”—rightwing lingo for “ceasing to steal land”.  

      PhillipNagle says:

      Since the “peace loving” arabs have decreed the death penalty for anyone selling land to Jews, they have taken the rights away from their own people and made ownership a political issue.  I will reiterate, a permanent peace will stop Jewish expansion, but it will end the arab dream of destoying Israel.

Raymond_in_DC says:

Beinart sees in his “evidence” only what he wants to see and disregards the rest.  This was clear in his “bloody hell” strategy, which amounts to little more than expressing displeasure if the Palestinians were to violate an agreement. All his talk of the US making them “pay a price”, as in pulling funding if the Palestinians go against US wishes or violate their agreements, is only so much obfuscation.

The US cut funding to UNESCO after the latter recognized Palestine only because US law required it. Yet the latest proposed budget out of the White House proposes to *restore* that funding. Moreover, the White House and State Department have fought Congressional holds on Palestinian funding, and only days ago ignored those holds, waiving them away with claims of “national security”. So any alleged US pressure on Palestinians is illusory – just like Beinart’s argument.

I’m not surprised Gordis missed this point as he doesn’t closely follow the goings on inside the Beltway, but Beinart had to know he was misleading the audience. Knowing this truth just strengthens Gordis’ argument – that folks like Beinart are making it possible for the Palestinians *not* to compromise.

EvenSteven11 says:

Beinart is an outright liar saying that there are no peace talks because of this Israeli government.  When Israel froze settlements at the anti-Semite Obama’s demand, the PLO still didn’t talk, until one week before the freeze was to end and then only to demand a continuation of the freeze.  Lying Beinart is a loser whose book sales are a joke and on the fringe of Jewish society.  He should be rejected like the garbage that he is.

Boychic says:

Beyond the noise, the rhetoric, the arguments, Zionism is the last great hope of preserving the remnant of the Jewish people as an entity. Look at the numbers. Two thousand years ago Jews were by most counts  nearly ten million people. That would equate today, if they were allowed to flourish without persecution, pogroms, massacres and other horrors, to 200 million people, give or take. Today the numbers are an abysmal 14 odd million, with only two viable options for unhampered growth, Israel and the US.  Does anyone really believe that Israel will survive for the Jews based on the goodwill of any Arab nation? Or, for example, the United Nations? I am afraid the fantasy of Mr. Beinart’s wishful thinking is yet another recipe for the further reduction of Jewish numbers. No lasting  peace with Israel’s neighbors can ever be achieved without its strong commitment to the Zionist ideal and its recognition by its antagonists.

JehudahBenIsrael says:

It is not entirely clear to this poster whether Beinart is or is not interested in the preservation of the Jewish people as a people and whose independent nation-state is the state of Israel, despite of what he says.

His hostility to the independent liberal democratic state of Israel, its elected freely elected officials and to its institutions amounts to being hostile at the very people whose nation-state Israel is, which doesn’t bode well for a person who claims he wishes well for Israel.

I would therefore strongly suggest Mr. Beinart move to Israel, with his family, learn the Hebrew language and communicate, daily, with those on whose shoulders Israel exists to day – the men and women who work the factories in Israel; those who plow the land and are employed in the various service activities of the country, be it in the collective farming communities dotting the outer boundaries of the land, the small development towns in the north and south, the neighborhoods of cities like Beer Sheva, Ashdod, Haifa, Qirjat Shmonah and Qatzrin. Let Mr. Beinart talk with the young men and women who stand in Israel’s defense daily, not because they wish to waste three precious years of their lives but because they wish their country to be, to exist as the independent nation-state of the Jewish people and wish to be able to go home where their families are still alive.

Indeed, Mr. Beinart is so, so removed from the daily reality of Israel as well as its, legal military and otherwise historical reality, that in order to convince this poster he would have to get off his comfortable place in New York, put aside his Starbucks coffee – no there isn’t Starbucks coffee in Israel, since Israelis, like Italians, prefer their coffee to be sipped while communicating with their fellow Israelis in coffee shops and not “on-the-go” – and join those to whom he tells, with much arrogance why and how they should govern themselves and defend their country.

If I have had some respect for the man with regard to some Jewish American domestic issues, that respect has evaporated after hearing reading him and hearing him debating with Rabbi Gordis.


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Beinart, Gordis Debate In Front of Packed House

Here’s what went down; and, you can watch the whole thing

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