Anyone who believes that the age of polite civil discourse is behind us should have witnessed a remarkably respectful debate at Congregation B’nai Israel on Sunday, September 11th. Dr. Daniel Gordis–an author, journalist, and well-known speaker to American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) audiences–was expected to represent the “right” side of the Zionist political spectrum. This all-too rigid classification, however, was thoroughly examined and dissected for accuracy through the course of the night. Peter Beinart–Associate Professor, CNN Political Commentator, and Senior Columnist for Haaretz–represented the loose faction of the Jewish, political left that, more or less, defines the “farthest point left” still palatable by the established American-Jewish institutions.
The evening began with moderator, Rabbi Elie Spitz, acknowledging the historic anniversary that happened to coincide with the debate. He asked both parties to reflect on the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and share their respective memories of the horrific day. Gordis explained that the lesson he took from the tragedy was that the “West is under attack” in a genuine “battle of civilizations.” Beinart, on the other hand, described the post-9/11 sense of national unity, and how proud that made him as an American, a child of immigrants, and as a New Yorker. He also lamented how that very same patriotism was morphed into an ugly form of bigotry.
The speakers were then asked to express where they see themselves on the political spectrum, which led to a fascinating conversation about the relativity of political demarcations. Beinart explained that while most Jews consider him on the “far-left,” any Palestinian would consider him far more closely aligned with Dr. Gordis than with anyone on “their side of the fence.” Gordis, meanwhile, stated that he, like Beinart, thinks that the “Israeli presence in the vast majority of the West Bank is untenable.” This belief, he explained, put him at odds with most of the “far-right” side of the political football field in regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The nearest semblance to a personal attack came when Gordis challenged Beinart’s decision to bring a group of young Jews from New York to Hebron. He seemed to imply that Beinart’s motives were sinister, claiming that the group was in Hebron to witness an ugly interaction between soldiers and Palestinians. Beinart promptly defended his decision, by explaining that “the reality in Hebron is ugly” and visitors to Israel should not visit the Western Wall and beaches of Tel Aviv without seeing the West Bank. Gordis also questioned whether Beinart’s body of work has had a net-positive impact on young Jews’ sentiments toward Israel.
Far more often throughout the evening, the two either found common ground or politely agreed to disagree. Dr. Gordis stayed to field questions and sign copies of his new book, “Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn,” while Mr. Beinart had to catch a red-eye flight back to New York to teach a class in the morning. All in all, it was an intellectually stimulating evening that remained measured and courteous.
Perry Fein is contributing writer to Jlife magazine.