Jeffrey Goldberg, the usually liberal Atlantic journalist and one-time IDF soldier, has increasingly been defending more conservative positions on Israel. So when he opened last night’s discussion with Jeremy Ben-Ami, the J Street founder and former Clinton aide, with the interrogation-like question — "Are you or have you ever been a Zionist?" — you might have expected the night to end in a brawl.
But Goldberg was only being sarcastic, mocking the outrageous tone the Israel debates often assume. So while he peppered Ben-Ami with tough, conservative-minded questions — why should American Jews lecture Israelis about their own politics? All Israeli got from pulling out of Lebanon and Gaza were rockets, why should they expect any different from the West Bank? — he was very capable of agreeing with him on certain points.
Goldberg, for instance, had no problem laying some blame on Israelis for the crisis they’re now in. He said Abba Eban’s oft-repeated phrase, "Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity," could certainly go the other way: Israel has also missed its share of chances too. He even gave a personal anecdote, saying how he’s been spit on by Jewish settlers himself, and knows quite well that providing them with political cover impedes any sensible peace.
But it was really Ben-Ami’s show. The event was sponsored by J Street and held at the New York Society for Ethical Culture (or, in Goldberg’s pithy phrase, "the Chabad House for atheists"). And Goldberg mostly relinquished the role of opinion-giver, which he’s been doing a lot of on his Atlantic blog, and played the straight journalist.
Why should Israelis give up control of Judaism’s holiest sites like the Temple Mount or even Hebron?, Goldberg asked. If Jews asked the same things of Muslims in Mecca, they’d be laughed at–or worse.
Ben-Ami answered: First, he didn’t think Jews could make the same claim to Mecca as Muslims could to the Temple Mount, where a mosque now stands and where Muhammed is believed to have ascended to heaven. But more importantly, Ben Ami said, he didn’t think that generations of ongoing bloodshed was worth the price of sole control over any religious site.
Practically, Ben-Ami said that it’s wiser to allow a third party like NATO to secure Jerusalem’s eastern border with the West Bank, than permit endless feuding over such sensitive areas.
At another point, Goldberg asked why Israelis should trust Palestinians now to make peace when, just a decade ago, in 2000 at Camp David, they so clearly rejected it.
Ben-Ami answered: That question implied that Arab opposition to a Jewish state has always been absolute and unchanging, while that isn’t at all the case. Too many in the West still refuse to recognize that the PLO’s recognition of Israel’s right to exist in the early-1990s was a watershed event for the Palestinians, and the same can be said about the Saudi Arabia Peace Initiative of 2002. "The gap in worldview is still huge," he said.
Moreover, over the last few years Fatah has made impressive gains in the West Bank, both in terms of economic progress and a responsible security force, he added. We should recognize and encourage those gains, and know that "85 percent of Palestinians would not want to follow the lifestyle that Hamas" advocates.
There is no question that Hamas, not to mention Hezbollah and Iran, are serious threats, he said. But the most effective way to discourage their legitimacy is to support the Arab voices of moderation who’ve achieved real material gain. Only their victory–not Israeli military prowess alone–will make the region secure over the long-term.
When Goldberg asked whether he thought Peter Beinart was correct, and that American Jews and Israel are "getting a divorce," Ben-Ami said yes, he thought Beinart was right.
Young American Jews were raised, for the most part, in a liberal environment that encouraged the promotion of equal rights, respect for diversity and a certain degree of empathy for the downtrodden. And now that Israel is perceived as being the oppressor who trods on Palestinians, they’re "checking their Zionism at the door," he said, in paraphrase of Beinart, instead of their liberal values.
That answer connected to one Ben-Ami gave earlier, to Goldberg’s question about whether American Jews should indeed have the right to criticize Israel before they defend it. If liberal Jews cared so much about Israel, Goldberg said, "why don’t you move there?"
Ben Ami answered: He felt it necessary to criticize Israel because, first, the country is an integral part of the Jewish people. And following from that, he felt that what Israel does reflects on Jews everywhere. If the world is more hostile to Jews because of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians, which he thought was the case, then he not only had a moral but also a physical right to voice his opinions.
If he didn’t move there–though a good portion of his family lives there already, and his father is Israeli–it was because he was comfortable enough in America. Plus, it’s safer here.
Goldberg then gave a sharp rejoiner: "So is Netanyahu the Prime Minister of all Jews?"
Ben Ami: No, but he should take into account how his policies affect us.
Things came to a close on a point of agreement, if Goldberg was still mostly wearing his journalist’s hat. He asked why Israel should be held to a higher standard than the Arabs, some of whom enforce a lifestyle that is downright "medieval."
Ben-Ami turned it back on Goldberg: "Why is it okay to say that as long as we’re one step above our neighbors then we’re doing okay?" Moreover, some of the policies of Israel’s current government have flown in the face of Israel’s own founding as a liberal democracy. He cited Avigdor Lieberman’s proposal to transfer Arabs in a future peace deal, and the stonewalling by the Israeli government of some of its own human rights groups. "I don’t think that’s okay."
Goldberg then briefly took off the inquisitor’s mask: He didn’t think everything Netanyahu’s government was doing was okay, either. In addition, he said, "We didn’t wait 2,000 years in exile to return to our homeland so that we can say that, Hey, at least we’re better than the Syrians."