Well, the 92nd Street Y debate I went to on Tuesday was not quite as contentious as the flubbed Steve Martin one happening in the night before, but it still got pretty heated. A sold-out audience came to see Peter Beinart and New York Times columnist Roger Cohen debate former AIPACer Steven J. Rosen and Wall Street Journal editoral page editor and former Jerusalem Post editor Bret Stephens.
The topic? If American Jewish leaders have failed to attract young Jews to Zionism — the subject of Beinart’s scathing New York Review of Books essay earlier this spring.
If you were looking for novelty, you’d be disappointed. Hardly any points were raised that have not already been heard during the long virtual debate that Beinart’s essay provoked.
But there was still plenty of drama.
Missives were thrown; cheeks flushed red; and eyes rolled plenty.
Stephens fired first. In response to the moderator, George Packer, a writer for The New Yorker, who asked what each panelist thought of Beinart’s essay, Stephens paraphrased Benjamin Disraeli: "He had only one idea, and that idea was wrong," Stephens said.
He then questioned Beinart’s statistics, which had shown that college age Jews are increasingly less likely to identify with Israel. Stephens offered other data showing that young Jews have always been less connected to Israel, regardless of the country’s politics. With age, he said, they grow more connected.
Beinart then spoke up. He countered that Stephens’ data represented a rare exception to the otherwise overwhelming data that backed his original claim, and that even the data Stephens cited ignores the fact that Jews over the age of 30 are also increasingly less likely to support Israel. Aging Jews, in other words, have already begun to rethink their connection to Israel.
Rosen answered next, and was even angrier. His started his attack on Beinart with an aside about the "liberal media" generally. He said that when Beinart was editor of The New Republic, which mostly defends Israel, he was ignored by the media because supporting Israel isn’t sexy. But now that Beinart writes a provocative essay attacking AIPAC, ADL and the like, he’s hailed as a hero.
At that point George Packer had to interject: Beinart, he said, is the author of two serious and well-received books on U.S. foreign policy, one of which he reviewed for The New Yorker. Beinart was a frequent pundit on cable news too, not to mention one of the first prominent liberals to support the war in Iraq. You could not call him ignored.
Rosen shrugged. Then pressed on: of Beinart’s portrayal of AIPAC he said, "I got to tell you, it’s a caricature so out of proportion with the original that it’s, it’s . . . nonsense."
He added that at the latest AIPAC conference in Washington, the group had to turn away scores of college-age Jews because it was at capacity, and that most AIPAC conference attendees are probably Democrats.
Beinart begged to differ.
He said that if AIPAC’s ranks are being filled by younger Jews, it’s by the kind that has the least liberal values of all: Orthodox Jews. And that if AIPAC supported Israel because it was not only a Jewish state but a democracy to boot — which he said AIPAC emphasizes every chance it gets — then the group should speak out against the anti-democratic tendencies within Israel now.
Avigdor Lieberman’s prominent place in the government; his proposed Loyalty Oath that would require Israeli Arabs to swear allegiance to the Jewish state; and Netanyahu’s foot-dragging on the peace process — all this, Beinart said, threatens Israeli democracy.
Rosen answered that AIPAC’s policy is not to comment on internal Israeli politics, and only lobby for the state generally. But Cohen chimed in: if that were true, AIPAC would not spend so much time attacking liberal Israel advocacy groups like J Street, which denounces policies it deems self-destructive.
Then all four panelists came to what seemed like the main difference: Israel’s “warts,” and whether American Jews should spend their time pointing them out, or let them be in light of its larger threats.
Rosen and Stephens basically agreed: Israel does have “warts” – Lieberman, loyalty oaths, certainly the occupation. But it is still a functioning democracy in a region whose enemies are far uglier, far more menacing than its warts. “You’re focus is on the wrong place,” Rosen told Beinart.
Beinart was happy to concede that Israel’s neighbors were serious threats. The rabbi he that was supposed to preside over his wedding, he said, was killed by a Hamas rocket. But you do nothing to weaken them by giving them reason to stoke anti-Israel sentiment. Israel’s self-destructive policies, he said, are not trivial: “You cannot just dismiss them as warts.”