Peter Beinart and the president of the Boston Jewish federation sparred over Birthright Israel during a public event at Harvard University.
Beinart, already in the news for calling for a boycott against Israeli settlements, slammed the travel program that has brought hundreds of thousands of young Jews to Israel.
During a dialogue Wednesday with Barry Shrage, president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Beinart asserted to the audience of about 275 people that Birthright has acted in a way that is "intellectually insulting and dishonest" by not introducing young Jews to the Palestinian experience.
Beinart, who is traveling to promote his new book, "The Crisis of Zionism," said that Birthright and other Jewish organizations suffer from the same problem — a lack of interaction with the Palestinian perspective.
"Ethically, how do we explain the fact that we send all of these kids to Israel and pretend as if essentially Palestinians don’t exist?" he asked said. A "true Israel experience," he added, would include the experience of the Palestinians in Israel.
Beinart, an associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a former editor of The New Republic, argues in his new book that liberal American Jews must oppose the Israeli "occupation" of the West Bank, which he says is alienating young American Jews.
Shrage responded that the impact of Birthright "is not exactly arguable." He said data on Birthright show that Jews who attend the trip become closer to Israel and Judaism.
"Israel is our greatest ally, not our greatest problem, in engaging the next generation of Jews," Shrage said. "It’s Israel that brings people closer to the Jewish people, to day school education, to serious adult leaning, closer to their synagogues. That may be problematic for you. But the facts are actually pretty clear."
Shrage said Birthright is not about internal Israeli politics but about identity building through an "amazing eye-opening emotional experience."
Beinart, who writes a blog on the Daily Beast called Open Zion, has become one of the more polarizing figures on the American Jewish left, particularly since he published an opinion essay in The New York Times on March 18 urging Americans to boycott products made in West Bank settlements. The Op-Ed angered many Jews, who see his proposal as similar to the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against the entire country of Israel.
Shrage said the idea of divestment is "abhorrent" to most American Jews.
"If I were for the expansion of settlements," Shrage said, "I would have been praying for an article in The New York Times that advocated for BDS against the settlements, that is so bound to alienate so many people."
Titled "Can Israel survive the next generation of American Jews?," the event was sponsored by Harvard Hillel, Harvard's Center for Jewish Studies, and Combined Jewish Philanthropies.