Last night, the 92nd Street Y’s Buttenwieser Hall was packed to the brim. A sold-out audience came to see Peter Beinart and New York Times columnist Roger Cohen debate former AIPAC member Steven J. Rosen and Wall Street Journal editoral page editor and one-time Jerusalem Post staffer Bret Stephens.
The topic: Has the American Jewish establishment failed young American Jews? — Or, the subject of Beinart’s scathing New York Review of Books essay 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 discussion that accompanied Beinart’s essay.
But there was still plenty of drama. Missives were occasionally thrown; cheeks sometimes 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 what they thought of Beinart’s original essay, Stephens paraphrased Benjamin Disraeli to give his overall view of Beinart’s essay. "He had only one idea, and that idea was wrong," Stephens said. He then countered Beinart’s statistics, which had shown that college age Jews are increasingly less likely to idenify with Israel. Stephens offered other data showing that young Jews have always been less attached to Israel, regardless of its politics.
Beinart then spoke up. He countered that Stephens data represented a rare exception to the overwhelming surveys 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. This is all suggests that American Jews born after the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza began, and Israel’s image has been tarnished, are fundamentally rethinking their connection to the Jewish state.
Rosen was even more pugnacious. His started his attack on Beinart with an attack on the "liberal media" generally. He said that as editor of The New Republic, which strongly defends Israel, he was ignored. But now that he 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, some of which he has reviewed for The New Yorker.
Rosen shrugged, then pressed on: Of Beinart’s portrayal of AIPAC as being too hawkish and removed from mainstream Jewish opinion, 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, they had to turn away dozens of college-age Jews because it was at capacity, and that most AIPAC conference attendees are Democrats.
Beinart begged to differ. He said that if AIPACs 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 as a genuine Jewish democracy — "which it emphasizes any chance it gets" — then they’d speak out against the anti-democratic tendencies within Israel now. Avigdor Lieberman’s election; the Loyalty Oath; the foot-dragging on the peace process in the occupied terrorities — all this, Beinart said, threatens Israeli democracy.