It’s happening: the split between the rightwing Israel lobby and left-center lobby has begun to widen, and last night neoconservative John Podhoretz stormed off the stage of the 92d Street Y in New York after Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street criticized Israel’s actions as providing fodder to the boycott movement.
The incident has become notorious overnight. The panel was about “what it means to be pro-Israel” in the U.S. New York Magazine has covered the rhubarb, and I imagine the NYT will follow. Everyone is waiting for the video replay. In the meantime, some accounts.
Podhoretz admits that he laid an egg.
Ever had a bad night? I just had one. Ever lost your cool? I just did.
He says he might have wagged a finger at Jeremy Ben-Ami, from a distance:
Whatever I did, it was, to be sure, no more “threatening” than [moderator Jane] Eisner’s response, which was to put her hand up close to me for the purposes of quieting me down. Eisner seems to think that when I spoke in objection to this gesture, which I did angrily, I was perhaps fearful she was going to attack me physically—which is the height of silliness. I was annoyed by the hostility of the crowd, one of whose number had shrieked at me, and I was troubled by Eisner’s effort to shush me.
Bottom line: I’d had a long day and I didn’t see the point in spending more of it getting booed and shushed. So I left.
Chemi Shalev at Haaretz says that tensions rose over the academic boycott measure passed yesterday by the American Studies Association, and also over what the Pew poll reveals about American Jewish distance from Israel:
The bizarre turn of events, which took even the debate-hardened audience by utter surprise, started when John Podhoretz, editor of the right-wing Commentary magazine, accused J Street leader Jeremy Ben Ami of blaming Israel for the boycott announced on Monday by the American Studies Association.
When Ben Ami protested and some in the audience reacted with boos, a petulant Podhoretz snarled, “Why don’t you also hiss”? When the audience duly hissed, an increasingly agitated Podhoretz said: “I’m not going to be villain here.” And when Jane Eisner, editor of The Forward newspaper and the evening’s moderator, tried to regain control of the conversation and gestured with her hand, Podhoretz blustered “don’t put your hand up to me like that,” took off his microphone and walked off the stage, leaving the stunned panel of Eisner, Ben Ami and American Jewish Committee Executive Director David Harris scratching their heads in puzzlement.
Shalev includes vital quotes from Ben-Ami that Podhoretz found provocative:
“We are driving people out of the community by defining who can and cannot speak, by circumscribing the debate,”Ben Ami said…
“The underlying issue continues to be whether Israel and the Palestinians will achieve a two-state solution.” Until then, he added, “we can help the Israeli policy makers understand that this wave is coming, that Israel is headed towards international isolation, towards being a pariah state, not simply because there are anti-Semites in the world – though there are and always will be – but because of Israel’s own policy of continuing occupation and way Palestinians are treated in 21st century.”
Jane Eisner at the Forward says that Podhoretz is a “rude, angry man.” Part of her account:
Throughout it all, Podhoretz was firmly, even aggressively, disagreeing with Ben-Ami, and the back-and-forth between them became a little testy. This is the hardest part of being a moderator – trying to make the split-second judgements over when to step in, and when to allow the debate to run its course.
But then we turned to an audience member’s question about the decision announced today by the American Studies Association to endorse an academic boycott of Israel. And things got harder, still.
Ironically, everyone on stage, myself included, believed that this was a hypocritical and ultimately counterproductive action.
So the consensus is safe there: BDS is wrong.
But after saying he disagreed with the ASA vote, Ben-Ami segued into talking about Israeli government policies that, in his view, make it difficult for some Americans to believe Israel really does want peace with the Palestinians.
You’re blaming the victim, cried Podhoretz. Some members of the audience became enraged, and, mystifyingly, the Commentary editor encouraged them, challenging them to boo and hiss.
And then — honestly, it’s a bit of a blur, but this is what I remember — he started wagging his finger at Ben-Ami in a manner at once threatening and condescending. That’s when I stepped in, trying to rein in the argument, using my hands (I am known to gesticulate) to try to calm him down.
Instead, Podhoretz angrily said that I raised my hand at him and stormed off the stage.
I am, physically, much, much smaller than John Podhoretz, so he could hardly allege that I was intending to do him harm.
Podhoretz writes a second piece. He wants to say this is a tempest in a teapot:
The tempest in a teapot continues. Chemi Shalev of Ha-aretz has a post up about my bad night last night in which he says I said “students at Swarthmore College deserve to be spat upon.” This is false, and he should correct it. I was talking about the Swarthmore Hillel’s announcement it would host anti-Zionist as well as Zionist speakers. What I said was that if you advocate anti-Zionism you are calling for the destruction of the homeland of my family. You are free to do so, and I am free to revile you and spit upon you. Like I said, I had a bad night, and this bit of hysterical rhetoric was not my finest verbal improvisation. The clear sense of the Swarthmore Hillel story was that the anti-Zionist speakers Hillel would sponsor would be creatures like the author of the year’s most disgusting book.
That’s evidently a reference to Max Blumenthal. I have proposed that Swarthmore Hillel invite Blumenthal and Susan Abulhawa to speak, to put paid to its new policy that it is an open Hillel.
Now Podhoretz has posted a transcript of his speech re Swarthmore:
“I believe that the notion that a Jewish organization should host a speaker or a group that explicitly defines itself as anti-Zionist, which is to say believes in the non-existence of the Jewish state, is a group that deserves to be considered not only anti-Israel but anti-Jewish and ultimately anti-Semitic, as the fundamental fact of Jewish existence in our time in part is the existence of the Jewish state. Wishing for its non-existence is like wishing for the forcible repatriation of 6 million people, 7 million people it’s a horror show, it’s an infamy, it’s a political outrage. And Swarthmore Hillel…is free to do so. And it will deserve to be condemned, it will deserve to be spat upon, it will deserve to have whatever monies have been contributed to it to be removed.”
The weighty issues Podhoretz raises demonstrate why this is not a tempest in a teapot. Podhoretz’s anger at Ben-Ami is a clear sign of the shift in the lobby. The new lobby wants to criticize Israel a little in order to take on the pro-BDS crowd on the left. The neoconservatives want to spit on the left. And as for the left, we have a right to defend ourselves from Podhoretz’s misrepresentations, and more and more fora will extend that right. Suffice it to say, American Jewish life will never be the same. And, to be clear, there were no folks on the stage who experience Israeli policies, Palestinians. I wonder what liberal Jewish forum would have staged a debate on Jim Crow back in the ’60s without black leaders…