Last night Peter Beinart, the savior of liberal Zionism, and Daniel Gordis, a rightwing Zionist, debated Beinart’s book in a Jewish space at Columbia University in New York. Tablet sponsored the event (though writers associated with the publication have trashed Beinart’s book in mainstream venues). You can see a recording of the event here.
I watched most of the debate. I found Beinart refreshing and even bold given the smoky-tent tribalness of the environment. “The book made me sad and the book made me feel lonely,” said Daniel Gordis, whom I went to seders with as a boy. He challenged Beinart to stand up for the “profound… tribal” essence of Judaism.
All the references to tribal in your book are negative, said Gordis. No, they’re not, Beinart said, then he challenged Gordis, Don’t you think tribalism sometimes crosses an ugly line?
Tablet had billed the debate as a heavyweight fight, but that was bait-and-switch; there was no winner and loser voted on or declared. “I think I have a quarter of the crowd with me,” Beinart said. This is a terrible reflection on organized Jewry.
The essence of the difference between the two men is that Beinart sees the crisis piling down the tracks toward his beloved Israel and feels that Israel must be accountable tot he world and Gordis does not. He thinks Jews can work their way through this with the backing of a superpower. “The Palestinian position internationally is infinitely stronger than it was 10 years ago,” Gordis said, realistically; but they must not believe that time is on their side. The answer, he said, is more Israeli intransigence. We must make them think that if they don’t cut a deal for their state now, they will get a measlier state when they finally come to the table. The only pressure on them is from Israel gobbling up more of their land.
Gordis several times compared partition to a business deal where if you turn down a good offer the next offer is worse. Human rights are not a business deal; and he is endorsing greater suffering, more dairy farms destroyed by a tyrannical power.
We can’t let them think that this is going to go the way of South Africa, Gordis said, but Beinart sees Israel is turning itself into South Africa. The boycott movement is growing “stronger and stronger” because “we don’t have an alternative way of expressing our opposition to settlement growth and our belief in the right of Israel to exist.”
The delegitimizers, said Beinart, are led by “a hard core of people who are fundamentally opposed to Israel’s right to exist,” and they are able to attract more and more support because young people say, “What do you mean a democratic Jewish state?” or “what do you mean a two state solution? we’re in South Africa-land.”
Beinart is right; I am running along with that hard-core and asking those questions (much as privileged abolitionists in Massachusetts cheered on John Brown). But he has been unable to present a meaningful alternative. His dream of stopping the settlements has come up against the tribal nationalists in that room last night. He thinks he’s Moses but maybe he’s Quixote.
Whatever the case, I admire him. He said one really good thing and one really bad thing last night. The good thing was, “We need to engage non- and even anti-Zionists in these public discussions as well.” I make the case for Zionism, he said, but we have to allow the non and anti-Zionists in because “news flash”– most Palestinians are not Zionists. And not talking to these people, he said, inhibits our ability to talk to Palestinians, the people to whom we must rationalize the existence of his Jewish democracy.
“The lack of engagement with Palestinians makes us stupid,” he said. Because Jews don’t hear the obvious human-rights objections to the Jewish state and its nonstop ethnic cleansing.
As for the bad thing–
Beinart called Gordis out for supporting the “transfer” of Palestinians out of the Jewish state so as to save the tribal democracy because Palestinians aren’t loyal citizens. Tribalism crosses the line there, Beinart said. Why should transfer be the first resort? Why not try and improve Israeli Palestinians’ health care? Why not give them affirmative action to get government jobs?
The clear implication of Beinart’s comments was that he would support transfer as a last resort. I guess he was playing to the ugly crowd. But Beinart should have to answer this question now: Do you rule out the use of transfer to preserve a Jewish majority in Israel?