'Pro-Israel' discussion in New York ends in walkout, insults and recriminations

A night to remember at the 92nd Street Y, as Commentary editor John Podhoretz storms off the stage, leaving puzzled panelists and a stunned audience.

New York's 92nd Street Y.
New York's 92nd Street Y. / Photo by Wikimedia Commons
By Chemi Shalev
Published 13:40 17.12.13

When the planners at 92nd Street Y in New York decided to host a “community discussion” on Monday on the question “What it means to be pro-Israel in America?” they couldn’t know that they would be getting a clear-cut answer before the night was over.

Because based on the course of the debate, “being pro-Israel in America” means ideological chasms, professional rivalries, frayed nerves, inflamed tempers, one of the participants storming out in a huff and then exchanging barbs and insults on the internet with the moderator.

Jeremy Ben-Ami
Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s founder and director. / Photo by Alon Ron

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.

But it wasn’t over yet: less than an hour after the discussion came to an end (without Podhoretz) Eisner penned an angry blog post in the Forward in which she lambasted Podhoretz’s “temper tantrum,”explained that she was much smaller than him physically and raised the possibility that he was just a “rude and angry man.”

Half an hour later, Podhoretz had his own blog post up, in which he dismissed Eisner’s “silliness” but nonetheless admitted that he had had a “long day” and a “bad night."

That might be why he depicted a relatively docile crowd as “hostile” and one lonely retort from the audience as “shrieking” (because if it’s not that, then the sharp-penned editor of a magazine that’s in permanent attack mode is, in reality, an ultra-sensitive guy.)

Podhoretz’s grumpy goodbye was even more peculiar, in fact, because up until that point he had dominated the conversation and had been given more speaking time than the other two panelists combined. He repeatedly crossed verbal swords with Ben Ami, who made the case for greater inclusion by Jewish community forums and for more openness towards differing opinions and views. “We are driving people out of the community by defining who can and cannot speak, by circumscribing the debate,”Ben Ami said.

But while Ben Ami was referring to recent flaps involving “Breaking the Silence” soldiers and former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg, whose speaking engagements were canceled by Jewish groups, Podhoretz preferred to stick to the controversy surrounding Swarthmore College Hillel’s insistence on including anti-Zionists on their speakers’ lists. Podhoretz described the move was a “horror show” and a “moral infamy” and said that Swarthmore Hillel “deserved to be spat upon.”

Things began to get testy between Podhoretz and Eisner, when the former ridiculed some of the “bizarre” answers in the recent Pew report - such as 31 percent of Jews saying there was no contradiction between Judaism and believing in Jesus - and Eisner, who had helped create the survey, reprimanding him that “to discount findings of survey because of one or two questions that seem odd is not a wise thing.”

Harris, who at times appeared bemused by the proceedings and at other times seemed to be wishing he could be anywhere else, played the responsible adult and struck to the middle ground, saying that his greatest concerns were assimilation of U.S. Jewry and delegitimization of Israel, as manifested by what he described as the “despicable” ASA boycott decision.

Expressing his growing exasperation over his co-panelists back and forth over who gets to speak where, Harris said: “Are some of us asleep? Do we not understand what efforts to delegitimize Israel means for all of us? Are we going to spend all our time on what Swarthmore Hillel can or cannot do?

Ben Ami then duly denounced the ASA boycott, but added, “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 headedtowards 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.”

Podhoretz then plowed into Ben Ami, accusing him of justifying “a bunch of know-nothing academics” and of “excusing an indefensible act of moral infamy.” At which point he huffed, the audience hissed, he bolted and Ben Ami sardonically drove home his point that “this is the state of dialogue in the Jewish community.”

Or as Podhoretz himself wrote: “It was the least significant tempest-in-a-teapot in the history of world Jewry."

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  • 7.
    Commentary
    John Podheretz is a disciple and a true believer of his father Norman Podheretz who founded the Neo-Conservative movement - and now he has turned Commentary into his personal soap box for all right wing zealotry. He is hardly someone who is going to have a balanced point of view any topic. He was not the right person to invite for an evening of open discussion on Israel and American Jewry.
  • 6.
    Roots of fanatism ?
    The main question is ? Was are the roots of fanatism and what do I need to be a fanatic anyway ? What's the benefit to be fanatic ?
  • 5.
    AIPAC has lost its "voice" in America, among other things.
    These events in the US are sure signs of the downfall of the Israel Lobby in America. The Israel lobby simply cannot stand up to those powerful Americans lobby groups who are pushing the likes of the AIPAC into the gutter. I am talking about the military and the agri-business lobby groups. Sorry, business wins.
  • 4.
    Cari Gardner
    I have no idea if you support one state or not. Just that whatever the Israelis do will lead to war. Mandela may have been a great man, but calling South Africa a healthy country is just ridiculous. You should do some reading before drinking the far left Kool Aid.
  • 3.
    92Y on being Pro-Israel
    I was there. BenAmi's point that Jewish/Jewish dialogue is in bad state - so true. As I listened to Podheretz emotional perspective of Israel, Jewish future, and Jews in the diaspora, I felt I was hearing a man who is terrified and not able, or perhaps not willing, to see reality as it is today. I know this because I used to have the same perspective. The world is different today than it was during the Inguisition, the pogroms, the Holocaust, and the 65 years of Israel's existence. And yet - we can still point to anti-semitism as a reality. Hatred, ignorance, fear, cruelty, greed - these have always been traits exhibited by humans; humans from every civilization, culture, religion, race, etc. But, so is compassion and love. In the now and the future - we humans really ought to try to cultivate more of the compassion and love traits as we become more crowded and more in need of sharing both space and resources. I must bring up Mandela. He refused to be dissuaded by violence which erupted as he forged ahead to create a healthy South Africa. Now I ask you to ponder... which future option will lead to more violence? A negotiated peace? Maintaining the "status quo" or one bi-national state? I think there will be violence in either case. Extremists on both sides will not be happy with the first option and there will surely be violence. However - seems to me that not negotiating and not providing a democratic bi-national state will lead to all out war. Haven't we all had enough? By the way - there's a third option... a democratic bi-national state. How long would that remain Jewish? We need to act in the present, informed by the past with an eye to the future.
  • 2.
    Ben Ami is a self-hating former Israeli resident
    Lecturing Israel from the comfort of Manhattan. So brave. And lobbying the US Congress instead of the Knesset. How convenient.
  • "self-hating" == analogue to Godwin
    We've likely all heard of "Godwin's Law", which is ""As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1." Traditionally, "Godwining" an online discussion is tantamount to an automatic forfeit. We need a similar term for the tendency of those whose arrogance exceeds their humane intellect to call those (uniquely) Jews they disagree with "self-hating". I have never met anyone who truly hates themselves or what they are. I HAVE met numerous people so consumed with hatred for those who disagree with them that they have forfeited any pretence of humanity. You, sirrah, are a prime example of such.
  • 1.
    storming out of panel
    The good folks at Commentary have no problem spewing invective at all those who disagree with or question their extremist views, but they haven't the capacity to engage in reasoned debate. Johnny boy didn't like what he heard so he picked up his ball and wanted to break up the game. Sorry about that. The debate goes on.