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.
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."