The crowd was clearly anticipating a gloves-off no-holds-barred debate when they entered the Presidential Conference panel titles 'What does World Jewry Expect from Israel.'
In one corner - Peter Beinart, author of “The Crisis of Zionism” who has been speaking non-stop around the U.S. on a book tour, dubbed a ‘rock star’ and ‘the unlikely Mick Jagger of the American Jewish establishment’ by my colleague Chemi Shalev. In the other corner - several of Beinart’s public critics. There was ADL national director Abraham Foxman, who has challenged Beinart’s views again and again; author Leon Wieseltier, who has called Beinart “pseudo-courageous;” and Tablet Magazine editor Alana Newhouse who took down Beinart's book in The Washington Post, charging that “Beinart and his supporters are now erecting their own self-satisfied and delusional monolith, calculated to appeal to disillusioned Jewish summer camp alumni, NPR listeners and other beautiful souls who want the Holy Land to be a better place but do not have the time or ability to study the issues, learn the languages or talk to the people on both sides whose hearts have been broken over and over again by prophets making phony promises.” Ouch.
But moderator Shmuel Rosner ruined the fun right off the bat by requesting that the discussion should not focus on the merits or flaws of Beinart's book. Beinart, when he spoke, offered a rather diplomatic and non-confrontational presentation of his controversial views, though little of the full-on assault on the U.S. Jewish establishment on display in his book and on the blog he edits, Open Zion.
His critics were equally respectful and polite. Foxman did attack Beinart in a gentle and backhanded way, stating “My love and support for Israel is unconditional, it does not depend on the Israeli acceptance of my ideas. My Zionism is not in crisis because my Zionism is not conditioned on an embrace of an idealized view of what I’d like Israel to be.”
Newhouse said she was concerned about the “shrillness” of Israel-Diaspora dialogue is "upsetting” and "creates the sense of an emotional, psychological and spiritual emergency that doesn’t exist” and urged “a lowering of the temperature of the discussion.”
That was about as combative as it got. Wieseltier, though his remarks were sharp and incisive, steered clear of real debate, and the representative from French Jewry sounded like he somehow stepped into the wrong panel. Everyone was trying hard to be civilized and polite, and it restrained them.
Like other reporters present, I appreciated the mature level of discourse, but was also disappointed at the lack of fireworks. I commented to Beinart afterwards that he got off pretty easily. He laughed and said it was his general experience that people were much tougher in print than in person.
Luckily, for those of us looking for some action, the PR end of the conference organized a session between Beinart and the bloggers covering the conference. That was where the real fun began.
With no fancy organizations or publications to represent or professional reputations to protect, debate flowed freely. With many kippot and headscarves in the audience, many of the bloggers held right-wing views directly opposed to Beinart, and some lived over the Green Line. In the crowd were hard-core critics like Yisrael Medad who wrote a piece on Beinart once called “Peter’s Pernicious Paradox.” One blogger, posing a question about Beinart's book, stressed that he had borrowed the book- he would never buy it.
Beinart had to defend his opinion that American Jews should boycott goods and services coming from what he has called "non-democratic Israel" to a woman blogger whose business has been hurt by the BDS campaign - which she feels has been legitimized by his views
He was asked what liberal American Jews will say if there is a two-state solution, and like Gaza, the West Bank is ruled by Hamas that will tolerate terror even when not directly involved in terror against Israel.
And of course, he was asked - probably for the nine millionth time this year - how he, as a Diaspora Jew, can so strongly advocate surrender of all of the territory over the Green Line when neither he nor his children will bear the physical consequences of such a move.
Beinart, to his credit, had an answer for everything. He seemed far more animated with this crowd, and it became clear why he’s such a hit on the speaker’s circuit - there hasn't been anyone with his level of charisma engaged in Jewish issues for a long time. He managed to carve out common ground with right-wing Jews with his genuine concern, he was genuinely worried about the level of education and commitment of American Jews, confessing that he was not optimistic about its future. He won points for honesty by admitting that his kids' day school education is making them far more right-wing than he is and that his Egyptian grandmother chided him for his left-wingness, telling him he was naive about the Arabs.
But what really won over the initially hostile bloggers happened when he was asked by a blogger who lives within the Green Line whether he should travel to his parents' house in the West Bank to give a Torah lesson on the yarhtzeit of his grandfather’s death.
In such a situation, he asked, what would Peter Beinart do? Would he go or would he boycott?
Beinart paused only briefly, then said that he would go to the family event. Politics are politics, he said, but the obligation to honor your mother and father trumps ideology.
One blogger at the meeting said that this was the moment Beinart won over the crowd, and confessed he was among Beinart's new fans. “The answer was so quintessentially Jewish, that I think many of the bloggers were forced to change their mind about Beinart. I doubt anyone there changed their political views. However, leaving the meeting I felt that though I may disagree with him on many things, I had no doubt that he was a Zionist and a truly concerned Jew.”
Mick Jagger turned out to be a nice Jewish boy after all.