CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (JTA) — Peter Beinart has had some harsh words for the Jewish establishment. In 2010, he shook up the communal debate over Israel with his essay “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.”
On Wednesday night Beinart debated a leader of that very Jewish establishment — and their exchange was decidedly respectful, even if there were points of significant disagreement.
Speaking at Harvard University, Beinart assailed Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, warned that young American Jews were abandoning Zionism and criticized American Jewish leaders for what he depicted as their unquestioning support of the Israeli government.
Barry Shrage, president of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies, smiled at Beinart.
“So much of Peter’s speech I could give,” Shrage responded.
Except, that is, Beinart’s call for a boycott of West Bank settlements, which Shrage called “abhorrent” to many Jews. Or Beinart’s criticism of Birthright Israel, the positive impact of which, Shrage said, is “not arguable.” Or Beinart’s view that the American Jewish community has resisted the peace process, which Shrage called “absolutely untrue.”
Beinart and Shrage were speaking before some 275 people at an event titled “Can Israel survive the next generation of American Jews?” The Harvard Hillel, the university’s Center for Jewish Studies and the CJP sponsored the evening.
Beinart, a columnist for The Daily Beast and former editor of The New Republic, went over much of the ground that he covered in his new book, “The Crisis of Zionism,” and in his much-discussed recent New York Times Op-Ed calling on American Jews to boycott West Bank Jewish settlements.
The audience ran the gamut of Jewish opinion, and both speakers garnered applause.
Mitchell Silver, a philosophy lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Boston, called Beinart “a great Jewish patriot” for speaking up about Palestinian needs.
“People who are concerned with the welfare of the Jewish people, with the future of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, need to take seriously the needs of the Palestinian people, the need to end the occupation of the West Bank that denies Palestinians rights,” Silver said.
Others, like Dale Okonow, a member of the board of Jewish Family and Children’s Services and the chair of CJP’s 2012 annual campaign, disagreed “vehemently” with Beinart’s ideas — particularly his contention that young Jews are shunning Zionism.
“I think the younger generation of American Jews embraced Israel in a big way,” Okonow said. “His message is flawed and not factually correct.”
Beinart criticized Israeli settlements and an American Jewish establishment that he said has “told young American Jews not to ask hard questions, to avoid Palestinians, to start with the assumption everything the Israeli government does is right, and we’ll help them reason backwards to figure out why.”
Shrage praised the American Jewish community for supporting Israel’s security, as Israelis themselves are conflicted about the best route toward peace.
Beinart said the Israeli government is making a two-state solution more difficult — as are American Jewish supporters of settlements. Shrage said that Israeli governments for years have been willing to take difficult steps for peace — with enthusiastic support from American Jewry.
Shrage said the role of America is to help “make the average Israeli feel safe”; Beinart said it is to support a two-state solution.
The audience questioned the pair about issues from Jewish apathy to the difficulty for Jewish college students talking about Israel on campus.
With an audience that included many Harvard students and young adults, one issue that resonated was the debate over the Birthright Israel program, which sends Jewish young adults on group trips to Israel. Beinart said the problem with Birthright is the same problem he has identified with other Jewish organizations — a lack of interaction with Palestinians.
“Ethically, how do we explain the fact that we send all of these kids to Israel and pretend as if essentially Palestinians don’t exist?” Beinart asked. “In terms of a matter of education and educational honesty, to avoid that is intellectually insulting and dishonest.”
Shrage responded that data on Birthright show its alumni become closer to Israel and Judaism.
“Israel is our greatest ally, not our greatest problem, in engaging the next generation of Jews,” Shrage said. “It’s Israel that brings people closer to the Jewish people, to day school education, to serious adult leaning, closer to their synagogues. That may be problematic for you. But the facts are actually pretty clear.”
Shrage said that Birthright is not about Israeli politics but about the experience of meeting an Israeli soldier: “Their next major decision may be what fraternity they’re going to join; the Israeli’s decision is whether they’re going to live or die in a special unit.”
Harvard student Emily Unger told the panelists that Shrage’s comments rang true to her — but not the way Shrage intended.
“If that’s the attitude of people running Birthright, that the most important thing I’m thinking about is what fraternity to join, that explains why it wasn’t a program run as if I could think like an intelligent person,” Unger said.
Yet after the event Matt Cohn, a 27-year-old Birthright alumni working in the music industry, said that he is considering moving to Israel — partly because of his experience on Birthright.