There were no verbal “knockouts” in a debate between Peter Beinart and Daniel Gordis that was promoted as a “heavyweight fight on Zionism” at Columbia University on Wednesday night. Both landed telling blows about whether a true Zionist is one who offers ethical critique or moral support to the Jewish State. But the clear winner was civil discourse between the debaters and respect among the hundreds in the packed auditorium who listened intently, applauded each speaker and refrained – with one exception – from booing or yelling out.
At a time when civility among Jews, and especially over Israel, is at a low point, Beinart, the author of “The Crisis Of Zionism,” which asserts that the continuing occupation of the West Bank is destroying Israel diplomatically and morally, and Gordis, president of the Jerusalem-based Shalem Foundation and an author of several books defending Israel’s policies, proved that two people with deep political differences can have an engaging, articulate and enlightening encounter – at times quite sharp – and come away respectful of each other.
Indeed, the two reportedly were set to have coffee together the morning after the high-level two-hour program (about 20 minutes too long, judging the audience’s response), which attracted at least 400 people – about half of whom were students – to an auditorium at the Kraft Jewish Center that held about 300 seats.
The event was co-sponsored by The Current, a Jewish journal on campus at Columbia, and Tablet, the daily Jewish website, and deftly moderated by Bari Weiss, an editor at Tablet.
The positions of both men were well known to the audience, given the extensive coverage Beinart and his book have received in recent weeks, and Gordis’s writings on the subject, including a stinging review of the book.
But witnessing them going toe-to-toe, and responding to each other’s charges, was a dynamic and positive experience, humanized by the comments they made that were not directly about whether one man’s caring Zionist is another’s dagger in the heart of the Jewish State.
For example, after Gordis responded eloquently to a question about what he would say in “a two minute pitch” to a disaffiliated young Jew – he said he wouldn’t bother because it was demeaning – Beinart offered that while they disagreed substantially on Israeli policy, “for that answer I would want him [Gordis] to be my rabbi.”
Gordis evoked a big laugh from the audience when, trying to not be overly negative about Beinart, said, “I didn’t detest the book…it just made me sad.”
But most of the debate, on the proposition that “Zionism is failing, and American Jews are hastening its decline,” found the two men sharply disagreeing.
Beinart focusing on the danger of the Netanyahu government continuing to support settlement growth, which he said “only pushes the Palestinians in exactly the wrong direction.”
He repeatedly referred to the fact that the recent leaders of Mossad and the Shin Bet favor a two-state solution essentially along the lines of the 1967 borders as a risk, but preferable to a one-state solution that would effectively end the Jewish character of the state.
Gordis, who described himself as “a deflated optimist” after settling in Israel 14 years ago from Los Angeles, asserted that no true Zionist would harp on Israel’s faults when “it is hurting,” but would be comforting and loyal to the nation he loves. “Pressuring Israel,” he said, “makes peace less likely.”
Beinart, he added, is a “a realist on reading Israelis and a romantic in viewing the Arabs.”
At evening’s end, both men spoke of their satisfaction in participating in the program and called for more such discussions in the community.