In January I argued that the dialogue on Israel wasn’t actually a dialogue, but rather just old-fashioned name-calling. Nowhere is this more evident than in the reaction to Peter Beinart‘s arguments regarding Israel and how American Jews should relate to it. He’s been demonized, dare I say hated, in tweets, op-eds, blog posts, and book reviews.

So I was looking forward to seeing how he was holding up in the bloggers session we had with him during the Presidential Conference in Jerusalem. From what I saw and heard, he’s doing fine, and still energized on the topic.

The session started out with the usual tired questions about whether he has the right to criticize Israel, considering he doesn’t live there. Later questions got better. I thought he gave good answers to all of them; after all, he’s been answering some version of them all for some time.

But beyond that, Beinart was clearly comfortable, and in his element. He started off quiet, even subdued, but soon got louder, more animated, and his rhythm sped up.

A mensch. Peter Beinart speaks at the 2012 Presidential Conference (photo credit: Courtesy of Shilo Productions)

A mensch. Peter Beinart speaks at the 2012 Presidential Conference (photo credit: Courtesy of Shilo Productions)

He gave personal anecdotes (the best one was about his son’s bewilderment that Israel had given Mount Sinai back to Pharaoh). He also got applause now and then for his defense of Jewish identity and the need to fix Jewish education and the connection to Israel.

It was that passionate self-identification that I thought was most telling. Contrary to Daniel Gordis’s perception of Beinart’s antipathy toward the tribalism of Jewishness, Beinart’s identity and his argument is far more complex than often understood. His point that “social justice is not the essence of Judaism” indicates a much more deeply rooted Judaism and sense of Jewishness than commonly portrayed. He’s no universalist Reform Jew trying to make Israel or the Jews like everyone else.

Beinart was asked about his personal relations with family and others having been affected by the reactions to his arguments, especially his call for a Zionist BDS. He responded that we all have a tension (he used the word “dissonance”) between our personal lives and our political goals. We have to reconcile them as best as we can, doing what we can on the political without sacrificing the personal.

I would extend the logic of that argument and note that those who critique others should keep from sacrificing the personal lives of others for their own political goals. Peter Beinart should not be the only one keeping things civil.