Steven Frank
Steven Frank

Stop debating Peter Beinart with kid gloves

Last week, the prominent Reform synagogue in Manhattan, Temple Emanuel, hosted a debate between Peter Beinart, an Orthodox Jew, progressive, and writer and Bret Stephens, an op-ed columnist for the New York Times. The debate was moderated by Jodi Rudoren, the editor-in-chief of the Forward. The topic was “Is Anti-Zionism Antisemitic?”

Beinart, a long-time supporter of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ignited a firestorm of controversy in a New York Times op-ed last year in which he declared that “I No Longer Believe in a Jewish State,” and called for abandonment not only of the two-state solution, but also of the State of Israel itself. He argued that Israel should be replaced with a “binational” state of Palestinians and Jews. Beinart acknowledged that, in any such state, the Jews would be in a minority, but claimed that they would nonetheless survive and prosper in his hypothetical Muslim-majority democratic state.

Even Beinart recognized that his new position had “crossed a red line.” He conceded that “questioning Israel’s existence as a Jewish State is * * * akin to spitting in the face of people I love and betraying institutions that give my life meaning and joy.” Nevertheless, Beinart crossed the line because he saw it as the only answer to the plight of the stateless Palestinians.

Beinart’s conversion to anti-Zionism was almost universally condemned except for a few fellow travelers on the left. See here. Indeed, less than six percent of Palestinians, for whom Beinart purports to speak, support his radical new proposal. Even Jewish moderates, such as the noted Israeli historian Daniel Gordis, previously a personal friend of Beinart, who had appeared on stage with him in friendly debates, strongly condemned his latest proposal and announced they he would no longer debate him because giving Beinart a platform would only normalize his newly adapted and perverse point of view. See here.

Thus, it came as somewhat of a surprise that the well-regarded Temple Emanuel, the highly-respected columnist Bret Stephens and the knowledgeable Jodi Rudoren agreed to provide Beinart a platform to spread his anti-Zionist, anti-Israel screed. The debate amply demonstrated why others should hesitate to follow their example.

The first problem presented by this particular Beinart debate and others as well is that the host often picks a dear friend of Beinart to debate him. The result is that the entire debate is sprinkled with caveats that Beinart and his “opponent” are “good friends,” they “respect” each other, and cherish this great moment to participate in the First Amendment marketplace of ideas together in a “civil” manner. Of course, there is the little matter that one person believes that the State of Israel should be dismantled with whatever consequences that might mean for the Jewish people and the other person is skeptical of that idea. Other than that, they are buddies.

I’m not saying that any Beinart debate opponent must be his sworn enemy or consider him to be a traitor to the Jewish people as some have suggested, but, at the very least, picking Beinart’s bosom buddies to oppose his perverse ideas takes a bit of the sting out of what may be the most contentious issue of our time in the Jewish community. Mix in that the moderator is also friendly towards Beinart and the entire event turns into a kumbaya moment in which everyone just celebrates how civil and open-minded they all are while the life or death matter at issue becomes secondary to their general bonhomie.

Second, but related to the first, is the fact that this amicable environment lends itself to each side merely reciting their well-rehearsed talking points in a parallel conversation without each person engaging the other with pointed, difficult and even hostile questions. For example, in the debate under discussion, Beinart merely regurgitated his tired list of Palestinian grievances: their land stolen by the Zionists, their inability to return to their ancient homeland, their lack of full voting rights in the occupied West Bank, and the special privileges enjoyed by the Jews. Much of what Beinart recited was either an outright lie, an intentional misrepresentation, an innocent mistake, or, most often, the sin of omission (for example, that the Palestinians have been offered – – and rejected – – their own independent state on at least six separate occasions). Stephens totally failed to call out his dear friend on any of these factual errors. Instead, Stephens responded with his own parallel claims, pointing out for example that the Danes and people of Belgium have their own privileges, whatever that means.

Neither side actually attacked the other head on which a battle with such momentous consequences calls for. This is not a bunch of good old boys at a debating club at Oxford (“hear! hear!”). This is war with the lives of six million Jews at stake.

As a result, Stephens, smart as he is, failed to confront Beinart with some of the following direct questions (he well knows these matters but was reluctant to embarrass his BFF (“best friend forever”) by bringing them up):

1. Peter, you clearly have serious policy differences with past and current Israeli governments regarding their treatment of the Palestinians. But why does that lead you to take the startling leap to calling for the dismantling of the State of Israel? I expect you have similar policy differences with China over its treatment of Muslims, or Turkey over its treatment of Greeks, or even the United States for its centuries-old treatment of African-Americans, but you don’t call for the destruction of these countries. Instead, I expect, you work within existing institutions to better conditions for minorities in those countries. Why don’t you do the same in Israel? Why don’t you team up with the Palestinians you claim to know so well and speak for, many of whom are actually in the Israeli government, and try to better the lives of the Palestinian people in a constructive manner?

2. Peter, you claim to be concerned about the fate of the Jewish people and yet your scheme would put the lives of six million Jews at the mercy of Arabs who have repeatedly waged multiple wars and committed horrific acts of terror (including airplane hijacking, suicide bombings, car rammings, knife stabbings, and the indiscriminate launching of thousands of missiles at innocent civilians) against the Jews of Israel over the last one hundred years. Do you have any evidence at all that a Muslim majority binational state in place of Israel would be a democratic state that protects the rights of its minorities (unlike the 22 other Arab states, including Lebanon and Syria)? Any evidence at all? Should Israelis put their lives and the lives of their children and grandchildren at risk because Peter Beinart, living safely on the upper West Side of New York, hopes it will all work out?

3. Peter, you acknowledge that antisemitism is a problem in the United States and are concerned that it might be an even bigger problem in the years ahead. How will you explain to your grandchildren who might need to seek refuge somewhere else in thirty years that you were partly responsible for the extinguishment of the only refuge for Jews in the world?

4. Peter, why are you so obsessed with the State of Israel so as to make your entire career one of opposing its policies to the point of seeking to destroy it entirely? What is it about you personally that drives you to pursue such an obsession so passionately. Your father was a driving force behind the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Is there any truth to the suggestion that you feel a need to characterize Israel as a modern day version of apartheid South Africa and destroy it in order to overcome your father’s lengthy shadow?

5. Peter, if antisemitism is applying a double standard to Jews, why is not anti-Zionism, which calls for the destruction of the only Jewish State in the world – – and only that country – – not the very essence of antisemitism?

Daniel Gordis is right not to normalize Beinart’s abnormal obsession by appearing on the same stage with him. Others should follow suit. If they don’t, at the very least, don’t French kiss the guy. Keep your social distance and ask him the hard questions his perverse views deserve. You would certainly do so if you were debating David Duke or Donald Trump. Peter Beinart, personable as he may be, is at least as dangerous.

About the Author
Steve Frank is retired after a 30-year career as an appellate lawyer with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. His writings on Israel, the law and architecture have appeared in numerous publications including the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, the Jerusalem Post, the Jewish News Syndicate and Moment magazine.
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