When you put a conservative and liberal on stage at a political forum about Israel — with a centrist seated between them as a precautionary measure — there are bound to be some fireworks.
And that’s exactly what happened at Monday’s 92nd Street Y Live panel discussion in New York when John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary Magazine, apparently feeling himself embattled by the questions and direction of the program, abruptly rose and walked off the stage.
“I’m done,” he said under his breath as more than 50 people watched his exodus via satellite at Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill.
Forward Editor-in-Chief Jane Eisner — the moderator — and the remaining two panelists, AJC Executive Director David Harris and J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami were momentarily stunned — until Ben-Ami broke the silence.
“This is the state of dialogue in the American Jewish community,” he said.
In a way, the incident did encapsulate the whole reason for the Monday’s program, which was titled, “What does it mean to be pro-Israel in America today?”
The responses to that question can be volatile.
Surprisingly, Eisner never put that question directly to her panelists. Instead, she nibbled around the edges, asking them about the controversy surrounding the Swarthmore College Hillel, which has voted to open its programing to anti-Zionists, and the vote by the American Studies Association calling for a boycott of Israeli universities. She also addressed the Pew survey.
All three panelists agreed there should be a secure State of Israel, and there should be freedom of expression for American Jews.
But that’s pretty much where the agreement ended.
Ben-Ami said American Jews must guard against setting limits on debate because such restrictions could drive people away.
He said critics of Israeli policy, especially as it pertains to settlements and the West Bank, are eager to be part of the discussion, but are frequently shut out of forums
Podhoretz, on the other hand, said private organizations, such as Hillel or individual congregations, have the right to decide what points of view they will present. He acknowledged anti-Zionists do have a right to free speech, too, even if they “deserve to be spat upon.”
Harris also said every group gets to set its own boundaries, though there needs to be space in the overall Israel debate for many points of view.
But the larger question, Harris maintained, is how important Israel is to many Jews today. “Can we address the centrality of Israel in the minds of Jews in the 21st century?” he asked.
He was concerned that Israel no longer holds the same emotional place among American Jews that it once did, noting that two generations have grown up knowing Israel only as an occupying force and not as a small country fighting for its survival.
Such a skewed view can lead to “ignorance or indifference” about Israel, Harris said — something that must be countered.
“If we fail,” he said, “then all bets are off.”
As for the American Studies Association vote, everyone condemned it, though Ben-Ami warned more such actions were on the horizon if Israel did not address making peace with the Palestinians.
“This wave is coming,” he said, painting it as an “existential threat to Israel.”
That angered Podhoretz who accused Ben-Ami of laying the fault for the ASA vote at Israel’s feet, something Ben-Ami denied.
“You’re the one who sat here and blamed Israel for the American Studies Association!” Podhoretz retorted.
The discussion quickly deteriorated after that, with Podhoretz becoming louder and more visibly irritated. Finally, as Eisner tried to ask a new question, he got up and left.
After Podhoretz walked off, Harris chimed in on the ASA question, assailing the group for taking the vote while a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians is ongoing and after Israel made two goodwill gestures by releasing “two sets of murderers.”
The 92nd Street Y produces a series of discussions on a variety of Jewish topics on which leading Jewish newsmakers of the day weigh in. The programs are broadcast live via satellite around the country. Temple Sinai is the Pittsburgh provider of the series.
Finally Monday, the truncated panel addressed the dystopian question, will Israel be here in 20 years?
Harris said he was “bullish” on Israel, noting that the country’s discovery of large offshore gas fields and its work on high-speed transportation would be boons to its future.
But he also warned that Israel’s future must be decided by Israelis. He said American Jews are in a “voluntary diaspora” — they have chosen to make their homes here instead of the Jewish state, himself included.
Ben-Ami also said Israel would survive, though he added, “What kind of Israel?”
If it’s one state from the Jordan to the sea, he warned, with an ever-growing Arab population, then that would threaten the Jewish character of the country.
In that case, he concluded, it’s not wrong for American Jews to speak out if they see the policies of the country as potentially disastrous.
“Our silence will be complicit in the destruction of Israel,” he said.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)