Forward Thinking

Thoughts on Beinart vs. Gordis

By Gal Beckerman

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I got a chance to go to the Peter Beinart-Daniel Gordis debate last night at Columbia (you can still watch it here) and walked away with a few impressions I thought I’d share.

It’s much harder to be mean to someone to their face. The tone of the Beinart book reviews have been strangely personal. I don’t know if it’s something about Beinart himself that is inspiring this kind of out-of-proportion animus, but it has many otherwise levelheaded analysts turning to a kind of sniping that distracts from the content of the book. That was not the case last night. Gordis, who wrote one of the harshest takedowns, going so far as to wonder why Beinart “hates” Israel so, was respectful and gracious, saying that that though the book made him “sad” that he absolutely thought Beinart had a right to say what he was saying. Beinart was friendly as well, at one point offering Gordis the compliment that — with the exception of his positions on the conflict — he’s the kind of man Beinart would want to have as a rabbi.

I found all this very hopeful.

Not that much divides them. It become quickly clear that there is a very thin line dividing Beinart and Gordis. They are both in agreement about how corrosive the settlement enterprise is and the need to halt any expansion. They both worry about threats to Israel’s democratic nature. And they both believe, as Beinart put it, that the Jewish state “should not be a secular democracy like the United States. Israel is a mix of the tribal and the universal.” What separates them is the question of who should bear the onus of making the first move toward upending the current dismal status quo. Beinart thinks pressure should be applied on Israel to end, at the very least, the settlement project, if not the military presence in the West Bank. Gordis thinks this is not the right place for pressure. It should be applied instead to the Palestinians who, he insists, have not shown their willingness to accept a Jewish state. Until they do, said Gordis, Israel shouldn’t touch the existing settlements because it might appear like a concession.

This seems like more of a tactical difference. Not a small one, but still a tactical difference.

What separates them ultimately is a question of appearances. Gordis doesn’t think America Jews should give the impression that they or anyone else is “turning the screws” on Israel, as he put it, because it would provide aid and comfort to the Palestinians, prolonging their refusal to accept peace. Beinart thinks that making it clear to Israel in the most dramatic way possible (i.e. a mostly symbolic boycott) that it is losing its soul is the only way to stop a slide toward an apartheid state.

Engaging with anti-Zionists. Much of the debate looped around the above question. But there was another interesting moment that pointed to what divides the two men. Beinart said that he felt a responsibility to engage even with anti-Zionists and non-Zionists because they were the ones pulling undecided and disengaged young Jews away from Israel. Gordis vehemently disagreed. He simply did not see the point of trying to convince people whose motives, he was willing to assume, were most likely anti-Semitic. This illuminated the difference in sensibility between the two. For Beinart, there is an intellectual realm in which it would make sense to try and out-argue those who think Zionism is a racist, imperialist enterprise. Gordis looked like the prospect of having to do this would probably lead to him spitting blood.

Is Beinart too cold? At the very end of the debate, Gordis tried to characterize what he thought, ultimately, was wrong with Beinart: a kind of emotional double-standard. You are “a realist with Israelis, and a romanticist with Palestinians,” Gordis told Beinart. Gordis was trying to pin some kind of orientalism on Beinart, telling him that he assumes the worst motives in Israeli leaders and the best in Arab ones. I don’t think that was quite right. But what he was trying to express, I think, was that he doesn’t believe Beinart really, truly, cares about Israel, deep in his kishkes, extending to it and its people and leaders enough compassion. No matter how many quotes from his book Beinart offered in which he showed deep sympathy for what Israelis go through, it didn’t seem enough for Gordis. Hearing the two men debate, there was no doubt that Beinart came more equipped with facts and prepared to make a smartly reasoned argument. And he did. But Gordis, though he was much vaguer and didn’t make his case with the same degree of logic and intellect, was just warmer, more convincing and comfortable in his convictions.

It just made me feel like all the harsh backlash against Beinart might have less to do with anything he has said than with a sense — and I emphasize that this is just a sense — that he is approaching all of this from too far of an intellectual remove. It’s this perception, precisely on issues that have such deep emotional resonance for those involved and invested, that might be the cause for him making so many people uncomfortable with him and his book.


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