December 15, 2018

O.C. synagogue debate highlights two views of Zionism

It didn’t take long for Peter Beinart and Daniel Gordis to find something to disagree about.

The two intellectuals — Beinart on the center-left, Gordis on the center-right — actually share a great deal: Both consider themselves Zionists, practice Orthodox Judaism and write prolifically on the Jewish state. 

But their differences soon became clear at Congregation B’nai Israel in Tustin on Sept. 11. After the synagogue’s rabbi, Elie Spitz, called for a moment of silence to commemorate the 9/11 attacks 15 years earlier, he asked the debaters what lessons could be gleaned from the events of that day.

When Beinart said the attacks had been motivated by American imperialism, and that invading Iraq imperiled American security, Gordis was quick to pan him. 

 “France is not an empire, and Belgium is certainly not an empire,” he fired back. “So if the issue is colonialism, you might be able to make an argument that it motivated the attack on America, but it’s not the argument that motivated the attacks on Europe.”

The speakers exposed the crowd of some 500 in the sanctuary of the Orange County synagogue to two contrasting models of Zionism. One, embraced by Gordis, was a more mainstream, right-wing version of Jewish nationalism, while the other, expressed by his counterpart, held criticism of the Jewish state to be as important as affirmation of its existence.

As Beinart defined it, “The fundamental difference between us is that you talk as if Israel’s fundamental problem is a PR problem, that we have to tell a story better. I don’t think that’s true. Israel’s fundamental problem is a policy problem.”

A liberal writer whose commentary appears on CNN and in outlets such as The New York Times, The Atlantic and Haaretz, Beinart was unsparing in his description of Israel as two distinct states — a liberal democracy within its internationally recognized borders, and a “martial state” in the West Bank.

Gordis, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and senior vice president of Shalem College in Jerusalem, holds himself as no great defender of what he called Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. But he was quicker than Beinart to dole blame for that occupation to Palestinian leaders, and to think twice about halting Jewish settlement activity.

 “If Israel stops building settlements now, then the Palestinians get a huge concession without giving up anything,” he said. “It just shows them once again that international pressure can be brought to bear on Israel and not on them.”

For Gordis, who flew in from Jerusalem to participate, the Orange County event was something of a homecoming. Though he grew up in Baltimore, he spent more than a decade in Southern California, where he studied for a Ph.D. at USC and served as founding dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University). 

His wife, Elisheva, and mother-in-law, Eleanor, a local, both attended the event.

Beinart, meanwhile, flew in from New York especially for the debate and returned on a red-eye flight to lecture at the City University of New York, where he teaches journalism and political science.

The two are old and amiable opponents. Besides in-person debates at Columbia University in 2012 and a Toronto synagogue in 2010, they have gone round for round in the press. After Gordis published a stinging review of Beinart’s book “The Crisis of Zionism” (2012), Beinart wrote a response in The Jerusalem Post, calling the review “a blatant act of deception.” When Beinart called for a Zionist boycott of Jewish settlements in a New York Times op-ed, Gordis responded on his Jerusalem Post blog, naming Beinart’s suggestion “cavalier, and thus dangerous, on many levels.”

Yet after the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta disinvited Beinart from a planned appearance in 2012, Gordis came to his defense in Tablet magazine, arguing that the Zionist tent should include people of his political stripe.

The Sept. 11 debate likewise ranged from affable to deeply divided.

When the conversation turned to the disengagement of American Jews from Israel, Gordis laid some part of the blame at Beinart’s feet. Acknowledging Beinart’s deep love for Israel, Gordis said, “What most perplexes me about your written corpus is that one has to look very far and wide to find [that love], and it’s a hint here and a hint there. And you are actually a part of the reason why those American Jews are walking away from Israel.”

Beinart balked at the charge. “It’s frankly very condescending to young American Jews, to think that the reason they’re upset about Israel is because of a column they read by me,” he said. “They are distanced from Israel because of their lack of connection to Judaism.”

On the importance of that last point, the two were united, naming a lack of devotion to Israel among young American Jews as a potentially existential challenge to the Jewish state.

“Our fundamental problem is not Israel,” Beinart said. “Our fundamental problem is Jewish illiteracy. We are engaged in this unprecedented experiment about what happens when radical acceptance meets radical illiteracy. What happens in terms of Jewish continuity is not very pretty. What happens is Jewish parents tell their children to care very deeply about what they haven’t taught them anything about.”