Thursday, October 7, 2010

Dershowitz - Ben Ami: Who Speaks for American Jews?

Listen to the Hoffman Lecture: Dershowitz and Ben Ami here.

To obtain the audio files in different formats or to embed, click here.

Some comments after a draining evening:

I came into this evening's dramatic conversation between Alan Dershowitz and Jeremy Ben Ami hoping for a clearer sense of whether American Jewry and Israel can effectively speak in multiple, nuanced voices in support of Israel. That question never really was answered.

The evening was great theater, but more tragedy than comedy. I left it feeling somewhat deflated, that the great theater overwhelmed the potential for what could have been much more. Over a thousand people filled Beth El's sanctuary (extending well into the social hall) and the audience was, for the most part, remarkably civil and respectful. People really were trying to listen. I was proud of our community for handling this challenging evening with such dignity. There was plenty of applause for both speakers and very few boos. Lots of solid debating points were scored. But I felt that the evening was almost too much about scoring debating points.

It got personal. Time was wasted on airing personal grievances and asking for apologies. There were several moments where the audience was squirming as Dershowitz hammered home the unfairness of how he was depicted in a J-Street ad and Ben Ami retorted that Dershowitz had subsequently demonized J-Street unfairly. At one point I really wanted to hold each one's hand in the sandbox and ask them to apologize simultaneously. Then we could have moved onto more substantial matters.

At the end of the evening, I made a plea to the young people (and there were many here) not to dissociate themselves from Israel or from the American Jewish community. As things got more and more emotional on the bima, I could sense the impact that might have on some of them. I later heard of at least one young woman who was brought to tears. It was intense. One almost got the sense that Dershowitz was trying to finish J-Street off.

In the end, demonizing J-Street will not destroy it (Do you hear me, Connecticut Jewish ledger?) any more than demonizing Breira crushed dissent in the 70's, or earlier, the attempts of the federation movement to sideline the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry. J-Street will live or die on the merits of its message, the honesty and transparency of its administration and the conviction of its funders. But that demonization might well drive away those many young supporters who feel they have no where else to go to express support for Israel and connect to the Jewish community. People may not like the critical approach J-Street has taken regarding Israel, but without it, the dialogue among American Jews would turn into a spiritless monologue, without taste and texture. I firmly believe that we need such a dialogue, just as King David needed his dialogue with the prophet Nathan to remind him of his own highest moral aspirations. Nathan always seemed to be there with bad news and stinging accusations. But David kept him in the palace because he knew that he needed him.

American Jews have never spoken with one voice about Israel and we aren't about to start now. It's positively unJewish to walk in lock step about anything, much less the most important thing -which is Israel. We're not a bunch of walking talking points to be programmed.

What is sad is that Dershowitz and Ben Ami agree on so many of the important issues, including settlements and the security fence (though perhaps not the precise location). But they couldn't get beyond that to forge a common message. As J-Street continues to evolve, I hope it will find ways to feel less constrained about the pro-Israel part - it needs to become unabashedly pro-Israel, while at the same time continuing to play the role of Nathan the prophet. Nathan did, after all, reside close to the palace.

Ben Ami did not make reference to the impressive number of rabbis and cantors who have joined its very large rabbinic cabinet (including me). That surprised me. It shows that there is something about his message that is resonating well beyond the halls of Yale and Berkeley. Say what you will about rabbis, we're not all idiots. We, like many others, are attracted to that moral message. But it can not become a message of moral equivalence. Dershowitz hammered home the moral equivalence thing, that Israel has made enormous risks and sacrifices and the Palestinians have not responded in kind. Arafat blew it at Camp David in refusing the Clinton/ Barak offer. (One of Dershowitz's best lines was when he said that Yasser Arafat died an untimely death - four years too late). Ben Ami's retort was that the blame game does no good, that the two narratives are both filled with suffering and pain. Both points are well taken.

On Monday I attended a regional AIPAC event. Dore Gold spoke, eloquently and persuasively, about Israel's security needs - specifically how any peace plan must include an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley. I would love to see J-Street acknowledge that need more clearly. I sense that they agree, but I didn't really hear that concern tonight. I didn't hear the existential ache about Iran from Ben Ami tonight either. The question as to whether resolving the Israel-Palestinian matter would help neutralize the Iranian threat was one where both made good arguments. The fact is, we don't know.

When Dore Gold took questions on Monday, person after person rose to toss him softballs. Some of the questions were interesting, but there was not a Nathan to be found...until one man got up and had the courage to ask something like, "So why can't Bibi just freeze the settlement building for two more crummy months?"

There was an audible hush - and more hisses than I heard all of tonight (with about a quarter of the number of people). It scared me that such a question could not be asked without ostracism. Gold's answer was about as persuasive as the page of talking points we were given about the settlements. Since we know that it's really about party politics and messianic fervor, the talking points seemed disingenuous. C'mon. Really. Israel needs to bargain from strength, I know, and these things can't be preconditions, I know. But to jeopardize a possible chance for real peace, however remote, for the sake of two more months?

And if these talking points weren't persuasive to me, (and I know they are not to Alan Dershowitz either - he's been very public about that), what of that Yale student whose classmate keeps on shouting that Israel doesn't really want peace. What's he to say to the classmate when the talks disintegrate over two crummy months?

Fortunately, an AP report tonight offers a glimmer of hope that a compromise might be reached and the talks resumed for two crummy months.

Fortunately also, while he was discussed, George Soros did not play a central role in tonight's conversation. The talk of Soros then spun into the question of what constitutes someone who is "pro Israel" and are all of J-Street's supporters really pro-Israel, or are some, as Dershowitz put it, "virulently anti-Israel." And he's the one who has accused J-Street of McCarthyist tactics! The litmus test being applied to J-Street's list (which BTW, includes all those rabbis) gave cause for concern. I wish all members of my congregation were pro-Israel too, but I know that not all are. Still, I wouldn't kick them out for that reason - or become less pro-Israel myself. I wish Dershowitz hadn't pursued that line of argumentation.

And I want to go on record as saying that I absolutely and proudly WOULD accept a George Soros donation to my synagogue.

But most of all, I just wish Ben Ami had apologized for lumping Dershowitz together with Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and other right wingers in that notorious ad. Here's how you do it, Jeremy - and I know all about this. I apologize to people for a living. You call him up and say, "Alan. My bad. Your not like Sarah at all. You're much better looking. I went a little overboard. Sorry. Now let's get onto the important stuff."

If only he had said that tonight, it would saved us all a lot of grief. Then maybe we could have gone back to the question that remained unanswered: Can American Jews speak about Israel to Congress and other Americans in multiple - and occasionally critical - voices?

I'm just hoping that, in the end, we can keep on talking to one another.

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