Why I Debate People With Whom I Disagree

I’m still digesting everything that Omar Barghouti, the most prominent BDS leader in the world, said in our interview last Friday. Regardless of your views, I’d recommend listening. If you think Omar is a human rights hero, you should watch the interview because you may find aspects of his strategy and vision with which you disagree. I did. If you think he’s a dangerous anti-Semite, you should DEFINITELY watch the interview, and email me when you’re done to tell me whether you still think so. I think it’s a preposterous charge. But if you disagree, please tell me.

We’ll send the video to paid subscribers on Wednesday, or sooner if subscribers individually request it. I’m hoping to have Omar back at some point for a conversation with someone who believes in Jewish statehood and opposes the Palestinian right of return. (I’m no longer that guy.) If you have suggestions, let me know.

This coming Friday, we’re switching directions completely. I’ll be interviewing Joshua Cohen, author of the new novel, The Netanyahus. It snagged the front cover review in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review, where Taffy Brodesser-Akner praised it as “the best and most relevant novel I’ve read in what feels like forever.” In The Wall Street Journal, Sam Sacks wrote that with this book, “Cohen proves himself not just America’s most perceptive and imaginative Jewish novelist, but one of its best novelists full stop.” If you have time, read the book before Friday. It’s not long and you definitely won’t be bored. If not, at least read the reviews. I have no idea how to interview novelists. But Cohen isn’t just a novelist. (Not that there’s anything wrong with just being that.) He’s one of the most intriguing thinkers alive about American Jews. The call will be at Noon ET, as usual. 

Maybe it’s a sign of the times, but I didn’t get much blowback from the Jewish right about interviewing Barghouti. I did, however, provoke some anger from the left for a debate I’m doing with Newsweek Opinion editor Josh Hammer on July 20 sponsored by a group called New Zionist Congress. New Zionist Congress is a group of young Jews who feel their generation is experiencing anti-Semitism for supporting Israel and want to unapologetically defend the Jewish state. Their board includes some people who don’t like me very much. One of its members last week described my relationship with being Jewish through a rather graphic (I’m tempted to say cutting) analogy to circumcision. Another declared that I am “no longer a *member* of the Jewish people.” (Which should help with day school tuition.) A third has suggested that recent anti-Semitic attacks be labelled “#BeinartPogroms.”

Given these sentiments, I’m not entirely sure why New Zionist Congress wants anything to do with me. But what bothered folks on the left is that I’m having anything to do with them. Leftists offered three arguments against my decision to take part in the debate, all of which are worth taking seriously, even though I disagree. 

The first argument is that I’m giving New Zionist Congress legitimacy. The group, it’s true, is quite new and doesn’t have the same prominence as AIPAC or the Anti-Defamation League. But while New Zionist Congress may be fledgling, its perspective is hegemonic, both among American Jewish institutions and in Washington. The number of American synagogues whose rabbis support one equal state—as opposed to a Jewish state—is tiny. In Congress, the only person who takes that position—my position—so far as I know, is Rashida Tlaib. So New Zionist Congress doesn’t need me to give them legitimacy. In America’s corridors of power, Jewish and non-Jewish, it already has legitimacy. The young Jews who invited me are well-positioned to one day lead the American Jewish establishment, and to perpetuate its complicity with Israel’s brutal oppression of Palestinian. I want them to reconsider that path, and the best way to reach as many of them as possible is to participate in an event that they sponsor.

The second argument is that I shouldn’t publicly debate people who are to my right because it doesn’t do any good. Here too, I disagree. (So, evidently, do Noam ChomskyCornel WestEdward SaidMarc Lamont HillYousef MunayyerDiana ButtuOmar Barghouti all of whom have debated right-leaning Zionists on the question of Israel-Palestine.)

I disagree because, for me, public debates and conversations aren’t only valuable because I might make people think differently. They’re also valuable because they might make me think differently. Do I think Josh Hammer is going to change my view on fundamental questions about Israel-Palestine? Probably not. But I might learn more about how people with whom I disagree think, which might help me better formulate my arguments, or force me to investigate questions to which I haven’t previously devoted enough time. 

But I also think that, on this issue, I have a shot at changing some people’s minds. It’s not because I have special talents. It’s because, as I’ve written previously, the institutional American Jewish discussion about Israel-Palestine—the one that occurs inside many synagogues, Jewish schools, establishment Jewish institutions, and families, the one many young American Jews grow up with—is a “cocoon.” That means a lot of American Jews grow up not hearing crucial information that undermines the traditional pro-Israel narrative. Present some of that information—about the causes and horrors of the Nakba, for instance—and people may begin a journey in which they reassess what they thought they knew. I’ve seen it happen a lot.  

The third argument against participating in the debate is the most compelling. It’s that by doing an event about Israel-Palestine without Palestinians, I perpetuate their exclusion, an exclusion that has been disastrous for US public discourse. That’s a serious concern, which is why I wrote last year that, as a general rule, I wouldn’t do events on Israel-Palestine that include three or more panelists if they don’t include a Palestinian. But I also specified an exception for Jewish organizations like New Zionist Congress. I did so because there is a place for conversations between Jews that deal with Israel-Palestine in the context of Jewish tradition, religion, history, and communal self-interest. Changing Jewish attitudes toward Israel requires, in my experience, reimagining Jewish identity. And so there is a role, in Jewish spaces, for intra-Jewish discussions and debates.

That’s not to say Jewish institutions shouldn’t host Palestinians. Quite the contrary. It’s crucial that they do so, to break open the American Jewish cocoon. But given the overwhelming barriers to bringing in Palestinian speakers, it can sometimes be more effective for me—in those cases when I slip through the cocoon myself—to make a Jewish argument for things like Palestinian refugee return and tell the audience, as I will on July 20, that they need to listen to Palestinians if they want to be educated about Israel-Palestine.

It’s a point I’ve made in virtually every talk I’ve given in a Jewish institution for many years. And I’ve had some success. A few years ago I was invited to speak at Ramaz, one of the most prestigious Orthodox Jewish schools in the country. In my talk, I suggested that the students invite the eminent Columbia University historian Rashid Khalidi to address them, which they did. (Shamefully, the school cancelled Khalidi’s speech, but Ramaz students then sought him out on their own.) Had I rejected Ramaz’s invitation, I doubt they would have invited Khalidi at all.

Beyond these strategic calculations, there’s simply this: When I have the chance to talk to Jews about what Israel is doing in our name, my instinct is to do it. Maybe that comes from my own fears of excommunication. I’m keenly aware that for every person who is telling me to exclude New Zionist Congress, there’s another person telling them to exclude me. Maybe it’s because many of the people I’ve loved most in my life agree with New Zionist Congress. Maybe it’s because I’ve been reminded so many times over the decades of what I don’t know—or what I thought I knew that turned out to be wrong—and as a result I prefer hearing people out to writing them off. It says in Pirkei Avot, “Who is wise? The one who learns from all people.” My bet is that people will be more likely to learn from me if I’m open to learning from them.

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Other stuff: 

If you doubt how radically Jews can change their opinions on Israel-Palestine when presented with new information, read this remarkable story about how an emissary for the Jewish Agency—whose job was to defend Israel on campus—became an activist for one equal state.

Here’s one Palestinian activist’s argument for why she stopped conducting dialogues with pro-Israel students on her campus.

I found this twitter thread a useful corrective to some of the media coverage about America’s pullout from Afghanistan.

remarkable graphic about the dramatic decline in religious belief among younger Americans. 

On July 13, I’m participating in a discussion sponsored by the Brennan Center about US sanctions policy. 

Excited about seeing this kid play in the big leagues one day.

There will be no newsletter next Monday.

See you on Friday,

Peter