Despite efforts by a right-wing political group to the contrary, Peter Beinart, author of the controversial “The Crisis of Zionism,” joined a panel discussion at the Presidential Conference Thursday morning called “What does World Jewry Expect from Israel?

Peter Beinart. (photo credit: Courtesy of Shilo Productions)

Peter Beinart. (photo credit: Courtesy of Shilo Productions)

The hawkish Legal Forum for the Land of Israel had launched a media campaign earlier this week for the withdrawal of Beinart’s invitation, claiming he had no place at the Facing Tomorrow conference because “those who doubt Israel’s democracy are beyond the spectrum.”

All the press didn’t hurt attendance, however: Audience members lined up half an hour early to get a seat at what was considered one of the most potentially controversial sessions of the conference.

But “civilized” was the word of the day, as Diaspora panelists Abraham Foxman (ADL), Beinart, Alana Newhouse (Tablet), Pierre Besnainou (Foundation of French Judaism) and Leon Wieseltier (The New Republic) each spoke in turn under the moderation of the token Israeli, Shmuel Rosner (The Jewish Journal).

Rosner opened with statistics from a recent survey regarding Israeli expectations of the Diaspora: 89% of Israeli Jews expect world Jewry to visit Israel at some time in their lives, and 69% anticipate the aliya of all Diaspora Jews. After expressing the hope the panel would resist focusing on Beinart’s book, he passed the microphone to Foxman, who has spoken vocally and published critical essays against the author’s work.

The ADL's Abe Foxman. (photo credit: Courtesy Shilo Productions)

The ADL's Abe Foxman. (photo credit: Courtesy Shilo Productions)

Foxman began his talk by objecting to the subject of the panel discussion. “I don’t believe it is the role of world Jewry to ‘expect’… That suggests an equal role of the parties that does not, and should not, exist… Diaspora Jews should show caution: We don’t vote, we don’t serve in the army.”

In a thinly-veiled attack on Beinart he continued, “My love and support for Israel is unconditional, it does not depend on the Israeli acceptance of my ideas. My Zionism is not in crisis because my Zionism is not conditioned on an embrace of an idealized view of what I’d like Israel to be.”

Beinart took the podium and calmly rebutted Foxman statements, saying, “We have the right to give our opinions, but shouldn’t expect Israeli leaders to form policy by what is good for us” and put the interests of Diaspora Jewry ahead of Israel.

Objecting as well to the wording of the panel’s topic, Beinart discussed instead, “What does US Jewry think of Israel.”

‘We are witnessing the slow eroding of the Zionist consensus, especially among young American Jews’

“We are witnessing the slow eroding of the Zionist consensus, especially among young American Jews,” said Beinart, blaming this decline on the “indifference to Judaism itself,” in which Israel, as a “Jewish thing,” is equally disregarded and shunted aside.

He blamed the failure of the American Jewish educational system “to instill the joy in Judaism” into today’s youth, claiming the “secular tribalism” of past generations has not transmitted to youth.

Additionally, Beinart referenced Jewish thinkers such as Daniel Gordis and his theory that liberal rabbinical students are not connected to Israel (Are Young Rabbis Turning on Israel?), saying this is a natural development in young American Jewry’s relationship with Israel, which they no longer see as a necessary refuge.

“It pains me,” Beinart the Zionist said at several points. “Post-Cold War young Jews cannot see Israel as a refuge,” he said, citing the casual way he is asked at campus talks, “Why do we need a Jewish State at all?”

‘I encourage everyone to lower the temperature of the conversation’

Not all panelists agreed, however, that world Jewry is indeed in a state of crisis. Alana Newhouse, editor-in-chief of the online magazine Tablet, said there is no such thing as a monolithic world Jewry, and even American Jewry is very diverse. Speaking briefly, she said, “I encourage everyone to lower the temperature of the conversation and express gratitude for what we have, and the crises not in existence.”

And Pierre Besnainou, the only non-American among the panelists, also stressed the importance of remembering there are “some Jewish communities outside Israel and North America.”

Besnainou’s paradigm of a relationship between his community and Israel is a huge shift from that of American Jewry: He feels Israel now needs to start financially supporting French Jewry, especially in light of the terrorist attack in Toulouse, which he claims could have ended differently had better security been in place.

‘World Jewry built the state of Israel, but times are changing: We are looking to Israel and the support of Israel’

“World Jewry built the state of Israel, but times are changing: We are looking to Israel and the support of Israel,” said Besnainou.

Acknowledging the privileged position American Jewry enjoys in comparison to other communities around the world, Leon Wieseltier, literary editor at the New Republic, sardonically said, “The American Jewish community has established itself as the spoiled brats of world Jewry.”

Wieseltier, the most impassioned speaker on the panel, also stated, “A moment of truth is arriving for American Jewry,” outlining his theory that US Jews have always had an “excessive vicariousness” to their Jewish identity, both through the communities their ancestors left, and the rising state of Israel.

‘US Jews have problems of their own and are not addressing them. American Jews cannot expect Israeli Jews to save them’

“US Jews have problems of their own and are not addressing them. American Jews cannot expect Israeli Jews to save them,” and Israeli Jews should not expect the reverse.

“There is a distortion of free exchange of ideas to think even if what you say is right, you don’t have the right to say it… There is a term larger than American Jew and Israeli Jew, and it is ‘Jew’ and as Jews we debate our problems.”

Though there was little, if any, debate at this panel discussion, it was clear from the massive attendance there is an audience for more.