Why would more than a thousand Israelis show up to listen to two American Jews who don’t even live here debate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
That’s what happened Sunday night when celebrity rabbi Shmuley Boteach and author and commentator Peter Beinart faced off against each other in “The Great Debate,” an event sponsored by the Globes Business Conference, the Tel Aviv International Salon and Israel advocacy organization Stand With Us.
The packed crowd at the Intercontinental David Hotel contained many young, rapt faces — applauding, cheering, laughing and shaking their heads in disapproval at remarks from the two speakers.
In the spirit of the Hanukkah holiday, the debate opened with nothing less than an argument over the connotation of the word “Maccabees.”
In a Ha’aretz column in June, Beinart had taken Boteach and philanthropist Sheldon Adelson to task for calling their new anti-BDS group the Campus Maccabees.
“You can’t make this stuff up,” Beinart wrote in June. “Calling Zionism a discriminatory ideology that privileges Jews over non-Jews, BDS proponents generally speak in the universalistic language of full equality irrespective of religion or ethnicity. Into this debate, Boteach reportedly wants to insert a group of ‘Maccabees,’ students named after the second-century B.C.E. religious zealots who not only rebelled against Greek rule, but also demanded that Jews reject any interaction with foreign cultures.”
Asked to elaborate on this comment, Beinart told the crowd: “I love Hanukkah, but while the Maccabees were fighting for national liberation they were not fighting for religious freedom for all people.”
Matityahu, he recalled, after refusing to do the pagan sacrifice, “responds by killing the Jew who gives the pagan sacrifice and forcibly circumcising Jews that were not circumcised.”
“That is not acting in support of religious freedom,” he said.
Nonetheless, Beinart said, the Hanukkah story is a powerful one because it’s a Zionist story.
Similarly, Beinart told the crowd, the physical survival of the current Jewish state is dependent on its ethics. Inside the Green Line, said Beinart, “Israel does a remarkable in many ways inspiring” job of providing equal rights to its Arab citizens, but “in the West Bank, where the vast majority of people lack citizenship, live under military law don’t have the right to elect the government that controls their lives, Israel is not doing a very good job. And my worry is that that threatens the existence of this extraordinary Zionist experiment.”
How did the Persians feel about Purim?
Boteach rebutted that “a Maccabee is a fighter for the independence of his or her people. When Peter wrote his column this year condemning the use of term Campus Maccabees for those who want to fight BDS on campus, I was surprised. But I shouldn’t have been surprised.”
Boteach said that Beinart has similarly taken aim at the holiday of Purim, writing that “the Purim story doesn’t end with Haman’s plot being foiled; that’s the Disney version. It actually ends with Persia’s Jews retaliating with a massacre of their own.”
Boteach added that Beinart ignores the fact that the Megillah explicitly states that the 75,000 Persians were killed in self-defense.
“I’m not surprised that Peter condemns the Maccabees or the story of Purim,” Boteach told the crowd, “because Peter loves Israel unless Israel wants to defend itself. In his book ‘The Crisis of Zionism’ he says the greatest challenge to the Jewish people is not people being stabbed in marketplaces or people being blown up on buses…it is that we are the aggressor, that we are too powerful.”
Boteach accused Beinart of minimizing or rationalizing Palestinian genocidal intentions toward Israel and being critical of Israel in a one-sided or unfair way that serves the country’s enemies. In perhaps his biggest applause line of the evening, Boteach said, “He’s not troubled by the absence of Palestinian democracy, he’s troubled by his Jewish conscience. Well Peter, you are a humanitarian, I respect you. I’m sorry to tell you, Israel does not exist to make you feel better about yourself.”
In the course of the evening, Beinart and Boteach also sparred over whether terrorism has a rationale.
Beinart: “9/11 was a response to American foreign policy.”
Boteach: “Do any of you believe a woman is raped for how she dresses?”
They also disagreed over whether Sheldon Adelson had called for atrocities in 2013.
Beinart: “He proposed that we drop an atomic bomb in the Iranian desert and if Iranians did not stop their nuclear program, that we drop one in Tehran and the room cheered and you congratulated him.”
Boteach: “You misquoted him. He said drop a bomb, and nobody would be hurt, as a deterrent.”
Finally, they disagreed on how to combat the BDS movement.
Beinart: By ending the Israeli occupation
Boteach: With better PR
An ongoing rivalry
This is not the first time the two pundits have butted heads. Boteach recently headlined a column titled “Why does Peter Beinart despise pro-Israel Jews?” Beinart wrote two years ago that while Boteach is universalist by Chabad standards, he is still a Chabad rabbi. Quoting the late rabbi and philosopher, David Hartman, Beinart suggested that Chabad’s theology may be “deeply, primitively racist.”
Boteach began his career as a rabbi to students at Oxford University, has written 30 books including “Kosher Sex” and “Kosher Jesus,” was a friend and spiritual adviser to Michael Jackson, hosted a reality television show and in 2012 ran for the US Congress as a Republican. During that run, he told the New Jersey Jewish News that he opposes a two-state solution and sees the establishment of a Palestinian state as “a threat to Israel. The idea that Hamas would play a dominant role troubles me greatly,” he said.
Beinart waded into the Israel debate when in 2010 the former Rhodes Scholar and editor of The New Republic penned an essay in The New York Review of Books titled “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.” The article accused American Jewish leaders of alienating a younger generation of American Jews with its tacitly pro-settlement policies.
“For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door,” he wrote, “and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.”
The person who brought Beinart and Boteach together in Tel Aviv was 39-year-old Jay M. Shultz, who describes himself as a “crazy Zionist kid from New Jersey who made aliyah.”
Shultz said there’s been a little-noticed sea change among young Jewish immigrants to Israel and this debate stems from that movement. In the past, most new immigrants from the United States moved to Jerusalem.
“I love Jerusalem,” he said, “but there are no jobs.” Shultz himself relocated from New York City to Tel Aviv 10 years ago but when he arrived he knew of only a few hundred English-speaking new immigrants like himself.
“Today there are over 20,000 Western olim in Tel Aviv. Young people who move to Israel come to Tel Aviv and not Jerusalem, it’s a new reality.”
The Tel Aviv International Salon, founded seven years ago, was part of Shultz’s attempt to build community for this burgeoning group.
“We’ve grown into the largest speaker’s forum in the country, one that just happens to be in English. We have a lot of young olim, diplomats, foreign journalists, foreign businesspeople. About one-third of the community are young Sabras who have great English.”
In fact, during the March 2015 elections, the Tel Aviv International Salon hosted politicians like Naftali Bennett and Isaac Herzog in what Shultz describes as each politician’s largest event of the election campaign.
Shultz has a theory as to why the speakers’ salon grew so fast: “America has a much longer history as a democracy, with civil society, community building, volunteerism.” Shultz said he wanted to bring that energy here, along with the American-Anglo tradition of formal public debates. He has a running wish list of “top Israeli and Israeli-related minds,” and Boteach and Beinart were among them.
Beinart to Israelis: Don’t fear Palestinians
After the debate, both Boteach and Beinart were surrounded by groups of young people eager for an exchange of words. Beinart’s group appeared to be somewhat larger.
“Aren’t you afraid to go to the West Bank?” a young woman asked him.
“We have a tendency to assume that Palestinians will see a Jew and lunge to kill them because it’s in their DNA,” Beinart said. “Most Palestinians are not like that. They don’t want to be murderers they don’t want to be killed. I went with B’tselem and with Breaking the Silence a few times and with the Washington Institute. I even went with a guy wearing a kippah.”
“But maybe the Palestinians knew you were sympathetic to their point of view?” the woman asked.
“How would they know what my politics are? I don’t want to suggest there are no dangers, but I think sometimes with American Jews, people may exaggerate the dangers to keep them from going.”
“Is there something Palestinians could do that would be so horrible it would change your political views?” someone asked Beinart.
“Well, the Palestinians have done horrible things. I suppose what I was trying to say in the debate is I could imagine a legitimate argument that says a Palestinian state is too dangerous now. Let’s say if, God forbid, ISIS were to become a powerful force there.”
He added: “I don’t take that view now. I think you might be able to reach a deal with Mahmoud Abbas and you should do it before he dies. You’re not going to get someone more moderate than him. But I can imagine a situation where the circumstances were not right. So what I hope people who are more hawkish than me can agree with me on, but they generally don’t, is that it’s better not to be paying people to move into the West Bank because that makes the possibility of a state ever harder and it pushes Palestinians more in the direction of ‘we’re never going to have a state so we want a secular binational state.’ I guess that would be my answer. I would wait and try to preserve the hope some day.”