A debate about Israel in Greenwich Village, arguably the liberal heartland of the country, can really only end one way: with people screaming at each other.
And so it was March 3, at an evening event billed as a “debate” between Brooklyn Congressman Anthony Weiner and former Congressman Brian Baird of Washington State at the New School in Manhattan, moderated by New York Times columnist Roger Cohen and hosted by the Nation Institute.
Given the forum, the already well-known positions of the debaters, and the topic at hand – a discussion of the Goldstone Report – there was little reason to expect any surprises. Yet, the level of sanctimony coming from Baird and Cohen and the gross lack of knowledge that Weiner displayed about Israel showed just how knee-jerk and uninteresting the topic of Israel has become even among otherwise intelligent people.
Among other things, Weiner asserted over the course of the evening that there were neither Israeli settlements nor soldiers on the West Bank, and that Israel’s international border was the Jordan River.
The hook for the evening was a newly published copy of the Goldstone Report, abridged and appended with commentary by adamant Israel critics like Phillip Weiss and Naomi Klein. Baird, there to defend Goldstone, related what he had seen on his own trip to Gaza in February 2009, soon after Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s military operation there in the winter of 2008-2009.
The crowd was largely sympathetic to Baird, as was Roger Cohen who did not ask the former congressman who took him around Gaza or what he thought he was or wasn’t allowed to see. Baird spoke entirely about the human drama he had witnessed. He offered zero skepticism about Hamas, which was, he noted, democratically elected. At the same time, he emphasized that he didn’t think they represented the vast majority of the population, which he believes wants to live peacefully with Israel.
But if Baird seemed naïve, Weiner undermined his credibility completely by making statements that showed that he was either a) On the most extreme right of Israel’s political spectrum, or b) Ignorant of basic facts about the conflict. Whatever the explanation, his lack of information on crucial and basic points made for much intense heckling.
There is a nuanced argument to be made against Goldstone. One could question the conditions under which his research into Operation Cast Lead was conducted or criticize the fact that Israel’s actions are often painted in the report as intentional and malevolent attempts at collective punishment and not carried out in the name of self-defense, as the Israelis perceived them. Weiner did some of this. But for the most part he relied on just calling the report biased through and through and leaving it at that.
The arguments he did bring up just weren’t going to play with this crowd.
“We have come to turn the story of David and Goliath as it relates to Israel on its head and have lost sight of the fact that Israel is the democracy in that region and it is at war with 20 neighbors who declared war on her,” Weiner said. “She is the one with the judiciary. She is the one that puts out reports like this that are critical of its own military.”
His sharpest exchanges were with Cohen, who showed not even the slightest pretense that he wanted to actually moderate the conversation. After fifteen minutes it was so clear that he was acting as Baird’s tag team partner that Weiner had to ask, “Are you moderating this debate?”
In response to a question from Cohen, Weiner bizarrely stated that there was “no occupation in the West Bank.” Cohen pushed him some more, asking if the congressman really thought there was no IDF presence there at all. Weiner again said no. The only time Israeli troops enter the West Bank, Weiner said, is when they are accompanied by Palestinian policemen.
And he went further.
“There are people who believe that settlement activity is going on in Palestinian territories,” Weiner said. “There are people who believe that. I don’t believe that.”
Cohen and Baird looked dumbly at Weiner, not believing what he had just said. “Where do you think the settlement growth is happening right now if it’s not in Palestinian territories?” Cohen asked him.
“I believe it is in Israel,” Weiner said. “Right now the settlement that is going on is going on in Israel. That’s not a controversial thing to say.”
It wasn’t clear to anyone what he meant and yelling matches seemed to erupt throughout the audience between the few Israel defenders and the surrounding mass.
Cohen then asked Weiner where he then thought Israel’s eastern border was. Weiner stumbled around for an answer for a few seconds until someone from the audience yelled out, “the Jordan River!”
“Yeah,” said Weiner. “The Jordan River.”
The inmates had finally taken over the asylum, and the evening of “debate” soon ended.
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman