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Amid Election Strains and Jewish Divisions, Two Antagonists Debate Israel, Civilly

Before things got underway, Rabbi David Wolpe laid down the law.

“I have to both ask and warn you not to be antagonistic,” he told the assembled crowd on Wednesday, November 2. “If you’re really difficult, we’ll remove you.”

His stern words were not what one might expect in such a genteel setting — an event hall decorated with crystal chandeliers and wood paneling at Sinai Temple, which is a tony Conservative synagogue on the Westside of Los Angeles.

But these are no ordinary times, and that Wednesday night was no ordinary evening. True, the event in question wasn’t the Cubs’ first World Series victory since 1908, which also happened that night. But in the midst of a harshly, often hateful election campaign, and amid a Jewish community increasingly divided over Israel, some 300 attendees gathered to see Wolpe moderate a debate — “a conversation,” he insisted — between exemplars of the mainstream community’s polar opposites on the biggest question facing the Jewish state.

Morton Klein, national president of the hawkish Zionist Organization of America, and Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the dovish J Street, would not just seek to hash out basic questions about a path forward for Israel; more fundamentally, they would test whether American Jews could even debate these issues civilly.

For one night, at least, civility held. For the most part.

Klein and Ben-Ami are two of the most strident and controversial American voices speaking today on Israeli-Palestinian issues. Klein’s ZOA was founded in 1897 and was long led by liberal heroes such as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. But in recent years it has moved far from its left-leaning roots to become one of the most consistently hawkish Israel advocacy groups. It is, under Klein, opposed to the Jewish communal consensus supporting the creation of a Palestinian state as a solution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. By contrast, Ben-Ami founded J Street, in 2008 to coalesce dovish Israel groups into a national force to support a two-state solution, and to encourage greater U.S. government involvement in pushing for this.

Ironically, both Ben-Ami and Klein come from a family background that is on the opposite side of their own political spectrum. Klein’s father was a Satmar Hasidic rabbi and, like virtually all Satmars, a strict anti-Zionist. Ben-Ami, by contrast, is descended from early Jewish settlers in the land of Palestine. His father was one of the first boys born in Tel Aviv, to original founders of the city, and was later a member of the right-wing Irgun movement and a close ally of the Likud leader Menachem Begin.

The positions laid out by the two men did not break new ground in Israel-Palestine debates, nor did it do so for their organizations. Ben-Ami argued that it was in Israel’s own best interests to pursue a negotiated settlement for a two-state solution, even while acknowledging that the Palestinians are, at best, hostile counterparts.

“It is in the best interests of the Jewish people and of the State of Israel — it happens also to be in the best interests of the United States, which is why J Street is involved — for there to be two independent states in that land so that the national homeland of the Jewish people can be in one place and the national homeland of the Palestinian people can be in another place,” Ben-Ami told the crowd. “This is not about a marriage between Israelis and Palestinians. This is about how do you stop 100 years of bloodshed and fighting.”

Klein, in turn, argued that the Palestinians, and Palestinian leadership, have shown themselves to be implacably hostile to Israel, and that it is the Palestinians who refuse to negotiate a settlement, despite Israel’s willingness to do so.

“Jeremy always says, as did [the late former Israeli prime minister] Yitzhak Rabin, ‘You don’t make peace with your friends, you make peace with your enemies,’” Klein told the audience. “You only make peace with an enemy that no longer wants to be an enemy, that has changed their mind about it. You cannot make peace with someone who wants to continue being your enemy.”

Wolpe prodded each of the debaters throughout the night, pressing them where their arguments seemed weak or unclear, and trying to nudge them toward, if not common ground, then at least a common understanding of the issues in question. Strikingly, the presidential election looming only six days away received barely a mention from anyone.

Even so, things sometimes got dicey. [As Klein cited a litany of evidence to argue that the Palestinians remain wedded to violence against Israel, Ben-Ami interrupted Klein to declare, “We can stipulate that we’re not making peace with the Swedes.” Klein shot back, “I’m not finished.”

Subsequently, when Ben-Ami replied to Klein by declaring, “I’m just not going to respond to all the inaccuracies, because there’s too many of them,” Klein interjected: “Don’t insult me with ‘inaccuracies’ by making a general statement. Tell me what was inaccurate.”

Ben-Ami responded by “fact checking” Klein for the rest of the debate, keeping a running list with pad and paper and then rebutting Klein, point by point, at every opportunity.

Still, some of the disagreements proved illuminating. When Klein accused J Street of supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement by inviting pro-BDS speakers to its conferences, Ben-Ami countered that arguing with BDS supporters was the best way to blunt their influence.

“We invite them to panels about BDS and we present them with the arguments against BDS,” Ben-Ami said. “We engage with the people who support BDS, because we think that’s the best way to argue against them and to win the argument.”

Klein, in turn, suggested that Ben-Ami wasn’t living up to his own ideal of engagement when it came to J Street’s right-wing critics.

“J Street has never invited Alan Dershowitz to speak, they’ve never invited me to speak,” he said.

“I wonder why,” Ben-Ami said, smirking.

“If you invite BDS people, invite me to speak to convince me why I’m wrong,” Klein responded, to applause. “Put me on the panel.”

The audience was clearly filled with partisans for each side, applauding when their champion struck a chord. But despite a few occasional catcalls, decorum held, and nobody had to be ejected.

Attendee Garrett Hoffman, who wore a red Trump “Make America Great Again” baseball cap and a Greater Israel pendant made of shrapnel from Hamas rockets, said that he found the discussion illuminating, particularly in understanding the perspectives of Ben-Ami and J Street.

“I was impressed with Jeremy’s closing remarks,” said Hoffman, an executive at a military aerospace company and a self-described believer in population transfers rather than a two-state solution. “I didn’t know his family’s history. I respect that.

“My opinion is morphing a little with what Jeremy said about inviting BDS people to speak to convince others they are wrong. I think it’s worth inviting the bastards to speak.”

Likewise, attendees from the other side of the aisle concurred that even without agreement on the issues, the debate was worth having.

“Our dialogue in general is becoming more polarizing,” said Ariel Brenner, a teacher of architecture at the Milken Community High School and a former activist in her campus chapter of J Street U at Berkeley. “It’s great to have discussions like this.”

She was also largely impressed by the civility of the audience.

“For the most part, they were a lot more respectful than I expected them to be,” she told the Forward. “Though I was surprised when someone behind me said Jeremy should kill himself.”

Contact Anthony Weiss at [email protected]

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