Peter Beinart is no stranger to the accusation that for a self-proclaimed passionate supporter of Israel, he treats the Jewish state too harshly.
Since the release of his book “The Crisis of Zionism” in 2012, he has traveled the country debating ardent Zionists such as Daniel Gordis and Alan Dershowitz. On the evening of Dec. 5 in Los Angeles, his opponent on the stage at Sinai Temple was David Suissa, president of TRIBE Media Corp., parent company of the Jewish Journal, and a columnist for this newspaper.
Rabbi David Wolpe, Sinai’s senior rabbi, moderated the debate, which was co-sponsored by The Journal and Sinai Temple. Both Suissa and Beinart presented their positions in opening statements, then Wolpe addressed questions to the two before taking audience questions.
Beinart is the editor of Open Zion, a blog dedicated to “an open and unafraid conversation about Israel, Palestine, and the Jewish future.” He is also an incoming contributing editor for both The Atlantic and National Journal and will become a senior columnist with the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, in January.
Formerly on AIPAC’s speaking circuit, Beinart has, in recent years, become an outspoken voice from the Left on Israel, going so far as calling for a “Zionist B.D.S.,” a boycott on products produced in Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
His basic argument, made in his book and in the Wednesday evening debate with Suissa, is that Israel is approaching a time where it will have to choose between becoming a non-democratic Jewish state, or a democratic state without a Jewish majority.
Beinart says the reason for Israel’s impending choice is its occupation of the West Bank and its policy of encouraging settlements by Israelis outside the pre-1967 borders.
Unless Israel acts soon to end its occupation of the West Bank and ceases to encourage the growth of Israeli settlements, Beinart argues, the Palestinians who support a two-state solution will turn to supporting one Palestinian state with a Jewish minority and Arab majority.
“If Israel makes permanent its occupation of the West Bank it will eventually be forced to choose between its Jewish and democratic character,” Beinart told the audience of about 250. “By supporting settlement growth, you are pushing Palestinians in exactly the direction we don’t want them to go.”
Suissa strongly objected to Beinart’s premise that settlements are the major obstacle to peace: “Settlements are an excuse for Palestinians to hide their rejectionism,” Suissa said, and he charged that by questioning the legality of Israeli settlements, Beinart appears to call into question the legality of the entire nation of Israel.
“As long as we keep maligning settlements and calling them illegal, we reinforce the false narrative that Israel stole the land from the Palestinians,” Suissa said. “If we stole the land, the Palestinians owe us nothing, not even negotiations.”
Although the evening was peppered with some boos and interruptions alongside a handful of applauses, Wolpe quickly silenced outspoken members of the audience in favor of the speakers, and also made sure both Suissa and Beinart stayed focused on the task at hand—clarifying where they differ on Israel.
“If every settlement were gone, would peace be possible?” Wolpe asked Beinart.
Beinart responded that while he believes “100 percent” of Palestinians wish Israel had never been created, he also believes most Palestinians would accept a neighboring Jewish state, “because they are suffering so much” under the status quo.
Suissa disagreed, arguing that even without Israeli settlements, the Palestinians are holding out for a right of return—a deal for millions of Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the diaspora to reclaim property in Israel, including refugees from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, and also their descendants.
“If they compromise on the right of return, that means they are accepting the legitimacy of the Jewish State,” Suissa said, adding that such acceptance is necessary for a peaceful two-state solution.
The debate winded down with a discussion of the Gaza Strip, the land Israel unilaterally withdrew from in 2005 only to see Hamas, a terrorist group, be elected to power and launch thousands of rockets at southern Israel.
For years, Israel and Egypt have enforced a blockade on Gaza, making movement and economic trade difficult, even with the numerous smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Egypt.
“When you have an economic policy that destroys the individual business class in Gaza—that could’ve been the opposition to Hamas—and you allow Hamas to take complete control of the economy in Gaza,” Beinart said. “You play into Hamas’s hands.”
Suissa, responding with incredulity, said, “For Peter to sit here and blame Israel for the situation in Gaza is beyond unfair.”
Although most of the crowd appeared to support Suissa’s point of view, there was a diversity of opinion throughout the evening.
“I felt like I was in some sort of Alice in Wonderland,” said Yigal Arens, likening the plight of the Palestinians to black Americans living under Jim Crow. “The closest thing to this would have been white leaders in the southern U.S. during the fight for civil rights arguing about what was the best way to preserve white privilege.”
“I’m probably more of a Suissa person,” said Mark Mendelsohn. “This is the first time I heard Beinart.”
“I actually thought he came across more Jewish and supportive of Israel than I thought he would,” Mendelsohn said.