Why I Debate People With Whom I Disagree

JVL Introduction

Peter Beinart recently interviewed Omar Barghouti, ” the most prominent BDS leader in the world”. Remarkably, he was not much criticised by the right for so doing.

However, he has come under great criticism from the left for a discussion he has agreed to participate in with the New Zionist Congress, a group of young Jews who feel their generation is experiencing antisemitism for supporting Israel and who want to unapologetically defend the Jewish state.

Here he responds to the criticism, explaining why he feels it worth debating with people he profoundly disagrees with (and who profoundly disagree with him!).

Thanks to Peter Beinart for permission to repost.

This article was originally published by The Beinart Notebook on Mon 12 Jul 2021. Read the original here.

Why I Debate People With Whom I Disagree

Maybe it’s a sign of the times, but I didn’t get much blowback from the Jewish right about interviewing Barghouti. I did, however, provoke some anger from the left for a debate I’m doing with Newsweek Opinion editor Josh Hammer on July 20 sponsored by a group called New Zionist Congress. New Zionist Congress is a group of young Jews who feel their generation is experiencing anti-Semitism for supporting Israel and want to unapologetically defend the Jewish state. Their board includes some people who don’t like me very much. One of its members last week described my relationship with being Jewish through a rather graphic (I’m tempted to say cutting) analogy to circumcision. Another declared that I am “no longer a *member* of the Jewish people.” (Which should help with day school tuition.) A third has suggested that recent anti-Semitic attacks be labelled “#BeinartPogroms.”

Given these sentiments, I’m not entirely sure why New Zionist Congress wants anything to do with me. But what bothered folks on the left is that I’m having anything to do with them. Leftists offered three arguments against my decision to take part in the debate, all of which are worth taking seriously, even though I disagree.

The first argument is that I’m giving New Zionist Congress legitimacy. The group, it’s true, is quite new and doesn’t have the same prominence as AIPAC or the Anti-Defamation League. But while New Zionist Congress may be fledgling, its perspective is hegemonic, both among American Jewish institutions and in Washington. The number of American synagogues whose rabbis support one equal state—as opposed to a Jewish state—is tiny. In Congress, the only person who takes that position—my position—so far as I know, is Rashida Tlaib. So New Zionist Congress doesn’t need me to give them legitimacy. In America’s corridors of power, Jewish and non-Jewish, it already has legitimacy. The young Jews who invited me are well-positioned to one day lead the American Jewish establishment, and to perpetuate its complicity with Israel’s brutal oppression of Palestinian. I want them to reconsider that path, and the best way to reach as many of them as possible is to participate in an event that they sponsor.

The second argument is that I shouldn’t publicly debate people who are to my right because it doesn’t do any good. Here too, I disagree. (So, evidently, do Noam ChomskyCornel WestEdward SaidMarc Lamont HillYousef MunayyerDiana ButtuOmar Barghouti all of whom have debated right-leaning Zionists on the question of Israel-Palestine.)

I disagree because, for me, public debates and conversations aren’t only valuable because I might make people think differently. They’re also valuable because they might make me think differently. Do I think Josh Hammer is going to change my view on fundamental questions about Israel-Palestine? Probably not. But I might learn more about how people with whom I disagree think, which might help me better formulate my arguments, or force me to investigate questions to which I haven’t previously devoted enough time.

But I also think that, on this issue, I have a shot at changing some people’s minds. It’s not because I have special talents. It’s because, as I’ve written previously, the institutional American Jewish discussion about Israel-Palestine—the one that occurs inside many synagogues, Jewish schools, establishment Jewish institutions, and families, the one many young American Jews grow up with—is a “cocoon.” That means a lot of American Jews grow up not hearing crucial information that undermines the traditional pro-Israel narrative. Present some of that information—about the causes and horrors of the Nakba, for instance—and people may begin a journey in which they reassess what they thought they knew. I’ve seen it happen a lot.

The third argument against participating in the debate is the most compelling. It’s that by doing an event about Israel-Palestine without Palestinians, I perpetuate their exclusion, an exclusion that has been disastrous for US public discourse. That’s a serious concern, which is why I wrote last year that, as a general rule, I wouldn’t do events on Israel-Palestine that include three or more panelists if they don’t include a Palestinian. But I also specified an exception for Jewish organizations like New Zionist Congress. I did so because there is a place for conversations between Jews that deal with Israel-Palestine in the context of Jewish tradition, religion, history, and communal self-interest. Changing Jewish attitudes toward Israel requires, in my experience, reimagining Jewish identity. And so there is a role, in Jewish spaces, for intra-Jewish discussions and debates.

That’s not to say Jewish institutions shouldn’t host Palestinians. Quite the contrary. It’s crucial that they do so, to break open the American Jewish cocoon. But given the overwhelming barriers to bringing in Palestinian speakers, it can sometimes be more effective for me—in those cases when I slip through the cocoon myself—to make a Jewish argument for things like Palestinian refugee return and tell the audience, as I will on July 20, that they need to listen to Palestinians if they want to be educated about Israel-Palestine.

It’s a point I’ve made in virtually every talk I’ve given in a Jewish institution for many years. And I’ve had some success. A few years ago I was invited to speak at Ramaz, one of the most prestigious Orthodox Jewish schools in the country. In my talk, I suggested that the students invite the eminent Columbia University historian Rashid Khalidi to address them, which they did. (Shamefully, the school cancelled Khalidi’s speech, but Ramaz students then sought him out on their own.) Had I rejected Ramaz’s invitation, I doubt they would have invited Khalidi at all.

Beyond these strategic calculations, there’s simply this: When I have the chance to talk to Jews about what Israel is doing in our name, my instinct is to do it. Maybe that comes from my own fears of excommunication. I’m keenly aware that for every person who is telling me to exclude New Zionist Congress, there’s another person telling them to exclude me. Maybe it’s because many of the people I’ve loved most in my life agree with New Zionist Congress. Maybe it’s because I’ve been reminded so many times over the decades of what I don’t know—or what I thought I knew that turned out to be wrong—and as a result I prefer hearing people out to writing them off. It says in Pirkei Avot, “Who is wise? The one who learns from all people.” My bet is that people will be more likely to learn from me if I’m open to learning from them.

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Comments (11)

  • David Hawkins says:

    I support Peter Beinart.
    There is no point in debating with people who you agree with. The point of debate surely is to change minds.
    But if you are going to debate with Zionists then you have to be clear. “Complexity” is a tactic used by Zionists to muddy the waters.
    For me the moral issue is very clear: Israel wouldn’t exist as a predominantly Jewish State but for the Ethnic Cleansing of 1948. Ethnic Cleansing is violent racism and can never be morally justified.

  • Michael Levine says:

    Readers of this post might like to read my book entitled:’Zionism and history: reading the wrong lesson from the persecution of the Jews’.

    In the book I argue that the Zionist movement, started by Theodor Herzl in 1896, has not achieved its aim, namely to end the persecution of the Jews.

    The book is published by the Bristol Radical History Group and can be obtained through its website or on Amazon.

    Michael Levine

  • Jack T says:

    Yes, most definitely have the debate but Peter Beinart would do well to heed the view of Avigail Abarbanel that Zionism is a mental illness. It means they won’t be listening to a word he says and will constantly attempt to drag him off into the long grass to get even the minutest gotcha confirmation of their position. They believe that God is on their side which gives them rights which he does not have and those imaginary rights confer upon them infallibility when it comes to colonising Palestine.

  • Anthony Sperryn says:

    With people like Peter Beinart writing and speaking, we might, one day, see light at the end of the tunnel.

    However, I must say I find the matter somewhat bizarre. I speak as a Christian, who supports Jewish Voice for Labour as best I can, and as one who is ruled by Christ’s teaching, above the mass of subsequent interpreters, with the fundamental requirement to love my neighbour as my self. My knowledge of the Jewish religion is limited, and based on my reading of the Old Testament and very much influenced by the Ten Commandments handed down to Moses.

    On that basis, the whole Zionist concept of the occupation of Palestine, to the absolute exclusion of its previous inhabitants, is, simply, rubbish and, as far as I can tell, incompatible with the Jewish religion.

    However, it does raise the question of why the Jewish people in history were persecuted. It seems to me that not all were, but commercial success and exclusivity might have been a cause of much of it.

    All human beings like to be in some sort of group to give them some sort of identity and, quite frankly, what they get up to is not so different to what goes on in the animal world. Survival of the fittest there is what happens, subject to a degree of cooperation.

    At the present time, we are witnessing the acceleration of a crisis that will encompass the whole world:- the climate crisis. This crisis has, in my view, largely arisen from the current religion of free market fundamentalism, almost universally adopted. It will only be beaten, again in my view, by a ditching of the market religion and the adopting of a high degree of cooperation amongst all sorts of human beings. In this context, the Israel/Palestine thing is an unfortunate and evil side issue, which the God or Gods above can only look on with pity, as they prepare a new flood to wipe it all out, and find a new Noah to start the world afresh.

  • true there is no point debating with people you agree with but there is equally no point in debating with a brick wall – which is what debating with most Zionists is.

    On the day that Khalid Jarrar lost her daughter whilst still being interned without trial and 3 days after Esther Bejarano died (who you ask) is this the most interesting thing to publish?


    This is really an exercise in self promotion. Beinart however does not debate with the anti-Zionist left.

  • George Peel says:

    This has all the shades of Jeremy Corbyn talking to Sin Féin and other political groups, in the 80’s/90’s. Which resulted in the assumption :

    ‘Corbyn supports the PIRA!’

    His riposte has always been :

    “I never met the IRA. I obviously did meet people from Sinn Féin, as indeed I met people from other organisations, and I always made the point that there had to be a dialogue and a peace process.”

    That’s a difficult position to get others to understand, but, nevertheless, a legitimate position.

    It had many similarities, to the position Peter Beinart finds himself in, now.

  • Mike Scott says:

    I also agree with Peter Beinart on this point. We can’t make progress by talking to each other, only by talking to those who disagree with us. The problem I’ve had in the past is getting those who disagree to even engage in a discussion – they understand on some level that their position is unjustifiable, so avoid debate if at all possible.

    It’s also important to show Zionists (and everyone else) that it really is a myth that all Jews support Israel and to explain why it’s actually in the long-term interests of Israeli Jews to support a just solution – which in my view, would be a single and preferably secular state between the river and the sea.

  • Rosa says:

    Excellent article. You might not change someone’s mind, but it might alter their perspective, even if only by the merest degree.

  • Les Hartop says:

    I don’t think most people on the left would have any problem with debating people just because they are Zionist.

    Does the article make the left sound more intolerant than other people ?

    Zionists or fascists who use violence to attack other people’s meetings (and there may be some), then no, in those situations you can consider ‘no platforming’.

    But going into the sanctums of Zionists and putting forward strong arguments in open debate can make people who tend to hear the same views all the time, question, or soften, their convictions… sometimes even some of their leadership.

  • DJ says:

    Meanwhile here in the UK the lsraeli lobby run a mile away from any debate with supporters of Palestinian justice.

  • Kuhnberg says:

    I have just come away from an exchange ( it couldn’t be called a debate, any more than you could call the cry ‘fake news!’ an argument) with two Israelis on Twitter. This ended with one of them accusing me of antisemitism and blood libel, while the second complained that I refused to examine the malign actions of the Palestinians, which apparently justified everything that was done to them. One point where #1 caught me out was when I said that prior to 1948 Jews and Palestinians had been able to live together more or less in peace. This brought down on my head a torrent of outrage centering around the gruesome details if the 1929 killing of Jews in Hebron and the various machinations of the Grand Mufti. Neither of the two was prepared to accept that the treatment of the Palestinians was in any way disproportionate or that Ben Gurion’s Plan Dalet involved the removal of the Palestinians to make way for Zionist settlers and the new state of Israel. Along the way I was told that the Zionists had come up with very reasonable proposals which the Palestinians unreasonably refused to countenance, and that Israel had very generously made Palestine the gift of Gaza.

    So was the exchange a waste of time? Not altogether, since I learned that the IHRA definition can be cited against the argument that the world body of Jews is conterminous with Israel – a claim that according to the IHRA could be seen as antisemitic.

    Those who are used to these exchanges will have come across all these talking points any number of times – I suspect they are taught to Israelis in school. For me that was a depressing realization, since it means that the road to compromise is pretty firmly closed. If Israelis refuse to see anything wrong in what they are doing, how can they ever be persuaded to change their ways? Beats me.

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