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Debate: What does it Mean to be Pro-Israel in 2012?

Jeremy Ben-Ami vs. William Kristol

By Alan Manheim

You would expect towering areas of disagreement in a debate between Jeremy Ben-Ami, head of the liberal leaning J Street and William Kristol, the neoconservative editor of the Weekly Standard, and a board member of the Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI). In fact, the debate held, May 15th, at the B'Nai Jeshurun Synagogue, on the upper west side of Manhattan was newsworthy by their shared views about Israel. Kate Press, the New York City Regional Director of J Street said that "the purpose of the event was to have a conversation of what it is to be Pro-Israel in 2012."

In the debate moderated by Jane Eisner, editor of the Forward, the audience of over six hundred, at times laughed, applauded vigorously for both sides, or screamed out a few views of their own. The area of agreement was both men stating that there should be a two state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, a democratic Jewish, Israel, living in peace beside an independent Palestinian State.

It also was remarkable that Mr. Kristol agreed that President Obama's policy toward Israel has moved more in tune with his own and also that of the likely Republican candidate, Mitt Romney. The other areas of agreement were the undeniable facts of Hamas, being an agent of terrorism and the danger of Iran's nuclear capability. The differences went to the heart of the question of what it means to be pro Israel. The J Street Ben-Ami viewpoint is that legitimate criticism of Israeli settlements and actions of the Israeli government to deny rights to the Palestinians is very appropriate. The Kristol view, as promulgated by the Emergency Committee for Israel is that this type of criticism sends an antiļæ½Israel message and is counterproductive. An underlying message repeatedly stated by Mr. Kristol is that American Jews have no right to try and influence the actions of the Israeli government.

The J Street attitude was that Israel is a Jewish state and represents the interests of all Jews around the world. Israel depends hugely on the support of the world wide Jewish community especially of the United States. And if the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the mistreatment of Palestinians are actions detrimental to peace they should be opposed. Mr. Ben-Ami stated, "Standing by Israel right or wrong is not acceptable. Israel's actions reflect Jewish values". The oppression, denial of rights, and prejudice felt by Jews, historically, and up to the present day, should be reason enough to oppose similar actions by Israel against Palestinians.

Another area of disagreement was the threat of demographics, i.e. more Arab than Jewish population in the contested areas. That fact would create a minority Jewish population subjugating the larger Arab community. Mr. Ben-Ami said that would be an untenable situation. Mr. Kristol's view was that Iran was the bigger danger and Israel can keep the status quo indefinitely. A prediction by Mr. Kristol that Mitt Romney as President would appoint Joe Lieberman, Secretary of State, elicited groans from the audience and a comment from Mr. Ben-Ami, that Israel already has a Lieberman as Foreign Minister.

Israeli journalist Chemi Shalev, writing for Haaretzs'blog, commented, "As an Israeli observer, I must admit I found myself envious of the ability of the two debaters and of their audience to conduct such a potentially volatile political debate in an atmosphere of mutual respect. In Israel, I suspect, such civilized debates may no longer be possible."

The debaters both have roots in the B'Nai Jeshurun and upper west side community. Mr. Ben-Ami took his wife on their first date to one of the synagogues events, and Mr. Kristol's family also participated in synagogue activities. And both went to Collegiate, the local prep school.

The atmosphere between the men was adversarial with a good touch of conviviality and fairness. Mr. Kristol remarked that he "hoped J Street flourished as an organization", and then after a short pause added, "as long as it had no affect on United States policy toward Israel".

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