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JJ Goldbeg with moderator Howard Morry


by Roving WJR Reporter, December 4 2016


Debates involving left wing versus right wing approaches to Israel and Jewish issues are so omnipresent that they can become stale, even to those who are highly interested in Israel and the Jewish world. Often the debate is highly polarized, there is little to no common ground, and  the debate descends into anger and personal insults, with accusations of “fascist” and “self-hating jew”  not being uncommon.


So it was a pleasant surprise to attend  a debate between the left and the right on Israel that at times was able to transcend the boiler plate usually found in such debates. On November 16th, the Rady JCC, as part of Tarbut Festival of Jewish Culture,  held a discussion entitled “Left versus Right, the Battle for Israel’s Soul” which took place before a large crowd in the Berney Theatre. It featured two highly knowledgeable speakers, JJ Goldberg, editor-at -large of the Forward representing the left, and Jonathan Tobin, online editor of  Commentary  representing the right . 



Goldberg has written extensively about Israel and the Jewish world, lived and worked in Israel in the 1970’s, where he became fluent in Hebrew. He also has a Canadian connection, having done a BA in Jewish and Islamic studies at McGill University. Tobin  was the editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia for 10 years, prior to being a chief political blogger at Commentary magazine. 



According to Tobin the two have known each other for many years, and are friends, which may account for the civil tone of the debate, and the fact that the two, while clearly occupying different poles of the political spectrum, did manage to find a number of areas of commonality. The debate was one of a series the two men were conducting across North America, and Goldberg was present by  live stream since he unfortunately had problems with flight arrangements.



The event was ably moderated by Howard Morry, and was constructed to allow the two political analysts to comment on a series issues. Here are the three issues I found to be most significant:   


1)The implication of the election of Donald Trump:


Goldberg and Tobin agreed that in many ways Trump was an unknown, who had espoused vague and contradictory policies in many areas, including Israel. Goldberg felt relations would definitely be better between Trump and Netanyahu than they were with Obama. He felt concern among American Jews about Trumps domestic and social policies was perhaps premature, but that there were “danger signs.”



Tobin weighed in on the controversy surrounding Steve Bannon, Trumps newly appointed Senior Counselor, and former Executive Chair of Breitbart News. He seemed to damn him with faint praise, asking the question “is Steve Bannon an anti-Semite?”, and answering “we don’t know”. He did note however that Breitbart was generally pro-Israel. He described Trump as a “nativist neo-isolationist”,  with bad ideas” who would hopefully be restrained by others in his administration. Tobin did offer the possibility that Trump would be tougher on Iran, but also pointed out the contradiction of Trump wanting to draw closer to Russian, and even Assad, both allies of Iran. One positive he felt would possibly come from a Trump administration was that the American State Department would finally be forced to abandon its notion that Israel (by virtue of its role in the Israel-Palestinian conflict) was central to, and the cause of, all the problems in the Middle East, and that it needed to be saved from itself by the US. (I’m not holding my breath for that one.) To give an idea of the tenor of the debate, when Goldberg was given an opportunity to rebut, he stated “most of what Jonathan just said I agree with.”



b)The role of International Pressure in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the possibility of peaceful coexistence within a two state solution:


Here the two diverged, with Tobin noting that the Palestinian culture and Palestinian leadership has never really accepted the idea of a Jewish state in the Middle East, and that although it is not optimal, the status quo is preferable to something that could be worse. He agreed a two state solution was the rational solution, but that the conflict did not always proceed along rational lines, and that the Palestinians’ intransigence and ambivalence had prevented it from becoming a reality.




Goldberg argued forcefully that the Palestinians had in fact agreed to a Jewish State (although agreeing only to the 1947 partition plan, 40 years later in 1988, and to the 1949 borders in 1993 as part of the Oslo accords). He also cited the Saudi Arab Peace Plan, which accepted the pre-1967 borders, (but was also tied to satisfying the claims of the Palestinian refugees, and did not acknowledge the Jewish settlement blocs in and around Jerusalem and the Gush Etzion bloc, which no Israeli government will agree to return.) He also cited unnamed sources well placed inside the Israeli military and intelligence community to argue that holding on to the territories was a theological imperative and not a military or strategic one.




Tobin characterized the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as anti-Zionist and anti-semitic, whereas Goldberg had a more nuanced approach, acknowledging anti-zionist aspects to BDS, but also holding out that some of its proponents were merely targeting the settlements, and not Israel in total.




c) Whose side is time on in the conflict?


I found this one of the more interesting of the questions. Goldberg argued that time is on the sides of the Palestinians, citing two demographic trends. Firstly, because the Palestinian population will soon surpass the Jewish population in the combined territory of Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, Israel’s continued failure to either cede territory or grant rights (including voting rights) to the Palestinian residents will eventually make Israel into a non-democratic Apartheid state. This will erode its legitimacy internationally and within. Secondly, the orthodox population in Israel is growing much faster than the secular. As a result, the ultra-orthodox population doubles as a percentage of the Israeli population every 15 years. These residents generally do not work, pay taxes or serve in the Army. The modern orthodox population do serve in the IDF. However they currently make up a growing percentage of combat unit officers (up to 30% currently) and this may make any eventual evacuation of the territories problematic to impossible.




Tobin countered Goldberg's demographic argument, noting that even in the 1980’s, the specter of an Arab majority in Israel and the territories by the year 2000 was raised, yet never came to pass. He also pointed out that the Jewish birthrate is rising, and that of the Arab population declining . He pointed to the enormous rise in Israel’s military and economic status in the Middle East and the world over the past 68 years.




The two both ended the evening by emphasizing the importance of educating oneself about the issues, including listening respectfully to arguments from those on the other side of the political spectrum, to “disagree without being disagreeable”. In terms of modelling how such a process might look,  I thought the two did an admirable job, managing to be informative, civil and entertaining while exploring both the views that they held in common and where their viewpoints diverged.






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