Left to right: Nico Slobinsky (CIJA Pacific Region), Rabbi Adam Stein (Beth Israel), Rabbi Andrew Rosenblatt (Schara Tzedeck), speakers J.J. Goldberg and Jonathan S. Tobin, Cynthia Ramsay (Jewish Independent), Rabbi Hannah Dresner (Or Shalom and RAV) and Rabbi Dan Moskovitz (Temple Sholom). (photo by Glen Bullard)
“We have lost the ability to listen to each other. We have lost the ability to credit each other with good intentions when we disagree…. What we must do is somehow regain a sense of community.”
In his response to the last audience question at Left vs. Right: The Battle for Israel’s Soul, Jonathan S. Tobin, editor-in-chief of JNS.org and a contributing writer for National Review, among other publications, went on to say what he hoped the audience would take away from his 90-minute debate with J.J. Goldberg, editor-at-large and senior commentator at the Jewish Daily Forward.
“You have to open yourself up to both sides,” said Tobin. “You have to relearn the ability to listen, to be open. If you agreed with J.J., maybe you should read some of the things that I write… If you agreed with me, read J.J. at the Forward and his column…. It’s not what we’re used to anymore because we live in these social media silos…. It’s what we have to model for our kids. It’s what we have to model for ourselves because, when we listen, when we open ourselves up to ideas that are different from our own, that don’t just confirm what we already thought, we are reminded of something that is always true but we often forget…. That which unites us is still stronger than that which divides us.”
Ten community organizations united to host the Oct. 23 event in the Wosk Auditorium at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver: the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the JCCGV, the Jewish Independent, Ameinu, Or Shalom, Congregation Schara Tzedeck, Congregation Beth Israel, Temple Sholom and the Rabbinical Association of Vancouver (RAV).
In his response to the last question of the night – on how young people could have similar respectful dialogues on Israel, which the speakers broadened to include all community members – Goldberg stressed the importance of having self-doubt. “If you believe the other side is saying something that could bring about the end of the world, the death of the Jewish people, you’re not going to be tolerant. And, as Jonathan says, if you listen, look for the grain of truth, because then you can allow yourself not to shout and scream when you hear something you don’t like, because it’s not the end of the world.”
Rabbi Hannah Dresner, spiritual leader of Or Shalom and head of the RAV, welcomed the approximately 100 people who came to hear Goldberg and Tobin engage in a formal debate on four prepared questions, and then on a handful of questions from the audience. “Our guests hold differing points of view and speak to one another with respect and we would like all to follow their examples,” she said. While there was some audible discomfort from listeners in a couple of instances, it was a model event, made easier by the fact that it featured two journalists who may disagree on the details, but who both agree that Israel has a right to exist and that Israel has a right to defend itself. As well, neither speaker is an ardent supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump – although Tobin gave the president credit for moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and reinstating sanctions against Iran to delay its attainment of nuclear weapons, he criticized Trump’s relationship with Russia. One has to separate Trump the man and his Twitter account from the policies the administration has implemented, said Tobin. “It’s clear,” he said, “that Israel can count on the United States, certainly it can count on this administration to have its back.”
Tobin made these comments in response to the first question of the night, which was about Trump and whether Israel could rely on an “unstable United States as a shield in an unstable Middle East.” Goldberg was more concerned than Tobin, saying that character counts. “Having a president who is lacking in elementary characteristics of personal ethics and grace is a problem,” he said. “It is a problem that this is a president who has no respect or loyalty for America’s allies; and says he’s in love with the dictator in North Korea, who, by the way, does have nuclear bombs; and who can’t say a bad word about the dictator of Russia…. If Canada can’t rely on the United States, and France and Germany and Sweden can’t rely on the United States, how long can Israel rely on the United States?”
Goldberg and Tobin also had opposing views as to the continued relevance of a two-state Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and whether the construction of settlements is an obstacle to peace.
Goldberg pointed to the 2002 Arab League declaration, which outlined the terms under which they would recognize Israel and normalize relations with it; the declaration has been renewed since then and, last year, “Iran voted yes.” He said we believed the Arab countries when, in the 1970s, they were talking about “driving Israel into the sea,” and we should believe them now when they say they would accept Israel. He argued that peace negotiations have not failed but been continually interrupted, giving several examples, including the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Olmert’s having to step down as prime minister when he was indicted on corruption charges.
While a two-state solution is the most rational, said Tobin, he argued that Israelis have made several attempts at peace and have shown their willingness to trade land for peace, but they are rightfully not willing to trade land for terror, which is what Israel got after the withdrawal from Gaza.
On the question of how much world opinion should matter to Israel, both Tobin and Goldberg said it does. Tobin gave examples – such as diplomatic trips to Africa by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu – of how Israel is not isolated, despite an increase in the world of antisemitism disguised as anti-Israel sentiment. The boycott, divestment and sanction (BDS) movement, he said, won’t hurt Israel, but us. “Their target is us – Jews, Jews here,” he said. “We are their target. That’s why resistance against BDS, fighting back against it is, I think, the issue that should unite us, if anything could. It’s not a liberal issue, it’s not a conservative issue, it’s a Jewish issue.”
Goldberg said Israel “pretty much controls events on the ground” – noting that cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces has decreased the number of deaths caused by terrorism significantly – but that the Palestinians “have the advantage in international opinion: they’re the underdogs, they’re the Third World, they’re the people of colour” and they use this advantage “as a way of fighting back against Israel.”
That said, Goldberg contended that Islam aspires to rule the world and there are Muslims who believe that to the extent that they will use violence. However, he added, no matter how right Israel is to defend itself, the optics of a tank shooting at a kid throwing rocks can never “look good on television” and “antisemitism increases, in part, because people are mad at Israel.” Since Diaspora Jews are one with Israel, then they become a target: “An Arab who’s willing to blow up a bus full of children in Haifa, who had nothing to do with this, is certainly willing to blow up a Federation building in Seattle.” World opinion is a problem “because there’s a war going on and it hasn’t ended yet,” he said. “If and when Israel enters into negotiations with the Arab League … one of the things Israel can and must demand is that Saudi Arabia stop teaching the hatred of Jews that it teaches in schools and mosques around the world.”
In response to the question about how Jews should position themselves in “this polarized and hyper-partisan political culture,” Goldberg said, “If we are attached to Israel at a time when our traditional allies on the left, in the liberal world, are souring on Israel, we don’t have to accept that. If the right is becoming more extreme … there are reasons we have our social values and we don’t need to give them up to be friends with the pro-Israel forces on the right.”
Goldberg noted that we often consider antisemitism, but overlook the respect the world holds towards Jews – as evidenced by the number of Nobel Prize winners, and three Jews out of nine justices on the U.S. Supreme Court. He said we must use this respect “not only to advance our own particular interests in defending our brothers and sisters in Israel, but in also defending the things that we believe in and the things that we believe make a better world.”
Tobin, on the other hand, said, “As Jews, we have an issue that should unite us – the survival of the Jewish people, the survival of the Jewish state. That should be a priority. We are probably more divided on it than we are on abortion, as my friend [J.J.] likes to say, but that is still our first obligation. And when we put that aside and instead favour partisanship, our partisan loyalties over that, I think we’re doing a disservice to our community….”
By the end of the night, Goldberg and Tobin fielded nine questions, responding to audience members’ concerns about such issues as the health of Israel’s democracy – Tobin thinks it is not declining, while Goldberg observed that the way in which governments are elected means that a democratically elected government does not always reflect the will of the majority population. They also responded to questions about the lack of leadership on the Israeli left, the impact of the ultra-Orthodox on Israeli society in the long-term, Trump’s popularity in Israel and how we can enable young people to have such discussions as took place that night.