Debate questions Israel's viability as free, Jewish

World famous debating forum makes debut in Israel debating whether state can remain Jewish and democratic if it stays on current course.

May 2, 2013 12:48
4 minute read.
Debate questions Israel's viability as free, Jewish

gillerman 224.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )

Intelligence Squared, the world-famous forum for debate, made its debut in Israel at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on Tuesday, serving up the motion that if the country continues on its current course, it cannot remain both a democratic and Jewish state.

Attendees entering the venue gave a preliminary vote for or against the motion, and were polled afterward to track the effect of the debate.

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Most of the audience walked in supporting the motion, at 44 percent, while 26% were against and 30% were undecided.

After the debate, 50% voted for, 37% against, and 13% remained undecided, showing that more people were swayed to be against the motion.

Debating for the motion was Peter Beinart, a senior political writer for The Daily Beast and an associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York. Joining him was former social and Diaspora affairs minister Rabbi Michael Melchior, who currently is the chief rabbi of Norway and a rabbi in Jerusalem.

Debating against the motion was former ambassador Yoram Ettinger, who was the minister for congressional affairs at Israel’s embassy in Washington and a member of the American-Israel Demographic Research Group. Former ambassador to the United Nations Dan Gillerman, current chairman of Gillerman Global, also argued against the motion.

The event was organized by Roxanne Horesh, a London native, who told The Jerusalem Post she wanted to bring the culture of debate to Israel.

Each speaker was given 12 minutes, followed by questions from the audience and concluding statements.

Beinart, who clarified that he is not an Israeli citizen and “is not here to preach from on high,” said a bi-national state “would mean civil war” and that Israel is on its way to such a scenario by destroying any chance for a Palestinian state.

He said that Israel’s Declaration of Independence called for equality but that the situation in the West Bank is not a democracy, because only the Jews living there have full rights, implying apartheid. The situation, he said, “is not a democracy, it is an ethnocracy.”

While Jews can vote in Israeli elections and be tried in civilian courts, Beinart said, Palestinians are tried in military courts which have a higher conviction rate.

“We deserve a state of our own in our land, but to keep Zionism alive we need to keep alive the possibility of a Palestinian state,” he said.

Ettinger opened by noting the naiveté of Westerners about the culture and religion of the Middle East. They do not understand what it takes to survive as a minority in the Muslim-dominated region, he said.

“Non-Muslim entities have been destroyed since Islam came to the region in the 7th century, thus the importance of the mountain ridges [in the West Bank] for defense,” he said.

He said the so-called Arab Spring had turned into an Arab Winter and Israel would be suicidal to give away its territory for an “agreement signed on ice.”

“There is not a single Arab democracy,” he said, and we are being told if we give the Palestinians a state and a chance, everything will be okay, he continued.

He also mentioned the ongoing incitement against Jews and Israel as a barrier to peace.

In the Middle East, “If you don’t eat from the menu, you become part of the menu,” he said.

Ettinger continued that the demographic debate, which many use to try to scare Israel into making concessions based on false assumptions, shows that the Arab birthrate is decreasing while the Jewish one is increasing.

The entire Middle East is undergoing modernization and a decrease in birth rates, he said. The Israeli-Arab birthrate has dropped substantially over the years and is around 3.5 births per woman, while the Jewish birthrate is at 3 births per woman.

At the time of the first Zionists, he said, Jews only made up 9% of the population of the entire Land of Israel, and in David Ben-Gurion’s time it was 36%. Today, Jews make up 66% of the population in the area, including the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Melchior cited the importance of Israel remaining loyal to Jewish values in retaining the character of the state.

Israel “had always accepted division plans and accepted self-determination of the Arab people,” he continued.

Quoting Rabbi Hillel’s dictum to treat others as you would like to be treated, Melchior said the Palestinians have a right to their own state. Israel was losing its international friends and was at risk of losing a Jewish country, he said.

Israel could “not be done [created] at the expense of another people,” he said.

Gillerman attacked Beinart’s argument and said it was déjà vu.

“I thought I was at the UN, all those threats and recriminations of Israel,” Gillerman said. Israel will “forever be a Jewish and democratic state.”

“People wonder why I am on this side and not the other side,” he continued, “I support the two-state solution,” but we cannot be scared into making policy decisions.

Israel, since its inception, has always sought peace, but you “need leadership on both sides,” he said.

The Post caught up with Dani Dayan after the debate, who is the former Chairman of the Yesha Council (2007-2013). He said it was completely neglected the fact that Beinart and Melchior complained about things that were already done by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and the Palestinians rejected his proposals. So despite the fact that they debated with skill, they were detached from reality, he said.

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