It was the first night of Hanukka, and the “Great Debate” in Tel Aviv on Sunday between Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and Peter Beinart posed the basic question: What will ensure Israel’s commonwealth today, as what occurred more than 2,000 years ago when the Maccabees defeated the Hellenist Greeks? Up first, American Jewish author, political writer, and professor at CUNY, Peter Beinart, said that for Israel to survive, it must eschew the extreme religious nationalism that to some degree motivated the Maccabees.
“The Hanukka story is a very inspiring idea in our time because it’s a Zionist story,” The Crisis of Zionism author told a packed hall at the David Intercontinental Hotel at the Globes Israel Business Conference, hosted in conjunction with Tel Aviv International Salon and StandWithUs.
“The Maccabees were fighting for national liberation – no question about that, and it was an inspiring fight but they were not fighting for religious freedom for all people,” Beinart said.
The Maccabean achievement did not sustain because of internal, moral corruption, Beinart said – a corruption he compares to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank, “where the vast majority of people lack citizenship, live under military law, and don’t have the right to vote in a government that controls their lives.”
Representing the more conservative side, Boteach, a bestselling author on Jewish ethics, columnist, and a media personality, shot back with fiery, rabbinic polemics that contrasted with Beinart’s cool, academic demeanor.
Both of them went for those tweetables.
“A Maccabee is a proud honor,” Boteach said, going on to cite IDF soldiers, pro-Israel activists and a “fighter for the independence of his or her people” as the modern Maccabees.
Beinart made clear that he is a staunch Zionist and defender of Israel – but a “democratic Israel” within the “Green Line.” For this reason, Beinart supports a boycott of settlement goods, a measure Boteach called “BDS Light,” and which has drawn fire from many in the pro-Israel community.
Decrying the absence of Palestinian human rights under Hamas, Boteach accused Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of being kleptocratic, and he accused Beinart of being bothered more by his “Jewish conscience” than the absence of Palestinian democracy.
“Israel doesn’t exist to make you feel better about yourself,” Boteach told Beinart, accusing his opponent of criticizing Israel disproportionately.
Attacks were passionate yet intermingled with a friendly repartee that comes from Beinart and Boteach’s history; Boteach served as rabbi at Oxford University when Beinart was a Rhodes Scholar. They had debated each other last year as well at Columbia University.
The 800-strong Tel Aviv audience was largely split, if applause can be the judge.
Their opposing views on Israel’s policies in the West Bank – or, in Boteach’s view, the Biblical heartland of Judea and Samaria – infused their musing on Israel’s struggle with terrorism and strategies for fighting BDS.
“You have a younger generation of Palestinians that believe they have nothing to lose,” said Beinart of the latest wave of violence.
“If we want to defeat Hamas and we want to defeat those people who are committing these terrible, terrible acts around Israel we have to show the Palestinians that there is a nonviolent way of achieving the basic rights that we would want for ourselves.”
“There is no justification,” Boteach lashed back, accusing Beinart of displaying “the soft bigotry of low expectations” and “blaming the victim.”
Echoing US Secretary of State John Kerry’s warning this week at the Saban Forum that a diplomatic deadlock may lead to a binational state, Beinart insisted the twostate policy is the only way out.
“You need to maintain the possibility of a Palestinian state one day,” Beinart said.
A viable path to Palestinian statehood, he added, is what poses the real threat to anti-Israel BDS movement.
Boteach countered that anti-Semitism was an underlying motive for the BDS movement and for Palestinian terrorism, as well.
“They have no interest in Palestinian rights,” Boteach said of BDS. “They have an interest in the economic destruction of the State of Israel.”
While the debate may have been as fierce as that between the Maccabees and Hellenist Jews, in what may be a Hanukka miracle, the intellectual warriors found common ground on some issues: the Syrian plight, the need to war against ISIS, and engaging college students with Israel.
“I think the greatest crisis we face on college campuses is Jewish illiteracy,” Beinart said. He thought that apathy towards Israel came from apathy towards Judaism.
“I endorse what he said about strengthening Jewish identity,” Boteach said.
And when Boteach challenged Beinart about why he won’t boycott Apple products for being made in China, which occupies Tibet, Beinart conceded he was foremost concerned with the Jewish people.
Does that make him an extreme nationalist, a Maccabee? And with this, Beinart closed: “This State and this people matters more to me.”