Grumpy Old Man: Smackdown in midtown

The recent Jerusalem Post Conference in New York showed us that we’re talking at each other, not to each other.

A young Ariel Sharon 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Handout .)
A young Ariel Sharon 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Handout .)
As a young reporter I used to enjoy attending conferences and seminars on issues of strategic importance.
Inevitably, each of the speakers was a major player in his or her area of expertise, and many of those listening were movers and shakers from academia, the media, government service and the military and security spheres. On occasion, some of the whispered conversations in the audience were even more interesting and revealing than what was being said from the dais.
One of the most fascinating of these gatherings was a conference at Tel Aviv University marking one of the early anniversaries of the 1982 Lebanon War.
Known more widely back then as Operation Peace for Galilee, it had been highly controversial from the get-go. The motivations for its launch were suspect, and some of its conduct was less than brilliant. There seemed to have been mysterious agreements and understandings reached with the Lebanese Christians, and defense minister Ariel Sharon, always a maverick and something of a loner, withheld crucial information from cabinet colleagues, including prime minister Menachem Begin.
Even more controversial was the IDF’s complicated and costly presence in Lebanon following that war – a quagmire that ultimately lasted for 18 years and came to be referred to by many, rightly or wrongly, as Israel’s Vietnam.
The main speaker was Sharon himself, now a lesser minister in the cabinet owing to the findings of the Kahan Commission, which had been established in the wake of the Phalangist massacres at Sabra and Shatilla. There was a palpable tension in the hall as he strode to the podium, and he was able to get only a few words out before Meir Pa’il, a respected military historian and an outspoken former left-wing Knesset member sitting almost directly behind me, began to berate him.
I have been unable to find my notes from that conference, but I clearly remember the tone of Pa’il’s lengthy harangue, the anger and the bile, and how Sharon – shifting his considerable weight from one leg to the other, shuffling the pages of his text and generally looking like a bored truant being chewed out yet again by the principal – let him go on, as was his way when interrupted by fuming, verbose opponents, which is to say quite often throughout his political career.
And I clearly remember the sense of unease and even embarrassment among the hundreds of highly accomplished people in the audience, many of them colleagues and friends of Pa’il’s who surely understood and even agreed with him yet soon began begging him to let Sharon have his say. This was not, after all, the way professionals gathered to discuss the burning issues of the day.
LAST MONTH, at a hotel in midtown Manhattan, a gathering of a slightly different sort took place. Each of the speakers and panelists at the second annual Jerusalem Post Conference was or had been a major player in his or her field. As for the audience, while some might have come to learn something new or earnestly chew on beliefs that were not their own, others clearly came only to hear things that would affirm their existing opinions.
There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. The conference was being put on by a newspaper, not a think tank, and as this particular newspaper can be called center-right in its outlook, it didn’t take a clairvoyant to know that at least some of those it could motivate to fork over a notinconsiderable sum for a one-day event that had the word “fighting” in its title might be, well, pugnaciously partial.
From all the reports, the loudest and most sustained cheers were lavished on Post columnist Caroline B. Glick, who is known as much for her scorched-earth approach to commentary (and leftists) as she is for the commentary itself, and believes the peace process is a waste of time. The loudest and most sustained jeers were heaved at former prime minister Ehud Olmert and law professor Alan M. Dershowitz, who both spoke about the importance of striving for peace.
Olmert seemed to enjoy the adversity.
And why not? For years the man has been looking down the maw of prison time yet has managed to wiggle his way out of the worst of the many criminal proceedings against him. You think he can’t take a chorus of catcalls in some midtown ballroom? Besides, there probably weren’t that many Israeli voters there, so why would he care? Dershowitz, who tangled with Glick at the conference, is another story. For a man who dared to defend O.J. Simpson, you might think he’d have thicker skin.
Didn’t he understand that a lot of the people at a Jerusalem Post conference might already be well beyond sentiments about two-state solutions and peace partners, and not at all in the mood to countenance talk of compromise and entreaties for Palestinian gestures? In a Post op-ed after the conference, Dershowitz cited the journalist J.J. Goldberg, who described the New York gathering partly as a “raucous far-right pep rally.” The law professor finished up by saying, “I will no longer lend my support” to such events.
In her post-conference column, where she, like Dershowitz, related her own version of how things unfolded, Glick invoked the Post’s readers. These readers, she said, “have educated themselves in the realities of Israel and the region and pay attention to those realities.”
WHICH IS not the entire reality.
Readers of the Post, like all people, no matter what their political persuasion, usually educate themselves not so much in realities but in the selection and filtering of these realities, thus developing perceptions that best frame their views. It’s no secret that we tend to turn to news and other media outlets that most closely validate our existing beliefs, tastes and values.
From calling a certain narrative “reality,” it is a short hop to declaring that you are right and everyone who thinks differently is wrong – end of story. Which is the real problem we’re now facing: We no longer talk with one another as much as we talk at one another, and the atmosphere is getting ugly.
It’s a problem, too, because we should realize that there is very little in the way of absolute right and wrong. It’s almost all a matter of priorities, and if we don’t come to understand that for some people settlements are paramount while for others it’s defense and for yet others it’s human and civil rights, and that these priorities provide the center of gravity for their views, we’ll have lost one of the great nuances that should be part of every critical yet fair and open search – not for what is right but for what is wise.
My friend and Post colleague Yaakov Katz, who moderated the New York gathering, wrote in a post-conference op-ed of his own: “The outcome should not scare us. Either we will have our opinions reinforced or we might just become aware of a different and new narrative. Either way, we can only gain. If the Post just told us what we wanted to hear, then what good would it be doing?” I’ll take that one step farther. If we are past the point of debate and interested only in promoting our views while drowning out those of all others, then we as Zionist Jews might as well pack it in because, with the way things are going in this part of the world, now is hardly the time for a smackdown.