Monday, January 25, 2010
The Great Debate
I watched the first 10 minutes of this debate between Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz and J Street's Jeremy Ben Ami (moderated by Eliot Spitzer), but got bored relatively quickly. Why? Because, try as they might, they don't disagree about much. What disputes they have are nearly invariable about either focus or degree, rarely about substance. So both support two-states, both oppose the settlements, both support some division of Jerusalem.
In a sense, this is why I am very surprised by the amount of controversy J Street has managed to gin up. It's quite apparent here that Professor Dershowitz really wants to accentuate the differences between his positions and those of Mr. Ben Ami; it is equally clear that they really just aren't that far apart. The dissonance, I think, comes from popular misunderstandings both of J Street and the broader pro-Israel community: the former is often portrayed as much further to left than it is, the latter, much further to the right. And this debate helps illustrate just how facile those assumptions are. Professor Dershowitz is often used as a bogey-man for the broke-no-criticism-of-Israel wing, but as he notes he is a longstanding critic of several key Israeli policies (like the settlements). And if J Street can't be considered mainstream after essentially being in cheerful agreement with most of Alan Dershowitz's positions, what would establish it?
Ultimately, J Street isn't out of the mainstream of Jewish policy positions on Israel because there remains a relatively robust center-left consensus amongst American Jews regarding Israel, one that's been well represented amongst all the fixtures of American Israel-commentators. This debate simply dramatized the effect.