A much-anticipated panel discussion entitled “Zionism Today” drew large crowds to the midtown campus on Tuesday evening, March 11th. Sponsored in large part by the Israel Club and the Soldiers in Exile Club, the panel was advertised as a debate between “three Jews, three stories, three perspectives.” The three Jews featured were Danny Ayalon, Israel’s former ambassador to the U.S. and Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder and executive director of J Street, and Yehudah HaKohen, founder and director of Alternative Action. Much of the buzz surrounding the event concerned the decision to include J Street on the panel. The event marks the first time that the liberal advocacy group often accused of being more pro-Palestinian than Pro-Israel has been invited to Yeshiva University.
For the organizers of the event, the desire to invite panelists from very different points on the political spectrum created significant logistical challenges. Yitz Eichenstein, a student at RIETS and one of the main organizers of the panel, described the difficulty of convincing the YU administration to permit J Street to attend. Though he eventually met with success, the YU administration would not allow J Street to come alone because of a “concern about the outcome” and also insisted that the event not be open to the public. Even after the panelists were approved, Eichenstein still faced backlash from YU students, and some of the posters advertising the event on campus were defaced.
Yaacov Sultan, a sophomore at YC and the moderator of the panel, described the security challenges of the event. (This writer was stopped more than once to show YU ID in the 245 buildings and security guards were stationed throughout the building during the event). Despite the difficulty, Sultan congratulated security for taking the “right measures” to ensure that the panel ran smoothly and was not disrupted by protestors.
The debate was comprised of three segments, the first of which was a series of general questions answered by each of the panelists. Key topics in this part of the debate included the definition of Zionism, the viability of a two-state solution, and the proper role of both the U.S. and American Jewish community in Israeli politics. J Street’s Ben-Ami remarked that he was pleasantly surprised to find that he so closely agreed with the more right-wing Ambassador Ayalon’s approach to the two-state solution (both presented it as the primary vehicle for peace in the Middle East). HaKohen denounced the two-state solution, contending that it satisfies no one and forces Israel to give back land which is “the cradle of Jewish civilization.” He also condemned Ayalon and Ben-Ami’s chumminess with the US, claiming that Israel is a Western satellite and vassal and that it is “ridiculous” for Israel to align itself with the West instead of embracing its “authentic Semitic identity.”
“We are a Middle Eastern country trying to be Western and making a fool of ourselves in the process,” he added later on in the debate.
In the second segment of the debate, each panelist was given the opportunity to ask the other two panelists a question. HaKohen pressed Ben-Ami to justify his support of the two-state solution despite a legacy fraught with failure, and Ben-Ami took Ayalon to task for supporting the two-state solution while still advocating for the building of settlements. Ayalon and HaKohen also clashed over the legitimacy of the “Palestinian narrative,” which Ayalon unequivocally deemed false and which HaKohen insisted must be given attention to and regarded sympathetically.
“I will never accept the Palestinian narrative,” Ayalon said in response to HaKohen.
The debate culminated with a series of question from the audience as well as final remarks by each of the panelists.
In his closing remarks, J Street’s Ben-Ami announced that all students interested in speaking to him further and learning more about J Street should follow him to Tiberias for a post-panel meeting.
Elisheva Rabinovich (’16) commented that she was “very impressed that YU was willing to host this sort of event and to discuss these issues in a public setting.” A Stern graduate who was in attendance declined to comment publicly because of how controversial she found the event to be.
A recording of the event is scheduled to be posted within the next few days.