J-Pod’s Temper Tantrum

On Monday night, John Podhoretz stormed out of a debate in New York on what it means to be “pro-Israel”, following a question about the American Studies Association’s decision to participate in an academic boycott of the Jewish state:

The discussion touched on the recent Pew survey of American Jewry, the decision by the Hillel at Swarthmore College to include anti-Zionists among its invited speakers and other much-debated recent events. But after an audience member asked the panelists’ opinions of the boycott vote, things went beyond the merely testy. Mr. Ben-Ami criticized the boycott, but then turned the discussion to Israeli policies that, in his view, made it difficult for some Americans to believe that Israel really did want peace with the Palestinians. Mr. Podhoretz then accused Mr. Ben-Ami of blaming Israel for the boycott. When some audience members started booing, Mr.Podhoretz suggested they also hiss, before abruptly leaving the stage in a move that, according to Ha’aretz, “took the debate-hardened audience entirely by surprise.”

And that wasn’t all. Within an hour, the event’s moderator, Jane Eisner, editor of The Jewish Daily Forward, had taken to the Forward’s blog to write that Mr. Podhoretz had, “mystifyingly,” provoked the audience into hissing him before “wagging his finger at Ben-Ami in a manner at once threatening and condescending.” “I was stunned by what I can only describe as a temper tantrum,” she said, calling Mr. Podhoretz “a rude, angry man.”

Fisher explains why these conversations can get so sensitive:

The controversy was not over the boycott itself, or the merits of the “BDS Movement,” which advocates boycotts, divestment and sanctions to change the Israeli government’s behavior with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The most telling fact of this incident is that all four people on stage agreed about the issue at hand: that BDS campaigns such as the academic boycott are harmful and counterproductive. But if they agreed, why did they argue so vehemently that one of the participants marched off mid-event? …

In debates about Israel, disagreements that might seem minor on the surface – the “tyranny of small differences,” as one Israel-watcher put it to me – are often something much graver. If you know what to watch for, you can observe somber, serious people like these four panelists talk around underlying issues so sensitive they are rarely addressed or even acknowledged. Issues that are almost always below the surface, but too deep to come out except in moments of the most heated candor, often surprising even the people naming them.

Marc Tracy looks into J-Pod’s Jewish soul:

Here’s my guess: Podhoretz reacted as he did because he felt like a victim—in this case, of being inappropriately silenced, by the crowd and by the moderator. And here’s the thing: Podhoretz’ reaction was so confusing to many observers because most people do not share Podhoretz’ sense of himself and other Jews as victims.

Let me explain. Podhoretz and other Jewish American conservatives traffic in feelings of victimhood and marginalization: of a community under threat. It is hard to blame them, since historically this has been the default mode of the Jewish people. And even today, things could be better for the Jews of Israel, who are not infrequently terrorized by rockets that target civilians and must deal with an officially anti-Semitic and bordering-on-nuclear Iran. Moreover, Podhoretz’s fairly unique role as the Upper West Side’s resident neoconservative must only exacerbate any personal feelings of victimhood.

JPod should get over it – because he is so obviously not a victim of anything. But it’s another reminder that on this topic, the usual rules of robust debate do not always apply. Tough criticism of Israel is, in my experience, almost reflexively felt by many Jewish Americans to be anti-Semitic until proven otherwise, even if it isn’t. Many know that’s unfair, and have the self-restraint not to go there. But they still feel the sting, which makes debating this topic even more emotionally fraught than many others. It has pained me a great deal over the last few years and I wish I knew how to get past it.

But developing a thick skin is critical to being a minority in debate with a large majority. In debating gay issues over the years – sometimes in extremely hostile environments – I learned I just had to get over the victimhood I would occasionally feel. First, it didn’t help you get anywhere. It just perpetuated the gulf of mutual distrust and ignorance I was trying to bridge. Second, I was personally so very privileged in many other respects, I’d have had to gussy up some real lefty self-righteousness to feel I was a victim of anything, and I just couldn’t quite hack it. Last: I had to take yes for an answer at some point. But for JPod, it isn’t enough of a yes to live in a country that has a vibrant, indispensable and treasured Jewish community, and remains solidly committed to defending the Jewish state in its original boundaries. So many other litmus tests have to be passed, so many neoconservative orthodoxies have to be upheld and so many facts ignored – for him to feel that he isn’t a victim. And at some point, that has to be his problem, and not ours.