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Why John Podhoretz Stormed Off an Israel Panel Last Night

Handout/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The community of politically attuned Jewish people on the Internet—I like to call us the shtetlsphere—was roiled last night by reports coming out of 92nd Street Y (it’s like our Madison Square Garden). John Podhoretz, editor of the Jewish conservative monthly Commentary, walked off the stage during a discussion about Israel in the face of a hostile crowd and after accusing moderator Jane Eisner, editor of the weekly Jewish newspaper The Forward, of raising her hands to him. In many respects, the incident seems to have been, as Podhoretz termed it, “the least significant tempest-in-a-teapot in the history of world Jewry.” But it revealed some interesting tendencies about the way conservative American Jews discuss Israel and Jewishness.

There are conflicting accounts of what exactly went down (Eisner’s; Podhoretz's; Haaretz's). Here is a rough approximation (I wasn’t there, and 92Y hasn’t made video available). The biggest disagreements of the night were between Podhoretz and Jeremy Ben-Ami, the head of the liberal Zionist group J Street, whom I interviewed several months ago. Subjects included the Swarthmore College Hillel’s decision to buck national Hillel rules and declare itself “open” to all Israel viewpoints, including anti-Zionist ones, and the recent Pew Research survey that showed increased assimilation, including intermarriage, among American Jews.

The climax came when an audience member asked about the American Studies Association’s recent decision to boycott Israel. Ben-Ami, whose group opposes the movement known as Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, condemned the boycott, and then also condemned “Israeli government policies that, in his view, make it difficult for some Americans to believe Israel really does want peace with the Palestinians” (Eisner’s words). Podhoretz took Ben-Ami to task, accusing him of, in Eisner’s paraphrase, “blaming the victim.” The crowd booed. Podhoretz “encouraged them” (says Eisner) and/or sarcastically suggested they hiss as well (says Podhoretz—this sounds more plausible to me). Podhoretz then wagged his finger at Ben-Ami “in a manner threatening and condescending,” according to Eisner, a characterization Podhoretz deemed ludicrous while admitting that “some wagging took place.” Next, Eisner put up her hands to Podhoretz—according to Eisner, in an effort to calm him; according to Podhoretz, in an effort to “shush” him. Podhoretz said, “Don’t put your hand up to me like that,” and walked off the stage and left (according to Haaretz). The panel continued a little longer. “Maybe,” Eisner concluded, “it was just about one rude, angry man.”

So, okay. Tempers flared. Podhoretz admitted as much, insisting he had had a “bad night” after a “long day.” (It’s worth noting, as someone who has been on the other end of Twitter spats with him, that this is Podhoretz’ feuding M.O.: Slowly build into a climactic rage, and then, hours or a day later, apologize or at least walk it back.) It strains credulity, as Eisner suggests, that Podhoretz would feel physically threatened by her: “I am physically much, much smaller,” she noted. Of course, that suggests that his account—that he felt not threatened, but silenced—is the one we should believe.

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.

But the sense of marginalization felt by Podhoretz and other Jewish American conservatives is strikingly anachronistic. One can refuse to downplay the threats Israel faces and still suggest that in Israel’s dealings with the Palestinians, it is not the only, or even primary, victim. And as for American Jews, we have never had it so good. Yet you would not know it to read Commentary, which interpreted the Swarthmore Hillel’s decision to allow anti-Zionist groups as a lesson “that inclusiveness for its own sake is a trap, not a formula for a stronger community,” and which saw the Pew survey as heralding something very like the disappearance of a real American Jewish community. And you would not know it to hear Podhoretz characterize criticism of Israeli government policies—following a denunciation of a boycott against that government—as “blaming the victim.”

Jews are hardly victims anymore. While I wish that the Jews of Israel (and also of countries like France and Sweden) were more secure, Jews’ security in 2013 would have been inconceivable to Jews at almost any other time in human history. As they discuss issues of vital importance to the community, American Jews ought to be vigilant but also realistic, with a sense of how far we have come and how good things have gotten. This means fairly criticizing Israeli government policies, tolerating anti-Zionist groups at campus Hillels, and even withstanding ugly boos at a panel stacked against you. The most historically aberrant and therefore troubling thing that happened last night is that a Jew declined to continue an argument.

An earlier version of this post inaccurately identified Commentary as a quarterly.