Jonathan Tobin and J.J. Goldberg have been sparring in print and in person for years.
Mr. Tobin is a man of the right: After editing Jewish newspapers in Connecticut and Philadelphia, he did similar work for Commentary for several years, and he now is the opinion editor for JNS.org. Mr. Goldberg is a man of the left: He was editor of the Forward, where he now is a regular columnist.
The past few months, the two editors have been traveling together, taking their debate to synagogues, and they say to an audience eager to see that arguments can be civil. Their presentation, “Left vs. Right: The Battle for Israel’s Soul,” is coming to Paramus next Sunday night. (See box.)
“It’s been a fascinating experience traveling the country,” Mr. Tobin said. “It’s given us both a lot of insight into what people are thinking about the dysfunction in American politics and Jewish discourse.
“We’re living in a sort of bifurcated society right now. People read and listen and watch different media. They have different sets of facts as well as different sets of opinions, and never the twain shall meet. Within the Jewish world we tend to do the same to each other, especially with regard to debates about Israel. Most of the debate isn’t generally for the sake of heaven, between two people who want something good but disagree on how to get there. It’s a debate between one side calling the other fascists and oppressors and the other side calling the other self-hating Jews.”
His debate with Mr. Goldberg, by contrast, “is a chance to hear two people disagree passionately about a great deal, but there’s no name calling,” Mr. Tobin said. “It’s argument, not merely assertion. It’s done in an affectionate way.”
Audiences seem to appreciate their tone.
“When you model civil behavior, you get civil behavior back,” he said. “People want to be told to behave, to be civil. When you show them how it’s possible to have a civil debate even when talking about difficult issues, they respond in kind. It might seem an unremarkable thing to have a civil debate, but it’s not unremarkable in 2017. The manner in which our program is done is something the community needs to focus on.”
As for the actual content of the debate, “We are given four basic questions about Trump, about the peace process, about Israel and the world, and about BDS,” Mr. Tobin said. “We go back and forth on these different questions, and then we have questions from the audience.
“We’ve both been happily surprised by how warmly the program is received,” he said. “It’s something they’re not getting elsewhere. It’s not what they’re seeing on TV, or in their own lives, where people on social media are defriending each other and flaming each other out.
“Even as they are divided, they want to be reassured that the things that unite us are greater than what divides us,” he said.
With the duo expecting to log 40 debates by the end of May, and future dates being scheduled for the fall, has the argument had an impact on the disputants?
“No, we haven’t changed each other’s minds,” Mr. Tobin said. “We’ve sharpened each other’s arguments. We take each other seriously. We’ve been listening to each other and debating each for many years. That doesn’t mean we’ll fall to our knees and say we’ve seen the light and changed our minds. That’s not going to happen for either of us. But if there’s a weakness in each other’s arguments, we’re going to find it. We’re not persuading each other, but holding each other accountable.
“We’re not two ideologues, we’re two journalists. We’re tethered to reality, we live in the real world, we write about it, we report about it, we’re grounded in what’s going on and what actually happens.”
“There are subtle changes to our positions,” Mr. Goldberg said, that result from listening to each other’s arguments. “But part of our job is to contrast our views. We have to stick to our guns regardless. What happens more is we learn how each other thinks and we start stealing each other’s lines.”
The tour has taken Mr. Goldberg to places in America he has never been before, including Birmingham, Louisville, and Omaha. “It’s not all homogenous,” he said. “The towns are more different from each other than you might think. We did four different gigs in Los Angeles and they were each very different.”
So what do American Jews think about Donald Trump?
“On the whole, they don’t like him,” Mr. Goldberg said. “To the point where we’ve been in congregations where the rabbi says that they have problems. In the fall, people found they were being ostracized if their neighbors found they were voting for Trump. Parents of preschoolers were telling their kids not to tell their friends how their parents voted. A rabbi told us he was counseling several married couples who were on the verge of breaking up because they voted differently.
“You say something about Trump one way or the other, most of the people start clapping. It really gets a rise out of them. The rest of them, a minority, scowl and get mad again,” he said.
Have American Jews ever been this divided before?
“When I was living in Los Angeles, working for Workmen’s Circle, people would tell stories about the 1920s, when communists and socialists in the Jewish community broke over the Russian revolution,” Mr. Goldberg said. “They had gang fights over who would control a building in Detroit. They would fight with lead pipes and chains. I don’t think anybody’s fighting with lead pipes and chains this year.”
Mr. Goldberg said he offers “a message that most people don’t hear all the time: Peace is possible, and Israel would be safer with a Palestinian state than without one.
“The general image of the Israeli peace movement is that they favor the Palestinians over the Israelis, that it’s primarily driven by Palestinian rights,” he said. “I make the case that the main issue is what will keep Israelis safer. I don’t try to convince them that Palestinians are suffering. The case I make is that separation is necessary because the Palestinians don’t like Israel. There are 6.5 million Israeli Jews, 2 million Israeli Arabs, and 4.5 or 5 million Palestinians in the territories. They’re pretty much equal numbers. You’ve got more than 4 million people under Israeli control who don’t want to be.”
Mr. Tobin, however, argued that “if it were a matter of making peace with the Saudis, Israel is open to it. The relations with the Saudis are oddly cordial these days. The problem is the Palestinians and Palestinian political culture, which is still rooted in the century-old war against Zionism.
“It’s very clear Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has neither the will nor the ability to make peace,” Mr. Tobin said. “That’s why there’s no confidence in the peace process. Even the leaders of the two opposition parties to Netanyahu say their idea is to basically wait 10 or 20 years, and then the Palestinians will be ready.”
But Mr. Goldberg argues that Israel’s leading security experts disagree with those politicians, and that an agreement with the Palestinians is possible.
“The Israelis’ refusal to believe what the security establishment tells them is very similar to some Americans’ refusal to believe what the scientists tell them about global warming,” Mr. Goldberg said. “In both cases they’re matters of life and death, and in both cases the respective experts are pulling their hair out right now.”
Who: J.J. Goldberg and Jonathan Tobin
What: Debate, “Left vs. Right: The Battle for Israel’s Soul”
When: 6:15 p.m., Sunday, May 7
Where: Jewish Community Center of Paramus / Congregation Beth Tikvah, E. 304 Midland Avenue, Paramus