Journalists Jeffrey Goldberg and Bret Stephens, respectively the editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, and contributing columnist at The New York Times, hold considerably different opinions on most political issues. But there is at least one matter in which they are in complete agreement: the state of Israel is in trouble.
One couldn’t be blamed for feeling scared, pessimistic or angry upon leaving Beth Tfiloh April 17 after a lecture, which featured both journalists, and was moderated by U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland).
From the event’s onset, Cardin made clear the dangers Jews are facing around the world. “We see globally a rise of nationalism, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism,” he said, citing NATO allies in Poland, Hungary and Turkey as examples. “And we need to be concerned about the rise of anti-Semitism in the United States.”
After introducing the journalists, both of whom have lived in Israel, Cardin asked them to comment on President Donald Trump’s order to launch cruise missiles in Syria the previous week. Stephens answered first.
“We need to think of Syria as the central terrain in our strategic counter in the conflict of what I call ‘dictatorship incorporated.’ There is a reason why North Korea, China and Russia are so invested in the survival of Bashar al-Assad,” he said of the Syrian president. He added that Syria acts as an example to the citizens of the aforementioned countries of what can happen if they chose to rise against the dictatorial governments in their own nation.
Stephens then called the attack a waste of perfectly good missiles. “The strike would have been much more effective if we had targeted Assad himself.”
Goldberg also feared the attack might prove to be counterproductive, and said the United States and the world need to recognize the danger a nation like Iran poses for Israel.
“This is not a morally complicated question in the way that Israel and the West Bank or Israel and the Palestinians is,” he said. “Iran is a country that shares no border with Israel, Israel has done nothing to this country, yet a pillar of the ideology that props up Iran’s existence is the annihilation of the Jewish State. They are working towards that. We need to be taking them seriously.”
The lecture, which lasted slightly longer than one hour, covered many issues regarding the well being of Israel and the United States’ relationship with the state. As the trio speculated about the possibility of pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal from 2015 and weighed-in on Trump’s appointment of John Bolton as National Security Advisor, perspectives never exactly shifted to optimism.
Despite the dire content, Cardin, Goldberg and Stephens peppered moments of humor and levity throughout the event, playfully roasting each other and the president.
In an interview prior to the event, Goldberg and Stephens each applauded Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, but also detailed the problems a president like Trump poses for Israel.
“I think Trump’s isolationist instincts ill-serve Israel, whatever he might believe about his pro-Israel bona fides,” said Stephens. “While I applaud the move of the embassy to Jerusalem, what bothers me more is an abdication of policy in the Middle East in particular with Syria. That isn’t helping Israel.”
Goldberg agreed with Stephens, in that Trump has a lot of work to do to be a substantive ally to Israel rather than a symbolic one.
“Trump has no fixed positions. He has instincts, he has favors. The man doesn’t believe in anything, so why should we believe he believes in Israel? The embassy move was a recognition of reality and a reflection, in a weird way, of one of his strengths, which is not caring what elite opinion thinks,” said Goldberg. “That said … there was nothing behind it. It was just an opportunity for him to put a thumb in the eye of people.”
One community member in attendance, Jacob Apelberg, felt the reporters and Cardin were too soft on a different leader: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Netanyahu is more a prime minister for himself. [In his mind] if he is not at the top, everything will collapse,” he said. Apelberg, a Holocaust survivor from Poland, also attended last week’s screening of “Ben-Gurion, Epilogue” at the Gordon Center. He referenced a moment in the documentary when David Ben-Gurion, who was no longer prime minister, said of the Six-Day War, “If I had a choice between peace and all the territories we won last year, I choose peace.”
Apelberg feels that unless a compromised solution is met, the Arabs will win. “They can come in masses,” he said of their vast presence in the Middle East.
The night did come with a sense of irony with a U.S. Senator with strong ties to Israel interviewing journalists about their knowledge of the violence in the Middle East. This irony must have not been lost on Cardin, whose last question was an invitation for advice.
“There is an opportunity, which this administration, by its very nature, cannot seize. Which is to bring to the surface an alliance of moderates,” said Stephens. “There is a long bipartisan tradition of those who have been doing this in small ways for a very long time.”
His hope is that Congress, as an independent branch of government can forge these relationships, even if the president can’t.
In a blog post reflecting on the event, Dr. Neil Rubin, Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School’s high school Jewish history department chair, expressed encouragement about the cordial discourse between the journalists, a quality that in the age of digital media is hard to come by.
“We can quibble with particulars, but the enjoyable night revealed how bereft we now are of civil conversations when mining our differences.”