Friday, February 18, 2011

On The Curse of “Balance”

There have been two events advertised in the Jewish community that would have allowed some non-consensus speakers to speak – provided there was consensus balance.

Peter Beinart gave the Amos Perlmutter Memorial Lecture and Calvin Goldscheider, a highly respected demographer and scholar-in-residence at the American University Israel Studies Center, responded. For an account of the evening see Louise Ross's piece at Mondoweiss. I know Cal Goldscheider, so I was not surprised to learn that the evening was scholarly and dignified; from the little I know of his views from personal conversation, I would describe Goldscheider as a liberal Zionist of the old school (like Arthur Hertzberg, not at all hesitant about criticizing Israel), so that the space between the two was generational rather than ideological. But that, too, is space. Beinart's generation (and younger) are either becoming polarized on or disaffected from Israel. The "middle" is shrinking. And I suppose that Goldscheider, after agreeing with some points in Beinart's thesis, presented a picture that would be much more favorable to the continuance of that comfortable middle.

In short, no debate between left and right; rather, a matchup of non-consensus and consensus. For – and here's the point – I doubt that Beinart could have given his talk without a consensus respondent for balance. When David Makovsky of WINEP gave the first Amos Permutter lecture in 2006, there was no respondent, nor no deed for one. Makovsky is about as consensus and non-provocative as you can get. No need for "balance" there.

The second event was cancelled when the "balance" couldn't show up. The 92nd Street Y was going to sponsor an event called, "Faces of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Loss and Forgiveness" with Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish and Laura Blumenfeld. I read about it also on Mondoweiss. Here was how it was announced:

In 2009, Palestinian doctor and Israeli television personality Izzeldin Abuelaish lost three of his daughters during a Gaza raid. In 1986, a Palestinian terrorist shot author Laura Blumenfeld's father. Abuelaish and Blumenfeld discuss with ABC News' Christiane Amanpour how—despite such personal tragedy on both sides of the conflict—we can find common ground and political solutions.

Note that despite an attempted symmetry of suffering and loss, the formulations are quite different. Blumenfeld's father is shot be a Palestinian terrorist. Abublaish's daughters are lost during a raid. Whose raid? We are not told that Israeli tanks shot the shells that killed the girls in their bedroom. And why not? Isn't it obvious?

No matter. When Blumenfeld cancelled, and nobody else suitable on the Jewish side could be found (are there no members of the Bereaved Parents Circle available? ), the event was cancelled. And, brother, I don't blame the 92nd Street Y caving in on that one. It must have been hard enough to get a Palestinian victim on the platform in the first place, much less after if he had been the only person on the platform.

The irony is, of course, that Dr. Abuelaish is precisely the sort of Palestinian that Jews like to hear; no matter how much he has suffered from the Israelis, he refuses to hate them.

This business of "balance" is a curse. But it could be worse. There are times when balance is considered itself imbalanced.

Take, for example, last year's panel at Brandeis with Judge Goldstone and Ambassador Dore Gold. Goldstone was introduced by Daniel Terris, the Director of Brandeis's International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life and Gold by S. Ilan Troen, the Director of the Israel Studies Center. Terris said a few words about international human rights law and then introduced Judge Goldstone. Troen, by contrast, devoted most of his time not to introducing Ambassador Gold but to attacking the Goldstone report, highlighting its unfavorable reception in the US. He came across as Gold's debating partner – a gross violation of academic practice and civility. In order to get Goldstone at Brandeis, you needed Gold, and Troen – not to mention President Reinharz – all defenders of Israel – to provide balance.

Or how about the panel on BDS at the upcoming J Street conference, where Rebecca Vilkomerson of JVP will be presenting the case for BDS. Kudos to J Street for its liberalness. But Vilkomerson is speaking on a panel with three other speakers opposing BDS. So the rightwing will focus on Vilkomerson's appearance, whereas the left will focus on the imbalance of the panel.

And who is left in the "middle"?

1 comment:

pabelmont said...

The question of Palestine is not only or even especially a matter for Jews, although most Jews care about the issue one way or another.

Americans of all stripes need to hear the message of non-violence embodied, e.g., in the BDS movement. From whom should they hear it better than from Omar Barghouti? But before an up-coming speaking tour, he has been denied a visa by the USA, an erstwhile champion of freedom of speech. See, as so oftem MondoWeiss.