The good news about the debate between conservative radio pundit Dennis Prager and liberal J Street executive Alan Elsner: The meticulous ground rules allowed for an extensive, evenhanded discussion of thorny Middle East issues.
The bad news: Those rules couldn’t stop the speakers from throwing nasty personal barbs (occasionally), nor could they put the kibosh on catcalls from the audience (frequent) or outlandish claims made by the debaters (a few).
Held Dec. 10 at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, the debate was part of a series staged by the synagogue’s Israel Action Committee, which aims to present civil discussions about Israel that consider views from both the left and the right.
Organizers seemed to hit the mark with the Prager-Elsner debate, which drew an afternoon crowd of 370 to the synagogue.
The rules allowed for opening statements, questions for each speaker, and time for rebuttals and counter-rebuttals.
Prager set the tone right away, saying that he had only one task as a non-Israeli diaspora Jew: to support Israel, an imperative given that it is “the only country on Earth that 100 million people want exterminated.”
The job of American Jews is not to try to dictate Israeli policy, he added. “If I want to tell Israel what to do, I can be there in 15 hours,” he said. “For us to tell Israel what to do [requires] a hubris the likes of which is only available among my fellow Jews.”
Then, in a preemptive jab against Elsner and J Street, Prager said, “Intentions mean nothing. Good people do a lot of damage.”
Prager seemed to anticipate that Elsner would start out with his own pro-Israel bona fides, which indeed he did. The British-born former Middle East reporter for Reuters made aliyah in 1977, served in the Israel Defense Forces, married an Israeli woman and has children born in Israel.
A special adviser to J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami, Elsner countered Prager by noting, “It’s not a question of telling Israel what to do, but entering into a dialogue. We need to be able to talk to each other.”
Not surprisingly, the first question centered on the Trump administration’s recent recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — and the controversy around that decision.
Prager called it the right decision, noting that Jerusalem has been Israel’s capital since the creation of the state in 1948.
“The reason there is no peace is because Israel is surrounded by people who want it exterminated,” repeating a word he said he chose for its Holocaust-era undertones.
Though he agreed Jerusalem has always been Israel’s capital, Elsner said President Donald Trump’s Dec. 3 announcement undercut apparently positive progress, made by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, in laying the foundation for future peace talks.
Intentions mean nothing. Good people do a lot of damage.
Prager countered, “The only chance for peace is if there is a realization on the Palestinians’ part that Israel is here to stay. What Donald Trump did was say, ‘Israel is here to stay.’”
Somehow the off-topic subject of special counsel and former FBI director Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump-Russia connections came up, with Prager, who supported Trump in last year’s presidential race, angrily denying any evidence of collusion.
Then Prager defended the candidacy of accused child molester Roy Moore, a Republican running for an open Senate seat in Alabama, saying no allegations have been proven. That drew hisses from the audience.
Other hot-button issues were discussed, including the Iran nuclear deal and anti-Israel activism on college campuses. On the former, Prager came down squarely against the deal, calling Iran the only country that advocates genocide (against Israelis) and comparing the deal to the 1938 Munich Agreement, a failed act of appeasement toward Hitler and Germany signed by then British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.
Elsner then noted that multiple Israeli military leaders were supportive of the Iran deal. When Prager claimed they were only trying to appease then-President Barack Obama, Elsner said the quotes he cited were made since Trump was elected.
As for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, both men agreed it was a corrosive force on campus, though Elsner stressed that broader education of Jewish youth would help inoculate them against BDS. He said J Street Israel youth trips include visits to Jewish settlements and Arab cities in the West Bank such as Ramallah.
Prager called BDS a “problem of the left … the left has corrupted American Jewish life and its youth.” This led to Prager’s contention that there is a distinction between what he called “the left” and “liberals” of the ilk of Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.
Prager omitted, and Elsner failed to point out, that such liberal heroes were responsible for much of the progressive changes in America since the Great Depression, from Social Security to the Civil Rights Act, both now under attack from factions within Prager’s conservative legion.
The subject of evangelical Christian support of Israel came up, with Prager welcoming it. “We are so used to Christians not liking us, we can’t imagine this takes place,” he said. Elsner acknowledged a “warm fuzzy” feeling from such support, but noted that Christian supporters are not disturbed by Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which J Street opposes.
On the subject of settlements, Prager noted that before a single settlement had been built, “Arabs wanted to destroy Israel.” He then took a swipe at the Bay Area because “there are too many universities in its midst,” implying that universities breed anti-Israel sentiment.
Elsner countered that the leaders of the settlement movement are “engaged in an ideal [and a] project to annex the West Bank,” which forces Israelis and Jews to choose “whether Israel is a democracy or a Jewish state.”
He later compared the settlement issue to climate change, a problem that worsens imperceptibly over time “until at some point you reach a point of no return.” (Prager happens to eschew climate change caused by humankind, having called it in the past a “fraudulent, make-believe, created myth.”)
As the two-hour debate wore on, tensions rose. Whenever Elsner spoke, Prager glowered, refusing to address his opponent by name, instead calling him “this gentleman.”
Partisan politics also crept into the discussion. While Elsner maintained that “a vast majority of Democrats support Israel on the basis of shared values,” Prager said the Democratic Party is “now a place where half are either hostile or indifferent [to Israel],” though he offered no evidence to support that claim.
At one point, Elsner, trying to score rhetorical points, took a dig at Prager’s eponymously named online university, saying, “I respect you for starting a university, and when you win a Nobel Prize I will applaud you, even if it’s a Nobel Prize for fiction.”
That drew the loudest catcalls of the afternoon, and Elsner apologized for being “unkind.” Prager offered one of his rare points of agreement, saying he, too, thought the comment unkind.
The tense encounter between the two speakers pointed up the divide between American Jewry’s liberal and conservative camps. But the debate rules proved there is a way to have a dialogue rather than a shouting match, even between the most heated of ideological foes.