Civility in Mideast debate crumbles as audience pipes in

Mike Harris and Jon Segall wanted to stick to the topic of their debate. Really they did. But a determined minority of pontificators in attendance made sure they didn’t.

The shenanigans took place Aug. 29 in San Francisco during the Commonwealth Club’s Middle East Forum, which every month brings in speakers to discuss the Arab-Israeli conflict and other regional issues.

Harris, an activist with the pro-Israel advocacy group StandWithUs, was set to spar with Segall, a diarist who posts on the liberal website Daily Kos and is also a member of J Street. The question at hand: What are the boundaries of dissent within the American Jewish community around the Arab-Israeli conflict?

Conferring at Commonwealth Club event are (from left) Dr. Mike Harris, moderator Michael Lumish and Jon Segall.

That topic carried weight largely because last year the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation issued guidelines for grantees delineating the limits of criticism of Israel. The guidelines state that the federation will not fund organizations or events that undermine the “legitimacy” of the Jewish state.

“There’s no shortage of speech on both sides,” Harris said, referring to Jews who fiercely support Israel and those who criticize. “Both sides have free reign. But in Jewish community organizations we have red lines. It’s a question of where you draw the lines.”

Segall agreed the federation could fund whichever organizations it chooses but asked, “Who determines what is ‘legitimacy’? Do we want to shut down opinions? We should be as democratic as possible.”

The two found more areas of agreement than disagreement. Both expressed unqualified support for free speech.

Both spoke in favor of a negotiated two-state solution to the conflict. Both condemned the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement.

Harris said he had no problem with criticism of Israel, as long as it was “aimed at making things better.”

“Then there is the other kind. Israel is the only country in the world about which discussion includes open calls for its destruction.”

Segall touted J Street, a left-leaning Israel lobby, for its willingness to include out-of-the-mainstream voices — such as Jewish Voice for Peace — on its panels. He stressed that he personally does not agree with JVP.

The dialogue between the two remained respectful, but the cordiality in the room dropped off once some of the two dozen attendees began asking questions.

Or, more to the point, began making mini-speeches.

One questioner said he was fine with a State of Israel, just not a “Jewish state of Israel.” When Harris countered that not all Israelis are religious and that he personally opposes the increasing power of the ultra-Orthodox in Israeli society, the questioner called Harris an “extremist.”

Another attendee concluded that some political problems are unsolvable, so why try. Segall countered that no problems can be solved if “you don’t take a swing at them.”

One man said he was a moderate Muslim and had no problem with Israel, but he thought all the parties should move beyond the bickering. When Harris and Segall replied that this was not realistic, the man called them both “extremists.”

A woman said she was disappointed that no one talked about the Palestinians. When reminded that the topic of the night was supposed to be intra-Jewish dialogue, she walked out.

Another woman brought along her long-haired dachshund, which whined, and which she shushed, throughout the 90-minute proceedings.

At the end, it took Rachel Eryn Kalish, founding facilitator with the intra-Jewish dialogue organization Project Reconnections, to bring some harmony. She said everyone who cares about the Middle East wants peace, and she quoted Israeli novelist Amos Oz, who said of the conflict: “This is a tragic battle between two refugee camps.”

When the event ended, Middle East Forum coordinator Celia Menczel said the tone was less fiery than she expected.

“The subject of Israel usually arouses more heated responses than other subjects,” she said. “But since most of us know each other, it’s not too surprising when someone gets passionate.”


Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.