12/02/2010 07:35 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Rethinking Peter Beinart's Israel Article

An impressive group of thinkers gathered on Tuesday night at the 92nd St. Y to debate the topic of "Has the American Jewish Establishment Failed Young Jews?", a response to the outcry that followed Peter Beinart's New York Review of Books article last spring. The Jewish Week's Eric Herschtal provides a fair and concise summary of the issues raised at the event.

The panel, led by The New Yorker's George Packer, and included Beinart himself defending his positions from opposition posed by The Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens and AIPAC's Steve Rosen. Beinart was accompanied by New York Times columnist Roger Cohen on his end. While discussing how young American Jews feel about Israel today, the panel immediately displayed the various ways to approach the issue -- with Stephens and Rosen pointing to evidence drawn from recent polls and AIPAC's financial numbers, and Cohen and Beinart relying more on anecdotal and empirical research gathered from time on college campuses and in Israel.

Stephens said he doesn't see the alienation that Beinart presented in his piece. On the other hand, Beinart said that his experience at AIPAC events differed from the account that Rosen provided. Rosen shot back at Beinart, saying that the depiction of young Jews drifting away from Israel is "a collection of caricatures," and was total "nonsense." This heated back-and-forth of the panel should shed some light on why this topic is so contentious. Polls and data are valuable to help gauge where people's opinions lie, but, at the same time, they are limited to the questions at hand. If you really want to know what people believe, you must speak to them directly. Beinart concluded the panel with parting words that "we should follow the young people's lead."

What became evident from this event, though, is that it's hard to judge where young people stand as a whole on Israel. Beinart restated his compelling case that they oppose the settlements for human rights reasons. But you can't simply dismiss the data that Stephens cited showing that college students care more about Israel than Beinart or Cohen will give them credit for. This is precisely what makes the jobs of Israel advocates like Rosen so challenging. Any mission begins with representing the voice of the people; yet with so many different accounts of what college students truly think and believe today, how can you contend you know what they really want?

Above all else, this panel provided some wonderful insights into the different approaches and viewpoints that young Americans have. Healthy dialogue is clearly taking place across the country. That's a positive step, no matter what. In this case, though, you have to also wonder if we're the conversation is being cluttered with some confusion about where the message resides. So, as an informative discussion about pressing issues, this event delivered on its promise. At the same time, however, it reflected how difficult it must be to establish a uniform position that pleases everyone.