Intelligence Squared, the renowned international debate forum, launched its Israel operations Tuesday night with a debate on the motion of “If Israel continues on its current course – it cannot remain both a democratic and Jewish State.”
“Since the inception of Intelligence Squared in London there have been a succession of brilliant Israeli orators who have participated in our debates here in London,” John Gordon, one of the two media businessmen who founded the organization in the United Kingdom in 2002, told Haaretz.
“It is therefore with great pride that the IQ2 style of debate - which is the hallmark of the democratic process and which speakers on all sides of the Israeli political spectrum have engaged in here in London with both passion and supreme skill - has been launched in Israel itself.”
Moderated by Haaretz English Edition Editor Charlotte Halle, the filled-to-capacity evening event was held at Tel Aviv’s Museum of Art, and featured Peter Beinart and Michael Melchior for the motion, and Yoram Ettinger and Dan Gillerman against it. As prescribed by the format, which follows the Oxford Union style, the debaters were each given 12 minutes to present their arguments, after which questions were taken from the audience, and concluding statements were made. Voting on the motion took place twice: Once, informally, at the door, and later, at the end of the debate, via ballots.
Opening the debate, for the motion, was Beinart, a New York based political pundit, the author of The Crisis of Zionism, a senior fellow at the New America foundation and editor of The Daily Beast’s blog “Open Zion. Beinart made four concise arguments, pertaining to the question at hand. One: Israel controls the West Bank. Two: Israel is not a democracy in the West Bank. Three: Israeli is making its control over the West Bank ever more permanent. And four: If control of the West Bank remains permanent, he argued, Israel will have impaired not only its democratic character but ultimately its Jewish character as well.
Next up was Ettinger, a former minister for congressional affairs at Israel’s embassy in Washington DC, and a member of the American-Israel Demographic Research Group. Speaking against the motion, he suggested that Beinart, as a non-Israeli, did not understand Arabs, argued that this is a region where any agreement is “carved in ice” and not stone, talked tough on security and the critical need to maintain control of the “mountain regions of Judea and Samaria,” and veered off into lengthy lecture on demography.
Melchior was the third speaker, on Beinart’s side. A rabbi, former cabinet minister and Knesset member, who today also serves as the chief rabbi of Norway, Melchior recounted Hillel’s famous lesson: “Do not do unto others that which is hateful to you. That is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary, go study it." Ultimately, Melchior argued, denying the Palestinians their right to self-determination will “empty the real content of what it means to be a true Jewish state.”
Gillerman, a businessman who served as Israel’s ambassador to the UN during 2003-2008, spoke of Israel’s contributions to the world in the areas of science, high tech and culture. “No other country contributes so much to mankind,” he posited. As to the resolution, he said that, while he is a great “yearner and believer” in peace – he is unwilling “to be frightened into a doomsday scenario” when it comes to Israel’s democracy, and that while Israel’s leaders have risen to the plate when it comes to making peace – the Palestinians have offered up no leader whom Israel can trust.
Before the debate, 44 percent of those attending said they agreed with the evenings motion that “if Israel continues on its current course – it cannot remain both a democratic and Jewish State,” while 26 percent said they did not agree with it. Thirty percent of the audience declared themselves undecided at the start of the debate.
After listening to the speakers, those in favor of the motion were still more plentiful – at 50 percent. But a higher percentage of the undecided said that now disagreed with the motion, with 37 percent voting against it. Thirteen percent of those gathered said they remained undecided – and then everyone, for, against and unsure alike, headed out to the lobby for wine, nuts, more debate and small talk about the hot weather, on which everyone could agree.