Sitting Down With Dan Senor and Peter Beinart

By Raphaela Gold ‘21 and Sarah Horvath ‘21

Israeli politics can be a touchy subject in Jewish communities, especially when people possess different perspectives and have trouble understanding each other. One question that recurs time and again is “Why should American Jews care about Israel?” On October 31, Heschel hosted two guest speakers, political advisor Dan Senor and journalist Peter Beinart, who attempted to answer this question for students and to provide some perspective on Israel’s complex political situation. Both guests are parents of Heschel students.

Senor and Beinart addressed the school two years ago, but due to the political changes that have occurred in Israel since then, they had a lot of new and relevant things to say. In front of the school in the Roanna Shorofsky Theater, High School Director of Jewish and Student Life Rabbi Dahlia Kronish posed questions to Senor and Beinart. Though they come from opposite sides of the political spectrum, Senor leaning more to the right while Beinart leans more left, they were civil and open-minded with each other, as well as transparent about their potential biases.

Beinart opined that he thinks of the Jewish people as one large family, and just as one cares for their family, Jews should have a personal connection to Israel. Senor added that practically, American Jews should care about Israel because it is an important ally in the Middle East. The pair also discussed the upcoming Israeli election, explaining Israel’s complex system of government. Rather than shutting each other down, Senor and Beinart built on each other’s comments and substantiated their views with facts, providing an example of how people with different beliefs can have meaningful political discussions without engaging in heated arguments. 

Directly after the program, we interviewed Senor and Beinart about journalism practices and how Israel education should look at Heschel. We also asked them to expand more on some of the views they had expressed during the assembly.

The following excerpts are from the interview. They have been cut and edited for clarity. The meaning of their statements has not been altered. 

Do you ever feel internal conflict between your professional duties to accurately report on Israel and your personal views about Israel? 

Peter Beinart: “I often feel torn between things that I think are true and and relationships I have in my community. There is a tension in terms of what I believe… a core Jewish tension between particularism and individualism— my own personal obligation to all people and to myself, I feel that tension and pull. I find it hard to reconcile. There are days when I’m more on the universalist side and days where I’m more on the particularist side.”

Dan Senor: “On the Israeli-Palestinian issue, some days I wake up and say, ‘To hell with it, Israel should take massive risks to try to make something with the Palestinians.’… Other days I wake up and say it is hopeless. There is no one for Israel to negotiate with… I swing between the extremes. The conflict I have with myself when I am in one of those moods is to not to do anything stupid in the moment… stay off Twitter…. Even though you feel angry and want to do something, you have to take a step back and not overreact to the news of the day.”

Have you regretted anything you have written or said publicly?

Peter Beinart: “I supported the magazine I edited, The New Republic, which supported the Iraq war, very publicly and vocally. And I really felt very destabilized by realizing that that wasn’t just a small mistake but an enormous mistake…. My second book was an effort to wrestle with how I got that wrong.”

Dan Senor: “I’ve had a lot. I’ve been a spokesman in government… and whenever you are a spokesman in government, (present government excluded), it is rare that you say things that are lies… but there are times when I thought things were a stretch…. As any government spokesman you try to put a positive gloss on facts that may not be as positive as you make them sound, and that is something that I struggled with.”

As journalists, do you have any suggestions as to how the Helios can best represent all views and remain true to fact simultaneously?

Peter Beinart: “Read as widely as you can across the broad spectrum. Read people on the Israeli center and Israeli right.

Dan Senor: “The best podcast on Israeli politics and a number of the issues we are talking about is the Israel Policy Forum Podcasts, which is center-left. I don’t agree with everything, but analytically they are very strong…. There are three reasons to listen to someone you disagree with. Well, for one, it helps you better understand where people are coming from. Two, it helps you sharpen your own arguments… and [three,] regardless of where people are coming from, the people who engage in these debates are smart people and you learn a lot.”

As Heschel parents, what do you think Israel education at Heschel should look like?

Peter Beinart: “It depends on the age. To my mind, when you fully take on and start to wrestle with the Palestinian experience, you read books about them, meet with them… it is very destabilizing for your views about Israel, often. It is not impossible to come away with the view that Israel is doing horrifying things to millions of people. So what I think about a lot is… how can Heschel build in them such a deep love and connection to the Jewish people, that when they have that experience it doesn’t turn them into Israel haters… but it actually makes them respond with struggle…. In the High School, I think you can get more complicated and read Israeli and Palestinian authors…. You want to be prepared so when you go to college you can engage in a discourse.”

Dan Senor: “I agree that it depends on the age. We at Heschel want students to feel a connection to Israel the way we feel a connection to a member of our family. Your family you can disagree with, your family you can criticize, but your family, your starting point is that you can give them the benefit of the doubt…. That is what you want to cultivate with students at Heschel as it relates to Israel. You want them to love Israel, but you want them to feel connected with Israel as if they are a member of the family. It doesn’t mean that they can’t criticize Israel…, but your starting point is to give Israel the benefit of the doubt, because you are a member of the family…. My big fear is the kids who don’t think Israel is a member of the family, so when they read a story on the front of the New York Times about something Israel did in Gaza, their immediate response is to believe it and not to give Israel the benefit of the doubt…. From an education standpoint, how do you educate kids to give them the connection, that starting point, that Israel is family? Family is not impervious to criticism, but it is still family.”

Do you have any advice for a student newspaper that aspires to be non-partisan?

Peter Beinart: “Whether or not there is such a thing such as objectivity or not, there are good practices in journalism…. There are certain things that you just do. If you are writing an article about someone, spell their name right, and if you are saying something about someone, go talk to them. Hear what they have to say…. Get your facts right. Those are really basic, but they aren’t so easy. Try to figure out all of the potential people in this community and what their perspectives are… Think about the people whose voices are not always represented.”

Dan Senor: “I think we’ve gotten so fixated on different points of view and as a journalist, you can’t challenge the facts that underlies someone’s point of view…. You can present the two points of view on an issue… and it is okay to represent someone’s point of view and then establish the fact under it… you can weigh in and present the facts.”

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