Peter Beinart was originally one of 52 writers invited to speak at this week’s Book Festival of the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta, which attracts about 10,000 people each year. Bowing to pressure from some local Jews offended by Beinart’s views, festival organizers then cancelled his scheduled appearance — sparking a backlash to the backlash.
Beinart is now set to speak Wednesday night in a smaller venue in downtown Atlanta, nearly 20 miles from the festival site at the suburban community center. The 200 seats allotted for his talk quickly sold out, forcing the creation of a waiting list to get in.
A popular blogger and associate professor of journalism and political science at The City University of New York , Beinart’s most recent book “The Crisis of Zionism” criticizes hawkish Jewish leaders in Israel and the United States for their continued support for Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories.
Beinart argues it is these conservative Jewish leaders, not the Palestinians, who are the primary obstacles to peace, thereby making the future of the Jewish state more precarious and less democratic.
For some Jews, such open criticism of Israel and its leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, borders on heresy, especially coming from a member of their own tribe.
The debate exemplifies an existing divide among Jewish Americans, roughly represented by organizations like the traditional pro-Israel lobbying group American Israel Public Affairs Committee and J Street, a liberal-leaning group that promotes a two-state solution through diplomacy instead of military action.
The community center’s president, Steve Cadranel, emphasized in a statement that it is a nonpartisan and nonpolitical organization and said the center helped arrange the alternate location for Beinart to speak.
“In the end, the decision to avoid risking that the MJCCA might be seen as sponsoring a ‘controversial position on Israeli politics’ and working to secure an alternative venue for Mr. Beinart to share his views, seemed to be the best course,” he said.
In an open letter to the Atlanta’s Jewish community, the director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University derided Beinart’s exclusion from the book festival as narrow-minded and counterproductive.
“Though Peter Beinart sits towards one end of the spectrum of Jewish political opinion about Israel, he is well within the boundaries of reasonable dialogue,” Paul Root Wolpe wrote. “Disagree with him, argue with him, criticize his facts or points — but do not ban him, do not invite and then disinvite him, and for heaven’s sake do not allow any set of Jewish members of the JCC to dictate to the rest who we should hear and not hear. We are better than that.”
Beinart was scheduled to speak Wednesday at 8:15 p.m. at the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta.