On the opening weekend of its popular, three-week book festival, the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta found itself defending its decision to dis-invite the author of a contentious book about the future of Israeli democracy.
Close to 10,000 people from around metro Atlanta are expected to attend the festival, which officially began on Thursday at the Dunwoody center, many of them coming to see 55 popular authors and personalities such as Emily Giffin and Tony Danza. And up until Monday, Peter Beinart was among those authors. The former editor of “The New Republic” and current journalism professor at the City Univeristy of New York, Beinart is the author of “The Crisis in Zionism.” Since its release earlier this year, the book has been met with an avalanche of criticism, and a small measure of praise, for its position on Israeli policies regarding Palestinians and the influence of the American Jewish community. In its festival brochure mailed to MJCCA members in advance of the event, the MJCCA titled Beinart’s Nov. 14 talk “Zionistic Zeal” and described his proposals as “provocative” and his appeals “eloquent and moving.”
But once members received those brochures, calls and emails protesting Beinart’s appearance began pouring in to the center, said Steven Cadranel, president of the MJCCA, and Gail Luxenberg, the center’s new CEO.
“Our membership isn’t closed to anyone or any one idea, but the negative reaction was significant,” said Cadranel. “We believe this is a message best presented away from our facility.”
“He has become a little bit of a powder keg,” Luxenberg said, referring to Beinart. “We were concerned about those issues being on our campus.”
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Cadranel said the center has 18,000 members, but he would not say what percentage of those members registered a complaint about Beinart. It is the first time the center has dis-invited a scheduled writer for the festival. Anticipating possible fallout from cancelling Beinart’s appearance, the MJCCA worked with the Literary Center at the Margaret Mitchell House to move his speech there. But Luxenberg stressed that the MJCCA no longer has any affiliation with his talk.
For his part, Beinart said he was disappointed at the developments. He said that he spoke earlier this year at Jewish book festivals in San Francisco and Boston without incident. The contours of his argument shape up in this way: that the Jewish state is threatened primarily by Israeli policies and hawkish political dogma that impede the creation of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; that American Jews, particularly American Jewish leadership, weaken Israel by not challenging those same policies and dogma in a sustained way; that democratic principles in Israel are compromised by occupation. Beinart suggests, among other actions, that American Jews boycott Israeli goods made in occupied territories as a means of fostering change.
“The thing that saddens me is that I really like talking to people I disagree with and who disagree with me,” Beinart said. “I’m a Zionist, I’m part of the Jewish community, and I would say to the MJCCA that we both very deeply care about Israel and the Jewish people and that’s more important to me than our disagreements.”
Beinart is not the first to articulate such positions. Yet his manner of voicing them in his book has earned him a raft of critics and harsh reviews, including in the New York Times Book Review and the Washington Post. As word spread through social media and emails about the cancellation of his appearance, some saw the move as a challenge to free speech.
“This is a bestselling book by a Jewish author on a Jewish topic of concern to the Jewish community, and where better to have this conversation than at a Jewish event?” said Dotan Harpak, chair of the left-leaning, pro-Israel advocacy group J Street, which is now helping to sponsor Beinart’s event at the Mitchell House. “To move it from the book festival is upsetting.”
But there were others such as respected Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt, who said the move raised other questions.
“I don’t particularly like his book and he made some irresponsible statements, but to dis-invite him is counter productive,” said Lipstadt, professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University. “There are Israelis who agree with him, and his views are not so beyond the pale to dis-invite him. Now, if you find out that a person is a closet Nazi or that they call for the destruction of Israel, that’s another thing. But he is not saying that. To dis-invite him, it’s silly. If you were so concerned, you shouldn’t have invited him in the first place.”
The book festival continues through Nov. 18.