South Jersey Iran Debate Features Prominent Pundits

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Alan Dershowitz and Peter Beinart went head-to-head Sept. 2 — a not-uncommon occurrence for the two — to debate the terms of the proposed Iran nuclear deal.

Dershowitz, a well-known lawyer, author and political commentator, and Beinart, a political science and journalism professor as well as contributing editor for The Atlantic and the National Journal, shared the stage during an open forum before a full house at the Katz JCC in Cherry Hill. The event was hosted by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Southern New Jersey.

After a heated conversation between the two men, a question-and-answer portion was opened to the audience, who waited their turn in line on either side of the room depending on whether they opposed or supported the deal.

The forum was held the same day Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) became the 34th senator to back the deal. Her support meant that President Obama officially secured the minimum number of votes needed from the Senate to guarantee the deal’s passage.


While the two agreed on very little about the intricacies of the deal, including the timeline of the proposed sanctions and whether or not Obama will use military force — “anyone who thinks Obama is prepared to use [military force] is a fool,” Dershowitz opined — Beinart and Dershowitz both concurred it is an imperfect plan.

“I believe this deal, flawed as it is, is better than the alternative,” Beinart said, meaning going to war and losing what he called “leverage” over Iran.

Dershowitz, however, felt that the deal makes war that much more probable.

“I believe had this deal not been struck, it would be less likely Iran would have tried to rebuild nuclear weapons,” he said, adding that it complicates stability and relations with Israel. “Israel will simply not allow Iran to rebuild nuclear weapons. This makes Israel’s job much harder.”

The last question of the debate before it was opened to the audience forced them to consider other viewpoints, which gave the audience a laugh: Dershowitz was asked to imagine he was Obama and argue in support of the deal and Beinart play the role of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and argue against the deal — not an easy task for either of them, it seemed.

“Israelis,” Dershowitz-as-Obama struggled to say, “don’t really know their best interests.”

It’s better to have a 10-year delay now, he continued in character, referring to the 10-year sanction on Iran outlined in the deal, than go to war now.

The third person on stage keeping the two in check — and from interrupting each other too much — was moderator Linda Maizels.

Maizels, director of Israel and international concerns for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said after the forum ended that the discussion was very much what she expected, calling the two “old sparring partners” who have appeared together to contest hot topics many times before.

As the final vote clinching democratic support for the deal had occurred only that morning, there was not much time to change the direction of the forum to accommodate the news. Maizels did change a few of her questions, although there was no time to ask them.

For her, the goal wasn’t to change anyone’s mind, but perhaps open it up.

“I didn’t have much control over the event, obviously, but I hope that someone who came here absolutely convinced they were either a Beinart supporter or a Dershowitz supporter —  I’m hoping someone said, ‘Hmm, I’ve never thought of that before. This individual, either Alan or Peter, made me think.’ ”

One of her favorite moments during the forum was the final question she asked, which was the role-playing situation.

That was “terrific,” she said, for understanding the importance of talking about these issues without “ad hominem attacks.”

“I think it’s very important to understand something crucial, which is that even if we differ on the method, we all have the same goal in mind,” she said. “None of us, no one on that stage — and I’m sure no one in the audience — wants to see an Iran with nuclear weapons, we simply differ on how you keep them from doing that.”

The forum was planned just six days ago when JCRC executive director David Snyder learned of the opportunity to host a forum featuring the two men, which he said he couldn’t pass up.

He said that since the deal is “all but likely to pass,” the focus now turns to the security of Israel, which has been an overarching question as debates about the effectiveness of the deal have heated up.

Renewed emphasis must be placed on “how the United States can help ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge,” Snyder said.

Some in the audience were much more nonplussed and unhappy that the deal has the senatorial support it needs.

“It’s a tragedy that this happened, an absolute tragedy,” said Deedee Fein, a Cherry Hill resident originally from Philadelphia.

Fein, who identifies herself as strongly Zionist, would have certainly been on the opposing side of the room if she went up to ask a question.

She has gone to previous discussions, including a debate held recently in Margate, N.J. She was “angry” with the Jewish community’s reaction during the forum, referring to those who sided with Beinart in support of the deal.

“We have contributed to our own demise,” she said.

Others in the audience came out to hear both sides of the issue as Maizels and Snyder hoped.

David and Maxine Butler of Cherry Hill wanted to come out to hear new perspectives, though the discussion didn’t clear up too much confusion.

“I wanted to get two opposing perspectives,” David Butler said. As for how he feels walking out from the discussion, he said, “I’m still not clear.”

However, the overall consensus from the audience after the forum was that it was one of the best events of its kind they have attended, according to Snyder, who added that it demonstrated the benefit of hearing an opinion different from one’s own.

“I wanted it to be not necessarily a healing evening, but certainly one where people in the community would hear a different perspective than their own and appreciate it.”  

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