A conversation between Burt Siegel and Jonathan S. Tobin had all the makings of a knock-down, drag-’em-out cage match.
Siegel is a man of the left, and Tobin, his interlocutor on the evening of Dec. 22, is a conservative. The combatants were told by the moderator that their answers would be timed, but that there’d be a few minutes for rebuttal. The argumentative possibilities offered by an event titled “Jews, Civil Rights, Black Lives Matter and Implications of the 2020 Election for Israel,” had the potential to go like many a family seder.
But something else happened.
Though the two certainly had their disagreements, the two men spoke with genial civility for more than 90 minutes in a conversation hosted by The Kehillah of Old York Road, via Zoom.
In fact, Siegel and Tobin seemed to find much more common ground than contested territory. Even the latter was disputed with courtesy, regarding topics ranging from President Donald Trump to interfaith marriage to Israel’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Siegel, a former director of the Jewish Community Relations Council and current vice chair of Democratic Jewish Outreach Pennsylvania, is a frequent commentator on hot-button political issues, appearing in the pages of the Jewish Exponent and in a blog for the Times of Israel.
Tobin, former editor-in-chief of the Exponent, once led Commentary, a neoconservative magazine with a long Jewish history. Today, he is editor-in-chief of the Jewish News Syndicate, a wire service, and frequently contributes to a raft of conservative magazines between cable news appearances.
The two men have been on the opposite sides of American and Israeli political issues for years, and neither is particularly prone to backing off of what they believe in.
And yet, the miraculous happened. Siegel joked before the event began that yearning for the end of argument between Jews was akin to prophesizing that lion will lie down with lamb. On that evening, in a conversation introduced by Rabbi Robert Leib and Rabbi David Glanzberg-Krainin, for just a moment, paw curled tenderly around hoof.
It is “a wonderful Jewish tradition to disagree with one another,” Glanzberg-Krainin said, but even more so to do it with respect.
Leib, senior rabbi at Old York Road Temple – Beth Am, led the structured conversation, wherein questions were posed to either Tobin or Siegel, whose timed answers were met with the latter’s retort, often boomeranging back to the original speaker for further comment.
Siegel had a background of the Golden Gate Bridge; Tobin sat in front of a shelf of books. Siegel said that the true impact of the Abraham Accords won’t be known for some time, and that to treat the agreement normalizing relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain as an unmitigated success for Trump was a mistake.
Tobin, often willing to cede ground to Siegel’s attacks on the president’s character, defended the accords as a significant achievement, agreeing with Siegel that “Messianic rhetoric” had taken its import a bit out of proportion.
Siegel and Tobin went back and forth, answering Leib’s pointed questions about the responsibilities of white Jews to their Black co-religionists, what the future holds for Jewish people in Europe and Israel advocacy on college campuses. When Leib made reference to an “epidemic of silence” regarding the response of major American Jewish organizations to anti-Semitism, Tobin redirected the conversation to silence regarding anti-Orthodox bigotry, and Siegel redirected to European anti-Semitism in particular.
“I don’t disagree with anything Jonathan said,” Siegel said after Tobin laid out his issues with The New York Times’ 1619 Project.
“This is not an issue which we disagree,” Tobin said after Siegel explained his thoughts on a particular sense of Jewish superiority.
When it came to naming the biggest challenges facing American Jews going forward, Tobin and Siegel found so much common ground they were practically standing on each other’s toes. With different wording and different favored topics, both of them wished for “a healthy, proud Jewish community in America,” as Siegel said.
The event was supported by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, Beth Sholom Congregation, Old York Road Temple – Beth Am, Congregation Adath Jeshurun, Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel and Or Hadash: A Reconstructionist Congregation.