Last week about 400 people crammed into a large hall in the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany to hear two top-flight journalists, Yossi Klein Halevi and Bret Stephens, discuss the impact of the 1967 Six-Day War, whose 50th anniversary is next month, and its aftermath. During the program, co-sponsored by The Jewish Week Media Group and Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, they touched on a number of subjects, including settlements, the viability of a Palestinian state, the differing outlooks of Israelis and American Jews, and whether our president will be able to follow through on his pledge to broker a peace deal.
But even though I had, inarguably, the best seat in the house, sitting next to them on the stage as moderator, I was sometimes too busy focusing on what question to ask next and how we were doing on time.
Like many colleagues, my comfort zone is where I’m sitting now, at my desk in my ivory tower, hands on my keyboard, not in front of hundreds of people and engaging with two of the most knowledgeable journalists around. Both of whom looked perfectly at home in that setting, by the way. The Brooklyn-born Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, is the author of several books, including “Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation,” which won the Jewish Book Council’s book of the year award in 2013. Stephens was the editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post between 2002 and 2004, before moving to the Wall Street Journal, where he wrote a regular column and won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.
He made news in recent weeks when, on moving from the Journal to The New York Times Op-Ed page, he was heavily criticized for his first column, which some perceived as supportive of climate denial. Whereas most of the attendees wondered if Stephens would address the uproar, as moderator I had an entirely different concern: Could I ask?
Luckily, there was ample time to find out, as Stephens; Gary Rosenblatt, editor of The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s parent paper; and I spent more than one hour together en route to the event. Stephens said he was perfectly willing to talk about the column, seemed unsurprised at the breaking news that Donald Trump had fired FBI director James Comey, and then proceeded to trade Jewish jokes with Rosenblatt. I had wondered what it would be like to spend extended time with these two well-known journalists. This wasn’t how I’d imagined it.
On stage, at the outset of the program, I asked Stephens if he’d had any noteworthy experiences during his first few weeks at The Times, drawing a modest chuckle from the crowd. He explained his choice of columns by telling a joke about a rabbi, priest, and minister taking turns sermonizing to a giant grizzly bear. I would share it with you here but I wouldn’t do it justice.
Soon after, we delved into the primary subject at hand, the Six-Day War and its impact.
I was too busy planning my questions to take notes, but I caught the gist of several points. Stephens talked about the importance of asking Israelis why they are increasingly pessimistic about the creation of an independent Palestinian state while many American Jews are clamoring for it. Klein Halevi observed that he would get booed off the bima in an Orthodox synagogue if he used the term “occupation.” (I immediately crossed out my next question: Have we reached the point where ‘occupation’ is acceptable?)
In planning for the event, I tried reading everything the two guests have written about Israel. For Stephens, this was difficult. For Klein Halevi, it was impossible. But I did the best I could, including reading his 500-plus-page “Like Dreamers,” arguably the most incisive look at the Six-Day War and its long-term effect on Israel ever written.
For me, the takeaways from the evening were as follows: Stephens argued that, maligned as Israel often is, American Jews should be “in awe” of Israel as a wondrous and moral state, and the onus is on the Palestinians to take the next step toward a peaceful solution.
Klein Halevi agreed overall, but said Israel should still actively pursue the possibility of peace, even if they don’t have a willing partner now. And I felt I accomplished my goal of not getting in the way of two insightful, articulate experts having a spirited, thoughtful conversation. After all, the role of moderator is like that of a referee: If no one remembers you at the end of the game, you know you’ve done a good job.