Two well-known Jewish figures in the field of journalism today — Editor in Chief Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic and New York Times columnist Bret Stephens — were a model of intelligent civil discussion across the political aisle at this year’s Dahan Lecture at Beth Tfiloh Congregation in Baltimore. Their conversation before the packed synagogue on April 17, featuring U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D – Md.) as moderator, covered the U.S.-Israel relationship; the recent U.S. missile strike on Syria and Iran’s role in the region’s unrest; and the future of Israel as a democratic Jewish state.
Previous Dahan Lecture guest speakers included Alan Dershowitz, Abraham Foxman, and Natan Sharansky. Sandy Vogel, director at the Mercaz Dahan Center of Jewish Life and Learning at Beth Tfiloh Congregation, opened the event with details from the life of the couple after whom the lecture, the synagogue, and Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School are named: Rachel and Aharon Dahan. She talked about their service in the Israeli military (the event took place on the eve of Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s memorial day for its fallen soldiers) and their commitment to an inclusive and unified Jewish community.
“Mr. Dahan said, ‘No matter the customs, no matter the background, no matter the financial experiences, we are all bound by blood, and we all take care of each other,’” said Vogel, “and Rachel and Aharon Dahan believed that Jews are bound together, and they dedicated their lives to perpetuate that unity.”
After some introductory words from the senator about the special bond between the U.S. and Israel, Stephens and Goldberg lost no time getting into the thick of the Syria conversation.
“We need to think of Syria as the central terrain in our strategic encounter and conflict, not just with Bashar Assad or ISIS or even Iran, but what I call ‘Dictatorship Incorporated,’” said Stephens. “There’s a reason why North Korea, why China, and of course why Russia as well as Iran are so invested in the survival of Bashar Assad — and not just invested in that survival, but intent on helping him survive in the bloodiest and ghastliest way.”
“To them, Syria is an advertisement, if you will, for their own people as to what might happen if they should rise up against their dictatorships,” he said; and this is why the U.S. has a strategic interest in demonstrating that such a strategy will fail.
Stephens called the recent U.S. airstrike “a waste of perfectly good cruise missiles,” because the U.S. did the same thing a year ago in response to the use of chemical weapons and it did nothing to keep it from happening again.
“The strike would have been much more effective if we targetted Assad himself,” he said.
Goldberg agreed. “Whenever a superpower attacks a country, and the leader of that country emerges from his spiderhole the next day and says ‘Look, I survived an attack by the greatest power in the history of Earth,’ you’ve actually enhanced his stature and enhanced his power,” said Goldberg, “and that’s what I’m afraid we’ve seen in this case.”
While Stephens and Goldberg were at odds over whether the U.S. should back out of the Iran deal, they both characterized Iran’s threat to Israel through its proxies in Syria and Lebanon as an immediate problem. Hezbollah already has tens of thousands of missiles pointing at Israel right now, said Goldberg, and “Iran is turning Syria into another Lebanon.”
“At a certain point, what Iran is doing in Syria will become intolerable to Israel, and will force a response — if Iran doesn’t attack first,” he said.
In contrast to previous wars in Gaza and Lebanon, Goldberg predicted this scenario could produce large numbers of Israeli casualties, even temporary seizures of Israeli territory by Iranian proxies. “It would be a psychic boon to the Iranians and their rejectionist front; it would be a devastating blow to the Israeli army, even if the Israeli army in a matter of hours kicks them back out,” he said.
The U.S. has an “almost-unbroken” record of “continually backing down in the face of the Islamic Republic’s aggressions,” said Stephens, who advocated going back to the level of sanctions against Iran, in place during the first Obama administration. “What we have done with [the current deal] is give Iran every reason to believe that it can press its advantages — financed with new money — throughout the Middle East, and that’s exactly the kind of behavior we witnessed since the deal went into effect.”
“If you’re looking for a positive in this crisis we have between Israel and Iran right now, one saving grace is that Iran is not nuclear at the moment — it is not close to becoming a nuclear power — and that is because of the Iran nuclear deal,” countered Goldberg.
By the evening’s end, the two journalists expressed agreement that the Iranian axis forms an immediate existential threat to Israel, while the lack of officially recognized borders or an agreement with the Palestinians that will allow Israel to remain a Jewish-majority democratic state both are long-term threats.
“The dilemma in our community is that people are going to these two extremes of saying the problems in Israel are solely external — this Iranian/Hezbollah combine — or the problems in Israel are solely internal — Israel’s inability and unwillingness to grapple with the Palestinian issue,” said Goldberg. “I think that there are arguments to be made for both sides.”
“It’s the difficulty of being Jewish, in that there’s multiple demands on your attention, there’s multiple demands on your morality at the same time,” he said.
By Rachel Kohn
Rachel Kohn is editor in chief of Kol HaBirah.