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Upcoming VCU speech by Peter Beinart, a critic of Israeli policy, roils Richmond Jewish community

Students walk around a RAMS sign at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. (Steve Helber/AP)
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Leaders of Richmond’s Jewish community have condemned an upcoming talk at Virginia Commonwealth University featuring Peter Beinart, a political commentator who is critical of Israeli policy. Following internal pressure from donors, officials at the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond have shared their concerns with university officials over what they consider one-sided Israel-related programming — a move leading Judaic studies scholars say threatens academic freedom.

Beinart is slated to speak Tuesday about his 2013 book, “The Crisis of Zionism,” at the 35th Brown-Lyons Lecture, an annual collaboration between VCU’s Center for Judaic Studies and the university’s libraries.

This latest battle over campus free speech stems from growing fissures among American Jews over Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

Beinart was previously known for his strong support for the two-state solution, advocating for Israel to exist as a democratic Jewish state, alongside an independent Palestinian state. But he made international headlines in July 2020 when he revealed through pieces in Jewish Currents and the New York Times that he no longer believes a two-state solution was possible and instead supports a single, equal democratic state for both peoples.

This stance is considered a “red line” among many Jewish groups, which often interpret a one-state solution as a threat to Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. Daniel Gordis, a pro-Israel political commentator and author who previously co-hosted a podcast with Beinart, was one of the many leading Jewish thinkers who found Beinart’s shift away from the two-state solution problematic. In an interview with the Jewish Broadcasting Network, Gordis called Beinart a “traitor” and said his newfound position was “fundamentally immoral” and a “betrayal of the Jewish people.”

Beinart was originally nominated in 2019 to headline the 2020 Brown-Lyons Lecture by David Weinfeld, the chair of VCU’s Judaic Studies program, and was approved by VCU Libraries.

The Jewish Community Federation of Richmond (JCFR) raised concerns months before the scheduled lecture. The JCFR, the Richmond Jewish Foundation and the Weinstein Jewish Community Center (JCC) are traditional sponsors of the Brown-Lyons Lecture and had previously provided limited financial support and assistance in advertising the event, according to Weinfeld.

In March 2020, a Weinstein JCC executive requested that the Brown-Lyons Lecture feature another speaker alongside Beinart to provide the perspective of “the other side,” according to a university official. The Weinstein JCC could not be reached for comment.

The 2020 lecture was canceled because of the pandemic. When Beinart was again secured for this year’s event, representatives of the three groups requested to be removed as sponsors. Weinfeld accommodated their request and apologized for including their names in promotional materials without prior confirmation.

Even after reneging their sponsorship, a Richmond Jewish Federation leader again suggested to VCU’s Judaic Studies program that the event should feature an additional speaker.

Individual members of the Richmond Jewish community also voiced “disappointment and anger” to JCFR leadership over Beinart’s invitation, according to a March 12 email sent by JCFR chief executive Daniel Staffenberg. In the email, Staffenberg emphasized that the JCFR “believes strongly that respectful and robust discussion about Israel, the Palestinian people and a two-state solution is important” and that the Federation is “focused on providing opportunities for respectful dialogue, education and diverse views about Israel.” And he described Beinart as holding “extreme views,” such as support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, or BDS, an international campaign to inflict economic pain on Israel until it ends its occupation of the West Bank, among other things. BDS is controversial in the United States; critics accuse it of being antisemitic because it questions Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

Beinart said he has never endorsed the BDS movement, although he supports conditioning U.S. military aid on Israeli behavior and boycotting products from Israeli settlements, a tactic that has been deployed by thought leaders and cultural icons within Israel.

Staffenberg declined to comment on Beinart’s scheduled lecture.

A VCU official confirmed that individuals had also reached out directly to university administration regarding the lecture.

“All of our events are open to the public, and we welcome participation in the conversation,” Weinfeld said in an emailed statement. “My goal with all the Judaic Studies programming I do at VCU is to broaden the range of conversation, including on issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I think Peter Beinart will do just that.”

Beinart said Staffenberg and other critics have mischaracterized his views. He has previously spoken at a variety of events sponsored and hosted by Jewish communal institutions, including Jewish Federations, Jewish Community Relations Councils, Hillels, and JCCs. He has also been uninvited as a speaker by Jewish organizations and faced criticism from Jewish leaders and other political commentators on Israeli policy due to his support for settlement boycotts.

“You have an organized communal leadership that often wants to limit the acceptable terms of discussion in Jewish spaces in ways that a growing number of American Jews, and particularly younger American Jews, are not comfortable with because it limits their ability to ask the questions they want to ask, and it limits their ability to follow their consciences and their understanding of Jewish tradition,” Beinart said.

National surveys show Beinart’s stances against the current Israeli government, settlements and the two-state solution are becoming increasingly popular among both Jewish Americans and the general U.S. population, especially young adults.

According to a March 2020 national survey conducted by the University of Maryland’s Critical Issues Poll, 63 percent of respondents said that if the two-state solution was no longer possible, they would support a single democratic state where Arabs and Jews are equal, even if that means Israel would no longer be a Jewish state. In 2018, the Critical Issues Poll also found that only one-third of 18- to 34-year-olds support a two-state solution, while 42 percent support a single democratic state in Israel and the Palestinian territories, compared with 32 percent of respondents older than 35.

When the Ruderman Family Foundation surveyed 2,500 Jewish American adults in December 2019, only 23 percent said they are pro-Israel and supportive of Israel’s government, while 57 percent identified as pro-Israel with “certain” or “heavy” criticism of the Israeli government.

The controversy at VCU is part of a growing trend in which Jewish communal institutions expect Jewish Studies professors to “toe a party line, which runs contrary to our training as scholars,” according to Barry Trachtenberg, the Rubin Presidential Chair of Jewish History at Wake Forest University.

“If I was in the field of Russian Studies, there would be no expectation that all of the speakers I bring would speak about how Vladimir Putin is this great Democrat who is doing wonderful things for Russian society,” Trachtenberg said. “I would bring scholars to speak on the status of queer Russians and their plight, or what’s happening in terms of Chechen independence, or the ways that Putin is stumbling into autocracy.”

Trachtenberg said the concept that every event involving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needs to feature multiple perspectives is “a standard that does not exist anywhere else” in academia.

“If you have a sociologist or demographer talking about gun violence, there is no one except the most extreme NRA-fringe people who would say, ‘We have a right to have an NRA representative on that stage in the name of balance,’” Trachtenberg said. “We don’t give these talks because we are pro or anti a certain position. We are trying to think through a set of questions that can inform our particular moment and get us to a better place.”

Lila Corwin Berman, the director of Temple University’s Feinstein Center for American Jewish History and the author of the “American Jewish Philanthropic Complex,” said that the consternation over Beinart’s speech “doesn’t necessarily mean that the totality of the Richmond Jewish community is up in arms,” and that the reaction is likely limited to “a few prominent wealthy people.”

“The wealthiest donors to Jewish communal life tend to fall more to the right than the bulk of American Jews and tend to be interested in funding activities that have to do with pro-Israel activism, and especially have to do with vigilance against what they see as anti-Israel activism on campuses,” Berman said, adding that accusing faculty of only representing one side and continuing to press VCU leadership over the issue “is encroaching on academic freedom.”

Beinart said efforts by Jewish communal leaders to restrain open academic inquiry are “bad for American public discourse, and contrary to the Jewish principle of open and provocative debate.”

“It says in [the ancient rabbinical text] Pirkei Avot, ‘Who is wise? The one who learns from all people,” he continued. “To me, that would be a good principle for the Jewish community to follow.”

Abby Seitz is a journalist based in Jerusalem.