"This experience has taught me I should be boycotted more often," Peter Beinart quipped to a packed room Wednesday night, thanking those in attendance for the hospitality he had been shown since arriving in the southern city.
Beinart was originally one of 52 writers invited to speak at this week's Book Festival of the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta, which attracts about 10,000 people each year. Bowing to pressure from some local Jews offend by Beinart's views, festival organizers then canceled his scheduled appearance – sparking a backlash to the backlash.
Beinart was then scheduled to speak in a smaller venue in downtown Atlanta, nearly 20 miles (32 kilometers) from the festival site at the suburban community center. The 200 seats allotted for his talk quickly sold out.
A popular blogger and associate professor of journalism and political science at The City University of New York, Beinart's most recent book "The Crisis of Zionism" criticizes hawkish Jewish leaders in Israel and the United States for their continued support for Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories seized in 1967 during the Six-Day War.
Beinart argued it is these conservative Jewish leaders, not the Palestinians, who are the primary obstacles to peace, thereby making the future of the Jewish state more precarious and less democratic.
"The problem is not that Jews live in the West Bank," Beinart said. "It is today the West Bank is a place where, contrary to the vision of Israel's founders, citizenship is ethnically based, where Jews and Palestinians live under a different law."
Beinart said the system, where millions of Palestinians are subjected to the routine humiliations of living under military rule while Jewish settlers receive government housing subsidies and security, will eventually force Israelis to choose between having a Jewish nation or a democratic one.
"By supporting settlement growth you are pushing the Palestinians in the exact direction we don't want them to go," he said.
For many Jews, such open criticism of Israel and its leader, pro-settlement Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, borders on heresy, especially coming from a member of their own tribe.
The debate exemplifies a deepening divide among Jewish Americans, roughly represented by organizations like the traditional pro-Israel lobbying group American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and J Street, a liberal-leaning group that promotes a two-state solution through diplomacy instead of military action.
Beinart's talk in Atlanta happened to coincide Wednesday with a sharp escalation of the conflict, with Israeli warplanes bombing targets in the Gaza Strip, killing the military leader of Hamas in retaliation for weeks of rocket attacks on towns in southern Israel.
Beinart said he fully supports Israel's right to defend itself, but suggested the Jewish state's continued military blockade of the densely populated and impoverished Gaza Strip strengthened Hamas' hold on political power rather than weakened it.
Not dissimilarly, the decision to ban Beinart from speaking at the book festival appeared to heighten interest in what he had to say.
The community center's president, Steve Cadranel, emphasized in a statement that it is a nonpartisan and nonpolitical organization and said the center helped arrange for Beinart to speak instead at the historic Atlanta home of the novelist Margaret Mitchell, author of "Gone With the Wind."
"In the end, the decision to avoid risking that the MJCCA might be seen as sponsoring a 'controversial position on Israeli politics' and working to secure an alternative venue for Mr. Beinart to share his views, seemed to be the best course," he said.
Israel was founded in response to the slaughter of millions in the Holocaust, providing Jews a homeland of their own for the first time in 2,000 years. Unless Israelis make a fair and lasting peace with their Palestinian neighbors, Beinart warned, that nation might turn out to be built on sand.
"Zionism at its core, I believe, is about giving Jews control over our own destiny," he said. "Settlement growth threatens the core of the Zionist dream because it takes that destiny out of Jewish hands."