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Fareed Zakaria, celebrity journalist and host of the CNN program GPS, faced off with media mogul Haim Saban on the issue of Israel on Monday night at the Peninsula Beverly Hills. The choreographer of this rather tense yet amicable exchange was Nicolas Berggruen, who brought together a select group from the media, entertainment and political worlds to celebrate Zakaria’s new book In Defense of a Liberal Education, published last month by W.W. Norton and Co.
Zakaria, who has been labeled by Esquire as the “most influential foreign policy advisor of his generation,” was forced to shift gears from his discussion of education in America in order to respond to Saban’s allegation that he does not understand the situation with Israel. Saban, a major supporter of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party, was handed the mic following Zakaria’s remarks about the new book and got straight down to business: “Speaking of education, I think you need an education about what Israel really is.” Saban went on to say: “Your point of view is so anti-Israel, I’m banging my head against the wall every time I watch you. And I keep watching because I am a masochist, right?” Saban pledged to spend as much time as necessary with Zakaria to help him understand the realities Israel is facing. He then re-stated his challenge with some levity: “Your program is very, very unbalanced. We have ‘fair and balanced’ on Fox News, so let them have that,” he said, drawing moans from the crowd. “But seriously, Fareed. I think that you need to go through some change — I need to convert you.”
Responding to Saban’s challenge to his understanding of Israel, Zakaria gave a concise, impassioned history of the country, then outlined the issues it must address as a democracy with regards to the Palestinians, referring to the situation as a “creeping cancer that has grown larger and larger and larger.” Finally, he confronted Saban by saying, “Frankly, Haim, I don’t give a damn if you think taking that position is anti-Israeli. I think it is more pro-Israeli than you because I think you are selling the country down the river by continuing to say that whatever the Likudniks want is the right answer — no matter what — and kick the problem down the road, hoping one day we’ll sort it out. One day, you will have 10 million people who are living without a vote. No,” he continued as Saban requested the microphone. “The beauty of this, Haim, is that I have the mic, and as Ronald Reagan once said, ‘I paid for this microphone.’ Actually, Nicolas paid for it.”
The contentious exchange nearly overshadowed the topic of Zakaria’s book: education. His new treatise outlines his idea that America has come to dominate the global marketplace in part because of the broad-based, liberal education program that the nation pioneered. He expresses real concerns in the book that recent attacks on collegiate humanities programs threaten a system that promotes independent thinking and instills innovative problem-solving that nurtures the entrepreneurial spirit.
Zakaria spoke about a number of successful American entrepreneurs, including Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Los Angeles philanthropists Lynda and Stewart Resnick. “I had this fascinating conversation with Mark Zuckerberg, who says the key insight that animates Facebook is not technological, but psychological,” Zakaria said. “Before Facebook, the Internet was a land of anonymity. And his bet was that people wanted a forum where they could be themselves.” He pointed out that Zuckerberg studied psychology at Harvard and before that had passionately studied Greek at Phillips Exeter Academy. Zakaria closed his remarks about the new book by referencing early ideas on democracy from ancient Greece: “Because we are creating a revolution in governance, we need to create a revolution in education. If people are going to actually be in charge of their own affairs, they better be educated about it. They need to understand how to govern themselves.”
Berggruen and The WorldPost editor-in-chief Nathan Gardels hosted the small group of thinkers and businessmen, which Gardels referred to as “the whole global consciousness of L.A.,” to mark the launch of Zakaria’s book. The event coincided with the second day of the annual Milken Global Conference. Attendees gathered at the Verandah room at the Peninsula included Saban, Blackstone Group CEO and chairman Steve Schwartzman, financier David Bonderman, gallerist Larry Gagosian, producer Brian Grazer, producer Lawrence Bender, Phoenix Pictures CEO Mike Medavoy, former Prime Minister of Pakistan Shaukat Aziz, President of Rwanda Paul Kagame, essayist Pico Iyer, former California Gov. Gray Davis, Norman Lear, Pimco CEO Mohammed el Erian, Harvard historian and PBS presenter Niall Ferguson and neuroscientist Antonio Damasio.
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Jeriana San Juan