March 9, 2011
Why I support J Street
I joined more than 2,400 pro-Israel, pro-peace activists — students and American and Israeli leaders, including five members of the Knesset, dozens of members of Congress and 100 rabbis, last week in Washington, D.C., at J Street’s second national conference.
Although I am the rabbi of a congregation, I went as an individual representing no one but myself. I did so as a committed Zionist who loves Israel, who worries about her security and who wishes her to remain a strong, Jewish, pluralistic and democratic state.
We convened at an extraordinary time as revolution sweeps across the Arab world. I have been moved and inspired by the masses of young people leading the way in so many countries who desire nothing more than dignity and freedom. It should be clear by now that these revolutions are not about Israel or America. We Jews who cherish our own freedom and independence as a nation cannot begrudge the same for others, including the Palestinians.
J Street recognizes that the status quo of Israeli control over the land between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea will not hold. Among the most significant messages of this conference was that as Israel’s friend and most important ally, the United States must put forth a bold vision for two states living side by side, independent and secure, moderate, democratic and free, before it is too late. Many speakers, American and Israeli, called upon President Obama to visit the region soon in order to jump start negotiations that will lead to an end-of-conflict agreement before September when the United Nations is expected to vote on Palestinian statehood, which instead should be negotiated between the parties.
No one said an agreement will come easily, but as we learned from the leak of the Palestine Papers, 35 separate negotiating sessions led former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in 2008 to resolve 95 percent of the issues between them. Olmert was even prepared to take the deal to the United States, the United Nations and other international groups to gain support.
Israeli and Palestinian leaders each acknowledged that the contours of the final status agreement are known. Orit Zuaretz, a Kadima MK, told us that now all we need is “a responsible adult to bring the two sides together.” Speaker after speaker pointed to the need for a muscular American President Obama to lead the way. The Israeli journalist Bernard Avishai said we don’t need merely a facilitator, we need a leader, quipping, “I’d be happier with a little more Dr. Kissinger and a little less Dr. Phil.”
The conference included a day of lobbying on which 600 people descended on Capitol Hill to ask members of Congress to sign a letter urging President Obama to maintain the current level of foreign aid to Israel ($3 billion) and the Palestinian Authority ($500 million), and not diminish foreign aid generally. I visited the offices of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Reps. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) and John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove). Attending the conference with me were 100 Southern California Jews out of the region’s 6,000 J Street members (there are 170,000 members nationwide) and about 10 local rabbis.
The Talmud teaches that the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed because of sinat chinam, gratuitous hatred between Jews. The conference focused on this enmity that, like a cancer, is corrupting the soul of the people of Israel. Our community here and in Israel must be able to engage openly and constructively on the challenges at hand without threats, intimidation or accusations that J Street is, in particular, an alien “other” outside the Israel camp. At a time in which Israel is the target of an international delegitimization campaign, it is sadly ironic that some Jews have sought to delegitimize important voices in the Jewish community, such as the pro-Israel J Street.
The conference showed that one can love Israel while wrestling with the changes taking place throughout the Middle East, embrace democracy and freedom for everyone and support a two-state solution to this conflict.
Though we American Jews must always defer to Israelis to make the difficult decisions that will affect Israel’s security, we American Zionists must speak up and urge the United States to put forth soon a bold vision that both Israelis and Palestinians can embrace.
There is so much about which to be proud of Israel. I wait fervently to be proud of the peace of the brave that Israel will make with its partners in the Palestinian Authority.