Jewish Journal


April 12, 2011

Jeremy Ben-Ami and David Suissa face-off over Israel


J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami, left, in conversation with Jewish Journal columnist David Suissa at Temple Israel of Hollywood on April 11.  Photo by Jonah Lowenfeld

J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami, left, in conversation with Jewish Journal columnist David Suissa at Temple Israel of Hollywood on April 11. Photo by Jonah Lowenfeld

On April 11, David Suissa, a columnist for The Journal, joined Jeremy Ben-Ami, president and founder of J Street, the self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby group, for a discussion about what it means to be “pro-Israel.” (SEE COMPLETE VIDEO BELOW)

It was an evening for civil discourse and hard questions, particularly one asked quite often in the two years of J Street’s rapid rise to prominence: Can groups and individuals criticize policies of the Israeli government yet still be pro-Israel?

The topic was nearly identical to one addressed by a committee in the Israeli Knesset in March, but the Monday night event, which drew more than 600 people to Temple Israel of Hollywood, could scarcely have been more different from that investigation.

If the Knesset hearing was designed to endorse or reject Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government’s decision to either isolate or ignore J Street, the “community conversation” at the synagogue assumed such a policy would be wrongheaded.

“Not to argue with each other about important ideas is simply un-Jewish,” Temple Israel Senior Rabbi John Rosove said in his introduction.

Co-sponsored by J Street (and by The Jewish Journal, along with a number of local synagogues), the evening was designed to steer clear of rancorous debate even as it attracted a politically varied audience. Rabbis Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom,  Zoë Klein of Temple Isaiah, Shmuly Yanklowitz of UCLA Hillel and Sharon Brous of IKAR were each invited to ask one question of the speakers.

Because the evening was organized to focus primarily on the way the Jewish community talks internally about Israel, the discussion felt, at times, oblique.

At no time was this more apparent than when Suissa dispensed with many of the best-known critiques of J Street in an early aside. “I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint all my friends on the right who’ve been asking me to take the gloves off,” he said before quickly running through criticisms of J Street, ranging from the money that the group received (but did not initially disclose) from George Soros, to the way the group is alleged to have escorted South African jurist Richard Goldstone around to the offices of lawmakers in Washington D.C. (Ben-Ami denied the latter point, but not the former.)

Ben-Ami used a similarly light touch when he used one of the metaphors frequently employed by the left — that Israel, by building settlements in the West Bank at a time when negotiations over the land have not been completed, has been eating pieces of a pizza while still discussing how that pizza should be split.

Story continues after the jump.

Part 1

Part 2

Ben-Ami said that he hoped the event would be a chance to model the kind of conversation he wanted to see within the Jewish community and invited Suissa to speak at the next J Street conference. Suissa accepted — albeit with a groan.

“You can ‘oy’ all you want,” Rosove said, “as long as you come.”

All told, the two speakers ended up spending a fair amount of the evening focusing on their similarities rather than on their differences, including:

• Both believe in the premise of “two states for two peoples” (although Suissa took issue with Ben-Ami’s presentation of that solution to the conflict as something that needs to be resolved immediately);
• Both love the city of Jerusalem (although Ben-Ami seemed more willing than Suissa to accept a two-state solution that involves sharing the city); and
• Both see the prospect of the United Nations’ voting to recognize a Palestinian state at the General Assembly in September as a grave diplomatic threat to Israel (although they certainly don’t agree as to what Israel, the United States or American Jews should do about it).

The main point of disagreement between the two men was elicited by a pointed question from Feinstein.

Both speakers, Feinstein said, were fighting against fantasies. Ben-Ami is up against the right wing’s fear that if Israel gives away land in the West Bank, it will suffer more Hamas-launched rocket attacks, like those coming from Gaza, as a result.

Suissa, on the other hand, faces the left’s nightmare scenario that the longer Israel holds onto the West Bank, the more radical the Palestinian population becomes, to the point that it would be taken over by Hamas.

“The question is,” Feinstein said, “how do you proceed with policymaking?”

Their answers were familiar. Ben-Ami proposed that Israel stop building in the West Bank — of its own accord — because it would help to make a peace deal. Suissa, who focused much of his attention on combating the idea that the Israeli settlements are the primary obstacle to a peaceful resolution of the conflict, argued that giving land for peace had been tried before and failed. He wants Palestinians to stop the practice of incitement against Israel and be required to come to the negotiating table without preconditions.

What was surprising — on the part of both men — were their acknowledgments of the uncertainties associated with both of their positions.

“Those who, like me, argue that Israel can only be secure and safe and have a future that we can hold onto and relate to by making peace cannot guarantee that signing that agreement will lead to peace,” Ben-Ami said. “We can’t guarantee that there won’t be future terror. We can’t guarantee that there won’t be rockets and bombs and suicide attacks.

“In fact,” Ben-Ami continued, “I would go so far as to say those of us who are arguing for an effort to make a two-state deal need to be honest with everybody upfront and say, ‘There will be terrorism and there will be threats, and there’s going to be a lot more need for security after a deal.’ ”

Suissa’s most surprising comment came at an earlier point in the evening, when he acknowledged he didn’t necessarily have a clear set of steps that Israel — or the United States, or American Jews — should be taking next.

“All my friends on the left have this one fantastic argument: What do we do now?” Suissa said, preempting what he called the best response to his position. “It’s a great question.”

Ultimately, Suissa argued forcefully as to why J Street and others on the left were wrong to pressure Israel in pursuit of a peace deal and why he believes the focus on settlements covers up real obstacles to peace (Hamas, the Palestinian right of return).

But when Ben-Ami ticked off the basic shape a Palestinian state would likely take — 70 percent of the Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank to be incorporated into Israel; land-swaps to make up the difference; and the fate of the city-size settlement of Ariel still to be determined — Suissa nodded along in agreement.

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