March 27, 2012
After spending three days at the J Street conference in Washington, D.C., and hearing one speaker after another talk about the importance of a two-state solution, I’ve come to the conclusion that Jews are blessed with two attributes: one, an unlimited capacity to tolerate the tedious repetition of the obvious, and two, an extraordinary ability to work on improving ourselves and taking responsibility for what happens to us.
It is this second impulse that I want to focus on. Throughout the conference — from Amos Oz declaring the urgent imperative to “divorce” our Palestinian neighbors, to Peter Beinart reaffirming his call for a boycott of settlements, to countless speakers exhorting us to aim for the highest ideals of Judaism and Zionism — the implication was clear that, somehow, everything is in our hands.
The shadow of the high-achieving Jewish parent hovered above the conference — the parent who always told us: If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.
After all, we’re the Jews, right? We’re the people of the miracles, of the seas that split wide open, of the enemy armies that bow to our will, of the Nobel Prize winners who are the wonders of the world.
If we, the great chosen people, can’t take responsibility for bringing peace to the Middle East, then who can?
There was something flattering, even oddly reassuring, about this level of self-confidence. It’s nice to know there are Jews who still have faith in our ability to accomplish the impossible. But while I appreciated their enthusiasm and confidence, it unsettled me.
Where J Street people saw a pathway to a two-state solution, all I saw was the brick wall of Arab rejectionism. Where they saw the need to pressure Israel, all I saw was the wrong target.
After I spoke on a panel, someone stood up and complained that her “right-wing friends” call her “anti-Israel” because she’s a member of J Street. I responded that labels like “pro-Israel” and “anti-Israel” are not useful because they describe people rather than action.
For example, J Street promotes putting most of the pressure on Israel to make peace. I believe that’s wrong and misguided. But instead of calling its members “pro-Israel” or “anti-Israel,” I prefer to call them “pro-pressure-Israel.” It’s more accurate.
From that perspective, they are “pro-pressure-Israel” and I am “pro-pressure-Palestinians.” I am that way not because I think Israel is blame-free or makes no mistakes, but because I believe we will get closer to peace by pressuring the Palestinians than by pressuring Israel.
I can come to that conclusion because I don’t think “it’s all about us.”
To the credit of the organizers, they invited a speaker who made that same point loud and clear: Rabbi Donniel Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute. Hartman spoke of balancing power with humility, “contracting ourselves” to allow for differing views and acknowledging that “it’s not always about us.”
It’s a sign of how firmly J Street sits on the “pro-pressure-Israel” side that when Deputy Israel Ambassador Barukh Binah made a rousing defense of Israel at the closing gala, he was hit with a sudden burst of indifference.
It’s clear that J Street is trying to reach out and broaden its movement. To that end, I would make two suggestions for next year:
One, if you really want to promote peace, broaden your targets of criticism. Put as much pressure on the Palestinians as you do on Israel. Show more sensitivity to the fear many Israelis have that a two-state solution will create another Jew-hating terror state — on top of a nuclear Iran. Defend Israel as much as you criticize it.
Two, if you really want to empower Israel, broaden your mission. Don’t put all your eggs on the Palestinian conflict. No matter how much you hate the occupation, Israelis won’t vote to end it if they see withdrawal as suicidal. (Even Leon Wieseltier, the self-described “hawkish dove,” told me he doesn’t expect to see a two-state solution in his lifetime.)
So, while you will surely continue to work for a two-state solution, broaden your mission to include a “22-state solution.”
Show the world that Jews care about all Arabs, not just the Palestinians who can give us a two-state solution. Jews also care about the Palestinians suffering in the squalid refugee camps of Jordan and Lebanon. We also care about the plight of women and other oppressed and poor people throughout the Middle East.
Yes, Israel is an imperfect democracy that needs a lot of improving, and we should continue to help it improve. But let’s be real: It would be extraordinary if every country in the Middle East had the same opportunities, freedoms and human rights that this flawed and imperfect Jewish nation already provides.
Israel has learned an enormous amount in its 64 years of existence that also can benefit the countries in its neighborhood. As Jennifer Laszlo Mizrachi of The Israel Project pointed out at the conference, there is an opportunity now to start a “people-to-people” movement using social networks that can plant the seeds for economic partnerships and peaceful co-existence.
The way I see it, reaching out for a 22-state solution will improve the prospects for a two-state solution, not the other way around.
Think of how empowering and ennobling it would be for Israel to be seen as a model and active participant in a new Middle East Spring. Of course, there is so much animosity toward the Jews and Israel that this would be a monumental task.
But we’re Jews, remember? If we put our minds to it, we can do the impossible. Just look at that little miracle country we built.
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.