February 13, 2013
A Defense of J Street to Criticism from Fellow Reform Rabbis
What follows is my response to a flurry of letters posted by Reform Rabbis on our List Serve (RAVKAV) critical of J Street. Many of my colleagues charge that J Street ignores hostility to Israel throughout the Middle East, the growing influence and threat of Hamas in the Palestinian community, that Israel has no real partner to peace in Mahmud Abbas, and that J Street is constantly critiquing Israeli policies and not the Palestinians.
Note: I serve as the National co-chair of the J Street Rabbinic Cabinet with close to 700 rabbis of all religious streams - see J Street's website for all policy positions - www.jstreet.org.
In response to [the above] challenges to J Street, I want to offer J Street's stated position on a number of issues as well as its reasoning for a number of its positions.
Re: the issue of "calling for concessions by the Palestinians" - I would make two points:
(1) J Street has always made clear such views as
Those views are all in J Street's policy papers and on the J Street website – but not too much discussion or debate is ever generated by them because they are consensus points. There would be no need to set up a J Street in the first place if those were the thrust of our points – every Jewish organization agrees with and makes those points. That's why 2% of the ink spilled about J Street addresses or acknowledges these points;
(2) The reason why it seems to those who follow us/read about us that we are 98% of the time talking about what we are calling on Israel to do is that that's what there's an argument. Those who choose to argue/debate don't raise the issues on which we agree, they raise the issues on which we disagree. So that's why one hears a lot more about our belief that Israel should stop expanding settlements, or that the US should play a more active role in leading the peace effort, and that such parameters as the borders need to be based on the '67 lines with swaps or that both countries should have a capital in Jerusalem should be put forward by the US.
On the issue of primarily focusing on Israel – it's hard not to disagree with the theory that, even though we're Jews and we engage in this issue (as opposed to peace in Mali) because we care so deeply about Israel and the Jewish people, we somehow shouldn't be more focused on the Jewish side of the equation. The entirety of this debate actually is about what it means to be pro-Israel – not what it means to be pro-Palestinian. We believe it is pro-Israel to advocate for Israelis to stop building settlements. We believe it is pro-Israel to advocate for US leadership in getting a deal. Of course it's pro-Israel to advocate that the Palestinians should stop incitement and fight terror – but we're going to have little impact on the internal Palestinian debate on how best to gain their freedom (even though we have made statements precisely on those points). We are going to have an impact on the Jewish debate over what it means to be pro-Israel.
On the Palestinian partner question, J Street obviously just disagrees. Abbas, Fayyad and this PLO/PA leadership ARE a partner for peace despite Abbas' rhetoric at the UN, about which I was sickened. However, their being considered partners in peace is not just in J Street's opinion but in the opinion of such Israeli leaders as former Prime Ministers, the President of Israel, former heads of the Israeli security services. No, Mahmoud Abbas is not a Zionist. That's no surprise. When, as the leader of the Palestinian people, he addresses the international community directly he will be – as we would expect our leaders to be – a fierce advocate for the rights of his people, which we have to acknowledge are in conflict with the rights of our people. If he were to do less, he would be completely abdicating his role and he would sacrifice the last shred of legitimacy and credibility that he has. For anyone to simply state that "it is a reality" that Abbas and the PLO are "not yet committed to offering themselves as serious partners in the peace process" is simply an opinion that is out of step with the moderate mainstream of Israeli policy makers and analysts. It's such a person’s right to hold that opinion and it's J Street's right to believe that s/he is wrong. If one is waiting for Abbas to come to Israel and announce up front that the Palestinian people renounce their right to the land as "theirs," s/he will sadly watch a bloody, violent struggle continue for the rest of his/her life, and the state of Israel gradually will become more and more internationally isolated and shunned. If one is willing to recognize that peace will be made between two leaders/people who fiercely believe they are "in the right" but are willing to compromise at the end of the day to achieve peace and end bloodshed, then maybe there's hope.
Let me say one more thing. I deeply appreciate the civility with which those who have posted are writing. That is a win for everyone. I would hope that those who hold views that presume J Street is one-sided will take a second look at J Street's positions and approach to a two-state solution. It is, in my view, the only way forward. I am well-aware of the risks. I understand that Israelis are the ones on the front lines and that we in Galut have only a secondary right to speak. But, I also know that so many hundreds of thousands of Israelis agree with J Street's position, or should I say, that J Street agrees with their position.