Last month, I posted here announcing the first J Street Minnesota event, an evening with J Street Founder and President Jeremy Ben-Ami and former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, Colette Avital. The event took place at Mount Zion synagogue in St. Paul on Wednesday October 20, and attracted over 400 members of the community. Also in attendance were two Members of Congress, Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum.
For those of you who did not attend, both Ben-Ami and Avital spoke about their strongly held views that Israel must reach an agreement with the Palestinians soon in order to thrive as a Jewish and democratic state. Ben-Ami, the founder and president of J Street, explained his background and his strong ties to Israel. His ancestors were in the very first group to emigrate to what was then Palestine, and later were among the founders of Tel Aviv. His father was in the Irgun, and family dinners included long debates over the best way to secure Israel’s future. After working and living in Israel, Ben-Ami worked on presidential campaigns in the United States and served in the Clinton White House.
Ben-Ami explained that he and others had the idea to start J Street because they believed that our community needed another voice when it came to Israel. They believed that many Jews in the United States wanted to support Israel, but did not subscribe to an “Israel right or wrong” approach. After acknowledging the outstanding work that AIPAC has done securing military and financial support for Israel and solidifying our country’s relationship with Israel, he explained that many in the American Jewish community wanted a political pro-Israel home that permitted them to disagree with Israeli policies, particularly those that stood in the way of a two state solution. He founded J Street to provide a political home to pro-Israel, pro-Peace members of the community who wanted to advocate for peace as a means of securing Israel’s future. In the past two years, J Street has grown tremendously, with offices and staff around the country, lobbyists in Washington, D.C. and a growing presence on universities and colleges in all parts of the United States.
After Ben-Ami, Avital talked about her early days working in the Israeli government. After leaving the army, Avital worked for Golda Meir. Over the past few decades, Avital has held positions for the Israeli government in New York, Boston, Brussels, and elsewhere. She then served in the Knesset and rose to the position of Deputy Speaker. Avital explained that Israelis like herself believe that it is essential that the government reach an agreement with the Palestinians. Noting the urgency of current demographic trends, Avital stated that, in order to remain a Jewish democracy that provides full rights to all of its citizens, Israel must separate from the Palestinians and live side-by-side. Because of the growth of the Palestinian population, Israel cannot remain a Jewish state and a democracy much longer unless a two state solution is reached.
Avital also explained that she believes Israel should return to the peace talks without preconditions. She specifically addressed the Prime Minister’s recent requirement that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state before continuing with negotiations. Avital stated, “we are a Jewish state, I don’t need them to say so.” In Avital’s view, too often both sides come up with reasons not to find peace, and let opportunities pass. Indeed, Avital stated that the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the growing danger of radical Islam compelled Israel to reach a deal with those Palestinians who are interested in peace. “We will never talk to Hamas,” she said, but Israel can and must talk to those who are willing to be partners in peace.
Both Ben-Ami and Avital described their efforts as part of the Zionist cause: others created and developed the State of Israel as a Jewish democracy, it is now up to us to make certain that it survives and prospers. This, they asserted, requires a two state solution.
As the chair of this event, I was pleased to see such a strong, positive reaction from those in attendance. Avital received a standing ovation at the end of her talk and was greeted warmly by many who simply wanted to shake her hand and thank her for coming to Minnesota. Many people from all segments of the community came up to those of us who worked on the event afterward asking how they can get involved in J Street.
For those who want to get involved, J Street will be holding an organizational meeting on November 10, at Temple Israel. If you want to learn more, please contact us at the J Street Minnesota website. Or, call me.
(Photo: Francisco Diez)