Good morning and welcome to Jerusalem. It’s a pleasure to meet with this Leadership Mission; I understand that there are some first time visitors to Israel among you, so a particular welcome to those of you who’ve never been here before.
Before we got seated, one member of your group conveyed a message from the Israeli Consul General in his home community. The message was that I shouldn’t speak to you. As you can imagine, I received similar advice from a wide array of people after I received your invitation; but I’ve chosen to ignore it. As most of you know, I disagree strongly with much of what you do. But I think that we have an obligation to meet with people with whom we disagree. Given the extent of the forces aligned against Israel, seeking to delegitimize the very idea of a Jewish State, the pro-Israel camp needs a big tent. Neither Israel nor the Jewish People will survive if we work only with those with whom we agree. A big tent, by definition, means including people whom we disagree passionately, but who still share our basic goals.
Even a big tent, though, has its limits. There are things that one can say, or do, that place a person or an organization outside that tent. You know very well that there are many people who believe that J-Street is outside the tent, not in it. I’m not yet certain. That’s why I’m here.
Let me begin with a basic assumption: I assume that we want the same thing. We seek two states in this region, one a thriving, Jewish, democratic Israel, and the other a thriving, non-Jewish, democratic Palestine. Of course, there are Israelis on both ends of the political spectrum who do not wish this. Some Israelis no longer believe in the importance of a Jewish State and would prefer a State “of all its citizens” between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. But as that would make Jews a minority in this country and thus end the Zionist project, I’m utterly opposed to that. There are also Israelis who still resist the idea of a Palestinian State and who would prefer to either exile millions of Palestinians or forever keep them under our thumb as non-citizens, either of which is morally obtuse. But the vast majority of Israelis, if presented with a genuine opportunity to live side by side a democratic, transparent, peaceful, de-militarized Palestine, would accept it.
So, assuming that that’s what you also seek, I assume that our disagreement is about how to get there. You believe that people who are not willing to make major territorial concessions to the Palestinians right now are not serious about a two-state solution. You think that those of us who claim that we favor a two-state solution but who are not willing to give up the store at this moment are bluffing. Or we’re liars. Or, at best, we’re well-intentioned but misguided. But bottom line, if we’re not willing now to make the concessions that you think are called for, then we’re not really pursuing peace.
But that is arrogance of the worst sort. Does your distance from the conflict give you some moral clarity that we don’t have? Are you smarter than we are? Are you less racist? Why do you assume with such certainty that you have a monopoly on the wisdom needed to get to the goal we both seek?
In preparing for this morning’s session, I did a bit of reading of statements that you’ve issued on a whole array issues. One, just released, is a perfect example of the certainty and arrogance of which I’m speaking. Reacting to the most recent Fatah-Hamas agreement, this is what J-Street had to say:
“In fact, many who oppose a two-state deal have, in recent years, done so by arguing that divisions among the Palestinians make peace impossible. Obviously, reconciliation [between Fatah and Hamas] reduces that obstacle – but now skeptics of a two-state agreement have immediately stepped forward to say that a deal is impossible with a Palestinian unity government that includes Hamas.”
“Obviously,” you say, “reconciliation reduces the obstacle [to a peace treaty].” But I would caution you against ever using the word “obviously” when it comes to the Middle East. Nothing here is obvious. If you think that something is obvious, then you simply haven’t thought enough. Why is it obvious that Fatah’s signing a deal with Hamas, which rejects Israel’s very right to exist, reduces obstacles to peace? Isn’t it just as plausible that it makes peace impossible, or that signing a deal and returning large swathes of land to a group still sworn on our destruction would be suicidal? I suppose that reasonable minds could debate this matter, but how is it “obvious” that this is good news for peace?
And then you go on to say that “skeptics of a two-state agreement have immediately stepped forward to say that a deal is impossible with a Palestinian unity government that includes Hamas.” There you go again, telling us that if we don’t agree with you, then we’re not serious or honest. If we think that the Fatah-Hamas deal is terrible news for peace, then we’re just “skeptics of a two-state agreement.” In your worldview, there’s no possibility that we’re just a bit more nervous than you are, that we do not want to make a mistake that will turn our own homes into Sederot, that we are frightened of restoring the horror of 2000-2004 to our streets, buses and restaurants. No, that possibility doesn’t exist, because anyone who doesn’t agree with you is by definition a “skeptic of the two-state agreement.” I’d suggest that if you want to convince those of us still deciding whether you’re part of the big tent that you are “in,” that you drop this sort of condescension. It’s arrogant and intellectually shallow; it doesn’t serve you well.
And if you want those of us who are still unsure to become convinced that you are part of the Big Tent, then I have another piece of advice for you – recognize that not everyone can be part of the tent. There are groups who are clearly opposed to Israel’s existence as a Jewish state; they are our enemies. It doesn’t matter if they are in Israel or outside, or if they are Jewish or not. If they are working to end Israel, or to end it as a Jewish and democratic state, then they are our enemies, plain and simple. There are enemies who cannot be loved or compromised into submission, and you need to recognize that. The BDS [Boycott, Divest and Sanction] movement is a case in point. No one in their right mind doubts that BDS is opposed to Israel’s continued existence as a Jewish State. So why were they invited to your annual conference? There need to be limits to those whom you’d welcome into your tent. You need to show us that you care about Israel more than you care about dialogue with Israel’s enemies.
I still remember the first time I was struck by this tendency of yours to assail Israel when you’d been silent about what Israel’s enemies were doing. It was the first day of the Gaza War at the end of 2008. Sederot had been shelled intermittently for eight years, and relentlessly in the days prior to the beginning of the war. It was obvious that this couldn’t go on, for the first obligation of states to their citizens is to protect them. For years, Israel had been failing the citizens of Sederot. But when Israel finally decided to do what any legitimate state would do, J-Street immediately called for a cessation of hostilities. The war was only hours old, nothing had been accomplished and the citizens of Sederot were still no safer than they had been. But J-Street had had enough. Why? Why had you said almost nothing for all the years that Sederot was being shelled, but within hours of the war’s beginning were calling for it to end? What matters more to you – the safety of Israel’s citizens, or advancing your own moral agenda in our region of the world?
If you want us to be convinced that you’re in the Big Tent, show us. Show us that there are times that you will stand up for Israel, not her enemies. Explain why you lobbied Congress against a resolution condemning incitement in Palestinian schools. Explain why, when Israel is marginalized as never before (a recent poll showed that Europeans rank Israel and North Korea as the greatest threats to world peace!), you pressured the US not to veto a UN resolution on settlements, which the mainstream of American Jewry all thought need to be vetoed.
And ask yourselves this: if you were to take all the money you’re spending in the United States and do your work here in Israel, trying to strengthen the political parties who are more inclined to do what you seek, how much traction would you get? We all know that you would get a pretty chilly reception. Ask yourself why that is. Is it that we Israelis really don’t want to end this conflict? We enjoy sending our children off to war? We look forward to the next funeral at Mount Herzl? We’re not aware that time is not on our side?
Or is it that we live here, and that even rank and file Israelis know a bit more about the complexity of this conflict than you give us credit for? Why would you assume that we’re stupid, or immoral, or addicted to the conflict? Why do you insist that the Fatah-Hamas agreement is a good thing, or that it’s best for Israel if the United States twists its arm even harder? At a time when Israel is so alone, can you see why it’s hard for many of us to buy the argument that you’re genuinely pro-Israel, or that you should be part of the Big Tent?
It’s time for you to show us. Show us that you seek peace, that you care about the Palestinians, but that even more (yes, more, because that’s what the particularism of peoplehood requires), that you care about us. It’s one thing to put “pro-Israel” in your tag line, and another to be “pro-Israel.” You certainly don’t need to be a rubber stamp for Israeli policy – that’s not what’s at issue. Israel desperately needs critique, and Israelis issue it all the time. So, too, should Diaspora Jews.
No, what’s at issue is for us to see you pressure someone, anytime, to be in Israel’s camp on something. That’s what we want to see. When we see that, more of us will believe that you’re part of our tent, and then, even with all our disagreements, we’ll be convinced that we could work together for a better future for all the peoples of this region.
“True,” Ben Ami answered, “neither Gordis nor Fayyad raised the occupation, but we’re here to remind Israelis that you can’t pretend that the occupation isn’t part of reality.”
So here’s my final suggestion – if the way that you’re framing the issues is no longer the way that Israelis and Palestinians are discussing them, is it possible that you are not even addressing the core issues that matter to the people actually in the conflict? Perhaps the time has come to ask yourselves what matters to you more: actually moving the policy needle, or assuaging your own discomfort with the undeniably painful complexities of this conflict. If what you want to do is to affect policy, how effective would you say you’ve been thus far?
[All images courtesy of Daniel Gordis]
The following is a response from J Street’s President, Jeremy Ben-Ami, in the Jerusalem Post:
At some point our opponents should stop ducking the underlying issue: the sustainability of the path that Israel is on.
About a month ago, a group of J Street’s Board members and donors met with Daniel Gordis of the Shalem Center during our annual Leadership Mission. J Street makes a real effort to hear a wide range of voices on its trips, from settler leaders to human rights activists, from conservatives like Gordis to those on the Left of the political spectrum.
I appreciated Gordis’s willingness to share his thoughts, even as it was clear there are real differences in how we view the difficult challenges facing Israel and our role as a community in responding to them. I am hopeful, when we next meet, he will choose to listen to J Street’s perspectives and to substantively engage those who hold them, instead of resorting to spurious arguments.
Our first, and most profound, disagreement is with his questioning whether we are in or out of the pro-Israel tent. We are not only in the tent, but, unlike Gordis, we want a tent big enough to accommodate all those committed to securing Israel’s future.
LET ME start with the heart of the matter: J Street believes unequivocally in the right of the state of Israel to exist and the right of the Jewish people to a nation of their own. We are fiercely committed to Israel and support its right to defend itself from external threats. In our opinion, that should be the basic price of admission to the “pro-Israel tent.”
Our tent should be opened as wide as possible to friends of Israel, even those who are at times critical of the government’s policies. Seeking to shrink the tent seems counterproductive at best at a time when increasing numbers of Jews and others are growing more estranged from Israel.
J Street places at the core of our pro-Israel ideology the belief that Israel can only make it as both a democracy and the national home of the Jewish people if there is also a national home of the Palestinian people living beside it in peace and security.
I take it that Gordis agrees with that as well. He (not I) labels those who resist the idea of a Palestinian State “morally obtuse.”
So J Street’s notion that the creation of a Palestinian state through a two-state solution is a core Israeli national interest wouldn’t seem to be outside Gordis’s tent either.
The question becomes – as always – how to get to two states. And this, frankly, is where J Street is more in line with the mainstream consensus than Gordis and our other opponents.
Let me summarize in just a few words our vision of a reasonable two-state solution:
• Two states for two peoples – with borders whose definition should be based on the 1967 lines adjusted through equivalent and mutually agreed land swaps so that the major settlement blocs can remain inside Israel;
• Security arrangements including demilitarization of the Palestinian state and international forces on its borders to ensure against arms smuggling and terrorism;
• Resolution of the refugee issue through financial compensation and relocation of refugees to the state of Palestine or third countries (i.e., “no right of return to Israel” – though negotiations could provide for some minimal family reunification);
• The capital of both states in Jerusalem – with Jewish neighborhoods part of Israel and Arab neighborhoods part of Palestine; a special international regime would administer the holy sites, ensuring free access for all.
Gordis may or may not agree with this rather simple outline – and I would be more than happy to engage with him in a public and vibrant discussion of the merits of this proposal. Perhaps in Jerusalem in a public venue? Maybe repeat it in Washington, New York and LA?
WHETHER ONE agrees with it or not, it would be quite a statement to argue that these positions are somehow “outside the pro-Israel tent” since it’s virtually identical to the proposals of Israel’s recent prime ministers, many of its leading former military, diplomatic and security officials, the Kadima party (which holds the most seats of any faction in the Knesset), and the majority of Israel’s newspaper editorial boards and columnists.
As opposition leader Tzipi Livni puts it, achieving a deal along these lines is not a “favor” to the Palestinians. It’s not something that Israel should do because it’s worried about what the world or President Barack Obama or J Street’s American Jewish supporters think. It is the deal Israel should close now if it can because it is so deeply in its own national interest.
In the words of a newspaper ad signed by nearly 100 of Israel’s most prominent citizens two weeks ago, the creation of a Palestinian state now is an “existential” interest for Israel.
I would challenge Gordis to lay out a realistic path to a two-state solution to which both parties could agree and that the world would accept with parameters other than those outlined above.
I am sorry that – rather than address this challenge – Gordis and many who disagree with us choose to divert the discussion by turning the spotlight on J Street with attacks on us rather than answers to the arguments we raise on their merits.
Why doesn’t Gordis make the case for how Israel is going to survive as a Jewish and a democratic state without making major territorial concessions to the Palestinians now? I believe it’s because he and other neoconservatives cannot credibly argue that the present situation is sustainable for Israel. So they switch the topic to an array of wrongs supposedly committed by J Street.
Take Hamas. J Street unequivocally condemns Hamas for the use of violence and terror to achieve its ends. We call on Hamas to release captured IDF soldier Gilad Schalit. We condemn the firing of rockets from Gaza into Israel and agree that the state of Israel has the right and the duty to protect its citizens and to defend itself, within reasonable limits.
We believe – as do many leading Israeli politicians, former security officials, and commentators – that the proper approach to the reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah is to “wait and see” how the new government acts, what it says and who is actually a part of it rather than to leap either to condemn or embrace it precipitously. We remember that the division among the Palestinian people prior to reconciliation was itself regularly cited as a serious obstacle to ending the conflict.
Similarly on boycotts, divestment and sanctions, J Street has made its opposition to the Global BDS Movement clear. We have spoken out against boycotts and divestment initiatives all across the country, regularly working with Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other Jewish organizations. Our effectiveness in countering such efforts is acknowledged, but I would ask how we’re supposed to engage, debate and persuade those who might be attracted to the BDS Movement if Gordis and others attack us for speaking in the same hall or forum with them?
We believe the Jewish community is strong enough to handle a vigorous and spirited debate – not simply between Daniel Gordis and J Street but between J Street and Jewish Voice for Peace.
We’re happy to continue to answer these and any other questions that Gordis and others may have about J Street’s pro-Israel credentials, but at some point our opponents should stop ducking the underlying issue: the sustainability of the path that Israel is on.
Whatever the size and dimensions of the pro-Israel tent Gordis and others choose to build, my concern is whether the miraculous nation my family and people have built can survive another five, 10 or 63 years without decisive action now to achieve a two-state solution, to establish Israel’s borders and affirm its international legitimacy.
In my view and in the view of many, both in and out of the country, the state of Israel is heading off a cliff. Without a change in the status quo, the Jews of Israel will soon be a minority ruling over a majority of non- Jews while denying them their democratic rights.
This is strategically and morally unsustainable. It’s a future that does not augur well for the state of Israel or for the Jewish people more broadly, whether we live there or not.
As a people, we can spend the remaining time before we reach the cliff debating whether those issuing warnings and proposing solutions that may be unpopular belong in the pro-Israel tent, or we can focus on how to save the tent itself.
When we reach the cliff, those of us not living in Israel won’t suffer as immediately as those who do. This is true. But we – your brothers and sisters, your closest friends and family – we will suffer with and for you.
Our children and grandchildren will ask us what we could have done to save Israel. And if we do nothing, we will be asked how it was that we sat by in silence.
At least those of us involved in J Street today will never have to explain how it is that, with our tent under threat, we spent our energy arguing over whom we’d allow inside.
The writer is the founder and president of J Street, the political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement.
Thank you for posting that, Evan.
I’m very glad to have read this. Although I’ve been to several J-Street events (and initially liked the group, since I’m very progressive) it seems to me that this is an organization more interested in its image than in actually creating progress on the Israeli efforts at peace. By consistently attacking the Israeli government, lobbying against efforts to stop a nuclear Iran, and of course, by aiding and abetting the campaign to delegitimize Israel, J-Street is pushing the sides further apart, not closer together. I don’t think the Jewish community can really stand with J-Street anymore, and it is not surprising to me that the organization is seriously stumbling today. Good post.
Dave, you make some pretty harsh accusations without providing any evidence. Since you’re very progressive, would you mind providing some basis for your opinions?