J Street founder Jeremy Ben Ami 311.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
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
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.”
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
I take it that Gordis agrees with that as well. He (not I)
labels those who resist the idea of a Palestinian State “morally
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.
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;
arrangements including demilitarization of the Palestinian state and
international forces on its borders to ensure against arms smuggling and
• 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
• 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
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
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
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
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
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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
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.