Peter Beinart meets students at J Street conference 370.
(photo credit: J Street)
Washington – Over the past few decades, a strange affliction has seized the
American Jewish community.
As part of a people who pride themselves on
questioning everything, debating everything and taking nothing at face value, we
have suddenly become speechless when it comes to Israel.
Many of our
leaders regard it as their duty to maintain a kind of Stalinist discipline when
it comes to Israel, insisting that the only way to express our support is to
endorse every single thing that any and every Israel government, has done, is
doing and might do in the future.
“If you’re not with us 100 percent of
the time, you’re against us,” the argument goes. This is essentially the
argument laid out by Chuck Freilich in his February 24 article headlined “J
Street is a dead end.”
Unfortunately, that kind of attitude is the true
dead end – for it drives many of our natural supporters away, especially young
people, by leaving with no good choices. Either they blindly support everything
– the settlements, the occupation, the hounding of Jewish women seeking to pray
at the Kotel – or they are anti-Israel, or worse, self-hating Jews.
Street exists to provide an antidote to that attitude and to promote healthy
democratic debate about what it means to support Israel from the Diaspora. The
organization’s dramatic growth in less than five years of existence bears
witness to the deep yearning among American Jews and others for an organization
that says that one can love and support Israel without blindly supporting
everything the government does.
Most Israelis, including the present
prime minister, agree that the only way to maintain Israel as a democracy and as
a Jewish homeland is to forge a two-state solution with the Palestinians. But
when it comes to action, nothing ever seems to happen.
solution is also a vital US national security interest that would do much to
inject some stability in a region that is fast falling into chaos. In urging
active US leadership and active mediation in peace negotiations, we recognize
that a deep gulf of mutual distrust and suspicion has developed between Israel
and the Palestinians. Both sides have become prisoners of their own history,
which colors the way the see both themselves and each other.
themselves as facing an existential threat from those with whom they are
expected to negotiate. Palestinians see themselves as victims of an illegal and
unjust occupation. US mediation has become crucial in bringing the parties back
to a point where they can focus on the potential gains that each stands to
realize from peace rather than on the sacrifices each will be asked to make to
get to a deal.
Of course, I am only too aware that we living in the
United States do not bear the risks and burdens of our brothers and sisters in
Israel. My own sister lives near Beersheba and often has to scramble for shelter
when rockets and missiles are fired from Gaza. She has far more invested and far
more at stake than I do living in a comfortable suburb of Washington, DC. But
that doesn’t mean I have to be silent – and she would not expect that from
We at J Street recognize that Israel’s citizens alone must make the
decisions about the country’s policies and direction.
conscientious Americans committed to Israel’s future, we also have a civic duty
to be involved in the US policy- making process. And as members of the Jewish
people, we have a right and obligation to be honest about the circumstances in
which Israel now finds itself.
Israelis tend to agree. A poll last June
by the Anti-Defamation League found that 61 percent of Israelis believed
American Jews had the right to freely and publicly criticize Israel and Israeli
Given these views, why is it considered controversial when
groups like J Street criticize policies, such as the relentless expansion of
Israeli settlements in the West Bank, that threaten peace and the prospect of a
two-state solution? I understand that when Israel is so often criticized in the
United Nations and elsewhere by groups and countries hostile to its very
existence, our first instinct is to circle the wagons. We fear that our
criticism will supply more ammunition to Israel’s enemies and weaken the country
This is understandable – but mistaken.
unlike theirs, is intended to be constructive and offered out of our deep
concern. When Israel behaves in ways that make peace less likely and endanger
its future as a Jewish and democratic state, we must make our voices heard.
Israelis may or may not heed our words – that’s up to them. But for us, silence
is not an option.
The writer is vice-president for communications at J
Street, an organization that advocates for Israeli-Palestinian peace based on a
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