Saving the tent

At some point our opponents should stop ducking the underlying issue: the sustainability of the path that Israel is on.

J Street founder Jeremy Ben Ami 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
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 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.