J Street: Dead end or way forward?

A two-state 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.

Peter Beinart meets students at J Street conference 370 (photo credit: J Street)
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.
J 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.
A two-state 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.
Israelis see 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 me.
We at J Street recognize that Israel’s citizens alone must make the decisions about the country’s policies and direction.
But as 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 policies.
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 we love.
This is understandable – but mistaken.
Our criticism, 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 two-state solution.