Why J Street speaks to us

American Jewish students and Israel: Unconditional love? Absolutely. Unconditional policy support? Absolutely not.

On the heels of J Street’s Second National Conference, there have been a series of predictable – but still saddening – verbal and written attacks from the Right.
Given these attacks, it would be reasonable to ask: Why did 500 students – a great number of whom, like us, grew up in youth movements, Jewish summer camps, are active in our Hillels and hang Israeli flags on our dorm room walls – travel to Washington to participate? Here’s why: because we’re tired of the relationship we were told we had to have with Israel. And we’re forging a new one.
This is how the old way works: The Israeli government acts, and the institutions of the American Jewish community support that action. Never mind that the action may undermine Israel’s long-term interests . Never mind that the actions may in some cases go against the stated policy of the American administration. Never mind that many Israelis oppose the actions. Never mind any moral or political objection that American Jews may have.
Those Jews who are committed to Israel but disturbed by actions inconsistent with their values are told that they simply do not understand the political realities, that they are naïve.
If they continue to voice dissent, they are branded “delegitimizers” and even “anti-Israel.”
This type of relationship is unsustainable, unreasonable and un-Jewish.
Judaism is a religion of openness, discussion and dissent. On almost all political and social issues, Jews hold a wide range of opinions and engage in vigorous debate. Yet when it comes to Israel, for too long all have been encouraged to subscribe to one vision and to ignore anything that might contradict it. This relationship more closely resembles that of a fan club than a loving family. What Israel really needs from American Jews is not admirers, but brothers and sisters.
Uri Zaki, director of the US office of B’Tselem, told the conference that it is vital to “differentiate between unconditional support and unconditional love, the kind of love that exists within a family. When a loved one is engaged in action that is self-destructive,” the appropriate response is “intervention.”
We love Israel unconditionally. We have a moral commitment to a national home in which Jews can determine our own political destiny.
We have a religious and cultural connection to that home. We do not, however, support Israel’s policies unconditionally. That is not true love.
SO WHERE is intervention needed? We are disturbed by emerging antidemocratic trends in Israeli governmental bodies, and by the entrenchment of the occupation in the territories.
These are trends we know to be contrary to the wishes of the majority of both the Israeli people and the American Jewish community.
In many cases, these are consequences of a terrible fear that the Jewish character of the state could slip away. These fears breed the false choice of “Jewishness” over democracy. We refuse to recognize this as a compulsory choice: It is not only possible but necessary to be both patriotic and democratic, to protect the security of the state and its Jewish character while honoring the rights of all peoples.
At the J Street conference, we began to enact this vision. We listened to speakers, connected to and argued with one another, and refused to settle for easy answers that denied either Israel’s democratic aspirations or its Jewish character and security. Almost 500 students came together to declare that pro-Israel can and must mean pro-democracy and pro-equality – our Jewish values, and the future of the Jewish homeland compel us to stand for the just and equal treatment of Palestinian citizens of Israel, and against the occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza.
Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel never let America forget its failings and never acquiesced to injustice, yet they remained deeply committed to the nation’s highest ideals and to achieving America’s promise. The fact that these great people criticized their country did not make them any less “pro-America.”
On the contrary, the stories they told of possibility and progress outline a vision of the very best America.
Similarly, we believe that our Jewish love for and faith in Israel requires us to fight for democracy and for our vision of what it can be.
At the conference, several Israeli activists in the Sheikh Jarrah solidarity movement told us they believe “that a true commitment to Israel can only be demonstrated through an unequivocal demand that it live up to its founding values of freedom and equality.”
Only when we follow our convictions and our ideals as Americans and as Jews do we do a real service to Israel.
Only then are we, in the very best sense, pro-Israel.
Jesse Rothman is founder and president of J Street U Carleton. Logan Bayroff is founder and president of the J Street U affiliate at the University of Pennsylvania.