Secretary of State Kerry may have crossed a few lines and trod on some toes in his speech to the American Jewish Committee in Washington on Monday. The first half-hour was filled with predictable declarations about his love for Israel, the urgency of peace and the beautiful view from Masada, but his ending was a zinger: a five-minute call for American Jews to weigh in as a community and “help shape the future of this process.”
Specifically, he said, “let your leaders and your neighbors alike know that you understand this will be a tough process with tough decisions, but that you’re ready to back the leaders who will make them… let them know that you stand behind negotiations that will lead to two states for two peoples living side-by-side in peace and security.”
It’s not entirely clear which leaders he had in mind. He might have been thinking of their senators and representatives or perhaps the White House and administration. On the other hand, given that he was addressing them as members of a distinct entity — the American Jewish community — it’s quite possible that he was thinking of the leaders of that community. It would make political sense, too, since that’s the group that’s most commonly described as frustrating administrations in their forays into Israeli-Arab peace-making.
[N]o one has a stronger voice in this than the American Jewish community. You can play a critical part in ensuring Israel’s long-term security. And as President Obama said in Jerusalem, leaders will take bold steps only if their people push them to. You can help shape the future of this process. And in the end, you can help Israel direct its destiny and be masters of its own fate, just as Prime Minister Meir dreamed that it would be. So I ask you today, send the message that you are behind this hopeful vision of what can be. Let your leaders and your neighbors alike know that you understand this will be a tough process with tough decisions, but that you’re ready to back the leaders who make them. For your children, do this; for your grandchildren, do this; for Israeli children and Palestinian children and for Israel, let them know that you stand behind negotiations that will lead to two states for two peoples living side-by-side in peace and security, and that you are part of the great constituency for peace.
In addition to urging Jews to press their leaders, Kerry’s speech broke at least three other rules of standard etiquette governing public officials when addressing Jews:
First, he invoked American Jewish power. That is, he spoke openly of the Jewish community not merely as a collection of 6 million individuals of conscience, but as an independent player with its own group interests.
Second, he reminded American Jews that they have a stake in this fight — that is, that Israelis aren’t the only ones with something to lose, as we’re so often told. Speak up, he said, not just “for Israeli children and Palestinian children and for Israel,” but “for your children” and “for your grandchildren.”
Third and most intriguing, as Chemi Shalev writes in Haaretz today, Kerry in effect went over the heads of the Jewish community nomenklatura and spoke directly to the American Jewish public — much as President Obama did in addressing the Israeli public, over its leaders’ heads, in Jerusalem in March. Here’s Chemi:
The main difference between the Obama and Kerry speeches was their target audience: Obama called on Israeli youth to “create the change that you want to see” while Kerry’s addressee was the American Jewish community, which was urged to “help shape the future.” So while Obama was doing a Bibi on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by “going over his head” in much the same way that Netanyahu has been doing for years with American public opinion, Kerry was taking Netanyahu head-on, mano a mano, on Netanyahu’s “home turf,” addressing the audience that has traditionally served as Israel’s bulwark against ambitious designs of American administrations. Rarely has a U.S. government official so explicitly tried to enlist American Jews on behalf of American peacemaking, for Israeli and Palestinian children but also “for your own children, do this, for your grandchildren, do this.” He was literally pleading with his listeners to “send a message that you are behind this hopeful vision of what can be.”
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).