For Israel’s Sake, Moderate American Jews Must Find Their Voice
In just a few short years, the “two-state solution” has gone from presumed conclusion to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to an increasingly distant hope. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has himself said that without such a deal, “the State of Israel is finished.”
By the dozens, Israeli dignitaries solemnly warn: The window is closing on a two-state solution, and Israel’s prospects for a second, safer 60 years grow are growing ever dimmer.
With such alarms sounding, one might expect pro-Israel Americans to be pressing for immediate, bold American action. Rarely are Israel’s allies in the United States slow to demand action when Israel faces meaningful threats to its security or survival.
Yet American politics moves in a parallel, disconnected universe when it comes to the Middle East. Here, being “pro-Israel” requires only mouthing scripted talking points about staunch support for Israel, the special American–Israeli relationship and the shared bond in the war on terrorism.
For the sake of Israel, the United States and the world, it is time for American political discourse to re-engage with reality. Voices of reason need to reclaim what it means to be pro-Israel and to establish in American political discourse that Israel’s core security interest is to achieve a negotiated two-state solution and to define once and for all permanent, internationally recognized borders.
For me, this isn’t just an abstract issue of politics or public policy. It is rooted in my family’s history and a generations-long search for safety and for a home for the Jewish people.
One hundred and twenty-five years ago, my great-grandparents arrived in Jaffa after a long and arduous journey from today’s Belarus in what became known as the “first aliyah.” They helped establish Petah Tikva, one of the first successful settlements in Palestine.
My grandparents went on to be among the founders of Tel Aviv. Family lore has it that my father was the first boy born in the city. A hard-line Revisionist, he worked closely with Zeev Jabotinsky, Menachem Begin and other heroes of the right in the struggle to create the State of Israel.
Dispatched abroad before and during World War II, he negotiated with Hitler’s henchman Adolph Eichmann over payments to smuggle Jews out of Europe and sparred with American leaders in urging greater American action to save Jews from extermination. After World War II, he was executive director of the American League for a Free Palestine, raising money and running guns to Irgun soldiers fighting the British.
I myself have lived in Jerusalem and experienced my own close brushes with terrorism on its streets. Over the past several generations, my family has suffered and survived the pogroms of the tsars, the gas chambers of the Nazis and wars with Israel’s Arab neighbors.
With this as my heritage, I say confidently that what today passes for pro-Israel politics in the United States does not serve the best interests of the people or the countries my family has lived and died for. In this, I stand squarely with a substantial portion of Israelis and American Jews.
Somehow, for American politicians or activists to express opposition to settlement expansion — or support for active American diplomacy, dialogue with Syria or engagement with Iran — has become subversive and radical, inviting vile, hateful emails and a place on public lists of Israel-haters and antisemites. For the particularly unlucky, it leads to public, personal attacks on one’s family and heritage.
In early 21st-century America, the rules of politics are being rewritten, and conventional political orthodoxy is clearly open to once-inconceivable challenges.
It is time for the broad, sensible mainstream of pro-Israel American Jews and their allies to challenge those on the extreme right who claim to speak for all American Jews in the national debate about Israel and the Middle East — and who, through the use of fear and intimidation, have cut off reasonable debate on the topic.
A new political movement is a necessity not just for Israel but for the heart and soul of the American Jewish community. By and large, we are a progressive community, among the most liberal in the United States. Over the decades, we have been at the forefront of many civil rights, social justice and other causes. Many of us proudly regard that legacy as a defining cornerstone of the Jewish place in American history.
But in recent years we have drifted. In the name of protecting Israel, some of our community’s leaders became linked with neoconservatives who brought us the war in Iraq and now seek to extend that rousing success to Iran — even as the majority of American Jews opposed the war in Iraq and military action in Iran.
Some of our leaders have struck up fast friendships with far-right Christian Zionists who now headline “Nights to Honor Israel” at our communal institutions. Yet many of these are people with whom we disagree profoundly on values and beliefs that our community holds dear, and who hold troubling views on the long-run place of the Jewish people in their plans for salvation and redemption.
In our name, PACs and other political associations have embraced the most radically right-wing figures on the American political scene from Rick Santorum and Trent Lott to Tom DeLay and George Bush — all in the guise of being “pro-Israel.”
In Washington today, these voices are seen to speak for the entire American Jewish community. But they don’t speak for me. And I don’t believe they speak for the majority of the American Jews with whom I have lived and worked.
I support Israel. My family history ingrains in me the belief that the Jewish people need and deserve a home. I know that that nation must be strong and secure and that a deep bond between Israel and America is essential to its survival.
Yet I heed those in Israel who say we are fast approaching a point of no return beyond which it may be impossible to secure Israel’s future as the Jewish, democratic home envisioned by my father, the Irgunist, and his grandparents, the socialist Zionist pioneers. An immediate, negotiated end to the conflict is, simply, an existential necessity — and the time to reach it is running out.
I also know in my heart that this is not just a matter of survival. What will it say of us as a people if at a rare moment in our communal history when we have achieved success, acceptance and power, we fail to act according to the values and ideals passed down to us over thousands of years when we were the outcasts, the minority and the powerless?
All of these factors — realism, security and justice — demand action from moderate American Jews. We must establish boldly and forcefully that nothing is more pro-Israel than pressing for immediate, sustained and meaningful American action to end the conflict between Israel and its neighbors.
This requires a dramatic change in the dynamic of discussion about Israel in the American Jewish community and in the American body politic. It demands an end to simplistic slogans and name-calling that effectively shuts down debate and discussion in a community not known as shy and retiring in expressing its opinions.
My history demands that I say this. Our future and Israel’s future demands that we act on it.
Jeremy Ben-Ami is executive director of J Street and of JStreetPAC.