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The Wrong People Shouting

When I was a teenager, the late Phil Ochs was a folk-singing hero of mine. In his classic song, “Love Me, I’m a Liberal,” he skewered armchair liberals who talked a good game, but wouldn’t go as far as their more radical comrades. This attitude, of course, appealed to many in my generation as we took to the streets and demonstrated for civil rights, against the Vietnam War and to free Soviet Jews.

I was reminded of Ochs’s song when Jewish Voice for Peace demonstrators disrupted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly in New Orleans. While I agree with JVP’s opposition to the occupation of the West Bank and the proposed loyalty oath, I am afraid that I am feeling like the liberal in the Phil Ochs song, as I will not join arms with the more radical JVP.

Why can’t I find common cause with this self-defined Jewish group that opposes Israeli policy toward the Palestinians?

My opposition to the ongoing occupation, the proposed loyalty oath, the treatment of non-Orthodox religious streams and other troubling developments in Israel all stem from my commitment to a Jewish, democratic Israel that realizes the vision of a state “based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Hebrew Prophets” as described in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. I oppose destructive policies of Israel’s government precisely because of my love for Israel and my concern for its security and well being.

Unfortunately, JVP refuses to support the notion of Israel’s existence as a sovereign state, much less as a homeland for the Jewish people. Instead, JVP states that it “endorses neither a one-state solution, nor a two-state solution…. we have members and supporters on both sides of this question, as well as many others who, like the organization as a whole, are agnostic about it.”

That is what separates progressive Zionists from JVP. We cannot be “agnostic” about the most central issue in the conflict, the importance of a solution that includes two states for two peoples, Israel and Palestine. It is ludicrous to suggest that one can be involved in the Jewish communal discourse about the future of the Middle East without having an opinion on whether Israel should exist. In addition, JVP’s stated support for a complete suspension of American military aid to Israel just emphasizes the organization’s cavalier attitude toward Israel’s survival.

News reports from New Orleans quoted G.A. participants who expressed support for the sentiment expressed by the demonstrators, if not for their tactics. This is understandable, since many young Jews are looking for ways to voice their own criticisms of Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank. This should motivate the Jewish community to increase its efforts to foster open and frank discussions around controversial issues related to Israel, both in our local communities and at national events like JFNA’s G.A. Unfortunately, our communal track record has not always been good in this regard.

While those of us who are committed to Israel’s survival won’t be joining JVP’s demonstrations, we also cannot afford to emulate the liberals depicted by Phil Ochs, settling for reading the correct magazines (or blogs) but avoiding direct action. We need to find our own ways of letting the prime minister, as well American political leaders, know that American Jews strongly support action to bring about a two-state solution. Raising our voices can hopefully influence the decision makers and let concerned young Jews know that there is a place for their voices within the Jewish community.

Kenneth Bob is national president of Ameinu: Liberal Values, Progressive Israel and a member of the board of governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

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