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J Street Can Fight BDS and Israeli Occupation at the Same Time

Last week, a member of J Street’s senior staff met with Israel’s strategic affairs minister, Gilad Erdan, at his invitation. Their topic of discussion? The fight against the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

This meeting somehow became international news — though it shouldn’t have been newsworthy at all. As the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans, J Street is one of the largest and fastest-growing pro-Israel organizations in the United States. Since our founding, we have opposed the global BDS movement — in Mainline Protestant churches, on campus, and in other arenas where it has come up. Our student movement is an influential voice that is central to the fight over BDS on college campuses.

We firmly believe that the only way to defeat BDS is by offering an alternative that is legitimately pro-Israel, pro-peace and anti-occupation — a movement that shows real concern for the future of both peoples, and that is willing to challenge actions by both sides that make the conflict worse.

Given our work on this issue, the Israeli government should see J Street as an important group to speak with. Yet this was only the first meeting that a senior member of the current Israeli government has ever held with J Street. Even Israel’s current ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, has never met with us.

This has been no oversight. Until now, the current Israeli government has avoided consulting with J Street because, we assume, they have had very little interest in engaging with our core message: that for the sake of Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, Israel needs to take steps to reach a negotiated two-state solution and end the occupation.

That conviction has always been a core part of J Street’s work — and it hasn’t changed. That’s the message that we communicated to Minister Erdan last week.

We oppose the global BDS movement because it refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist, to support the two-state solution or to distinguish between the occupied territory and Israel inside the Green Line. Rather than working toward peace, mutual understanding and workable solutions, the movement only exacerbates and inflames the conflict. Unacceptably and outrageously, some of its leaders and members have even trafficked in anti-Semitic rhetoric.

At the same time we recognize that many well-intentioned people have turned to BDS out of a deep sense of frustration with the conflict and the decades-long occupation. They feel deep sympathy with the Palestinian struggle for independence and basic dignity. They feel outrage at an Israeli government that consistently shows far more interest in settlement expansion and inflammatory rhetoric than in any genuine effort to reach a two-state solution. Some of these BDS supporters, including some American Jews, are also driven by their fears that the occupation is eroding Israeli democracy and seriously jeopardizing the country’s future.

We share many of these concerns. And we know that demonizing and attacking BDS supporters, while dismissing all of their criticisms as simply ignorant or anti-Semitic, will only alienate young people and drive more and more of them to support BDS.

An effective and productive response to BDS will require a genuine commitment to the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians and advocacy for tangible steps to reach a solution. Simply coopting “the language of the left” — a strategy some Israel advocacy groups have taken — means little if it’s not matched by something deeper.

If the Israeli government is truly committed to securing Israel’s future, it should take real action to show that it’s serious about reaching a two-state solution and ending the occupation. And it should stop expanding and entrenching the settlements, as it did this week with the announcement of an additional $20 million to bolster Israel tourism and business development in the West Bank. It should publicly commit to building a better future for Israel — not for “Greater Israel.” It should take the time to listen to the millions of Americans and American Jews who love Israel, and who speak out of deep concern and fear that it is headed down the wrong path.

We were appreciative that Minister Erdan took the time to listen to us and to share his views. While we may disagree deeply with many of the policies of the government, we have deep respect for the difficult challenges its members face as Israel’s elected leaders. There should be no doubt that when the door is open for free exchange of ideas between Israelis and American Jews, it makes both our communities stronger.

Whether this meeting is the first of many or not, we will continue to stand up to the global BDS movement, while speaking out about the occupation. We will do everything we can to advance the cause of a secure, Jewish and democratic Israel.

Rachel Lerner is the Senior Vice President of Community Relations at J Street, the political home of pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans.

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