I enjoyed sitting and speaking with you and your fellow URJ Eisner Camp Machon campers just a few days ago. As you note in your well-argued essay, we talked seriously and thoughtfully about exactly the issues you raise.
In our conversation we discussed a variety of critical issues, including having a frank conversation on BDS. I made clear that I have stood strongly against BDS because it seeks to delegitimize Israel’s existence and undermines the possibility of a two-state solution. My preference, and I hope you agree, would have been for us to discuss your specific question in person and engage in a face-to-face dialogue. Nevertheless, I want to be as clear as possible on where we stand on these issues, so I’m happy to have this more public exchange.
Identifying yourself in your essay as a long-time Eisner camper and NFTY participant, and as the son of Ariel Gold, who was denied entry to Israel earlier this summer due to her activism, you ask:
What do you think about Israel rejecting Jews like my mother? Do you think such rejections affect the democracy of Israel? Do you think it is right for Israel to deny entry to Jews and other people who have historical connections to the land, simply on the grounds of their politics and the beliefs they espouse?
Let me be as clear in my answers as you are in your questions: I think Israel’s turning away your mother was both disgraceful as a matter of principle and a mistake as a matter of strategy. I think the government of Israel is wrong to deny entry to people based on their politics or beliefs (though I would make an exception here for anyone who is credibly thought to present a legitimate threat to the safety of any Israelis, Palestinians, or other peoples; I hope you would agree with me on that).
Among those who would be least surprised to hear this from me would be the Israeli officials themselves — up to and including the Prime Minister — with whom I have repeatedly raised these issues. I have done so in dozens of meetings, both private and public. Last year, I wrote publicly to Prime Minister Netanyahu, saying “…[T]he new law [barring entry to Israel to non-Israeli citizens who have publicly called for boycotts of Israel, including settlement products and companies working in the settlements] is, I believe, counter-productive to Israel’s interests both as a democracy and as a vibrant nation worthy of exploration and engagement by countless Jews and others around the world. I am frustrated that by passing this law, the Israeli government has, in essence, posted a giant sign by the door of the Jewish state saying, ‘Don’t come unless you agree with everything we’re doing here.’”
Your comments about Israel education and engagement within the Reform Movement are especially interesting to me, and they come at a time when we are undertaking a significant review of our programs both in and about Israel. We certainly share your view that our programs must be consistent with our Jewish values, and we are constantly evaluating our Israel education.
I appreciate your honesty in saying, “I am still in the process of forming my opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” In today’s context, it is a brave sentiment. As the situation in the Occupied Territories goes from bad to worse, and as the threats to Israel’s democracy seem to come from both within and from outside the government, I share your frustration and desire to find a way to make a personal difference.
I speak and work with individuals and organizations from across the political spectrum, and I take the many conversations I’ve had with NFTY teens in Israel and at camp this summer to be among the most important. In these conversations, no issues are out of bounds for discussion. Our Movement’s approach is informed by a wide array of views, but it is not dictated by any outside organization. We have a strong set of commitments. We are a Zionist movement. And because we are Zionists, we are deeply committed to peace, security and dignity for all Israelis and Palestinians.
I hear you as I have heard other young Jews — and I hope we can continue this conversation. I wish you continued passion and compassion, and a great remainder of the summer.