AN OPEN LETTER TO JEREMY BEN-AMI
On October 13, 2009, the Jerusalem Post published an open letter that you addressed to Michael Oren, Israeli Ambassador to the United States. You wrote as the Executive Director of J-Street, which you described in five words: “the new pro-Israel lobby.” The explicit purpose for your letter was to “reiterate an invitation” to Ambassador Oren to attend your organization’s conference in Washington, D.C., which begins on October 25th. You also voiced your concern about how “the connection to Israel for a large number of Jewish Americans has become strained over time,” particularly with younger and more progressive Jews, and added that Jewish-American progressives “have not traditionally been attracted to pro-Israel lobbying,” You quoted Ambassador Oren’s spokesman in indicating that the Ambassador has "concerns over certain policies [of J Street 's] that could impair Israel's interests." Your central point seemed to be that Israel has not been served well by AIPAC, the most prominent Jewish-American lobbying group, and that it would be wise to embrace the progressive voices that are truly pro-Israel despite the fact that they have often questioned a number of its government’s policies.
Well, Jeremy, if I may call you by your first name, I am one of the progressive voices you seem to be talking about. I am the coordinator and a co-founder of the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington. I have recently authored a book, Moses the Heretic, that criticized Israel for occupying so much land over its ‘67 borders and for refusing publicly to adopt the ultimate goal of sharing Jerusalem. That latter goal continues to be important to me, as does the idea that the ‘67 borders – or something close to them – remain the eventual outcome of a two-state solution to the Palestinian/Israeli dispute. I was also exasperated with the way that Israel waged its recent war in Gaza, especially its decisions to deny the Arab population basic necessities and to preclude the media from entering Gaza, where they could report as objectively as possible about the situation. Moreover, I staunchly disagree with statements by the Israeli leadership to introduce pre-conditions before entering into peace discussions with the Arabs; like President Obama, I don’t believe that dialogue constitutes “appeasement,” and so I would urge Israel to speak to members of Hamas, among other Palestinian officials, and share some of the ways in which we sympathize with their position. Notably, I would urge that my fellow Jews stop looking at Palestinian nationalism as an artificial and illegitimate movement, and instead strive for a two-state solution in which a viable Palestinian state can peacefully exist beside Israel. Indeed, it saddens me when I see a sign in front of a synagogue that says “We support Israel in its struggle for peace and security.” To me, the appropriate sign would read “We support Israel and Palestine in their struggle for peace and security.”
Is that progressive enough for you? It sounds like a rhetorical question, but truly it is not. For in the past several months, as I have gone from “author” to “activist,” I’ve spent a lot of time working with the so-called “peace community,” which as you know is progressive to the core. J-Street is a holy name within this community. So you should be proud of that. But to be candid, I often find myself extremely troubled by what my fellow peaceniks are saying behind the scenes. Nearly everyone calls him or herself “pro Israel” and an advocate of a “two state solution.” Nearly everyone seems to be OK with thinking of Israel as a “Jewish, democratic home,” to use words from your letter to the Ambassador. But when pressed, they commonly admit that, in their vision, the ultimate nature of this “Israel” will be very different than the solution that Ambassador Oren or I would advocate. You see, these “pro-Israel,” “two-state” advocates recognize that Arab birthrates have been much higher than Jewish birthrates and that more Arabs might wish to immigrate to Israel than Jews. From those premises, they commonly conclude that if we draw the map more or less according to the ‘67 borders, even “Israel” would primarily be populated by Arabs by the end of this century. And here’s the rub: they don’t care. To them, the idea of a Jewish homeland means a place where Jews are safe, and they believe that if “Israel” is democratic and has as substantial Jewish population (albeit a minority), the melting-pot Arab/Jewish nation that would emerge can be counted on to protect the legitimate aspiration of Jews for a home. Oh, by the way, they prefer the term “Jewish homeland” to “Jewish state,” because the latter sounds to them like a place where Jews have more rights than non-Jews, and a homeland is simply a place where Jews can live and enjoy equal rights (like they do in America).
In addition to having behind-the-scenes discussions with my fellow peace-loving progressives, I’ve also attended multiple talks in the area in which panels of experts express their positions on the topic. The panels typically include representatives from the “right” and the “left.” And what I’ve found interesting here is that while some of the mavens on the left identify themselves as “Zionist,” they seem to devote little if any time to fleshing out what that means. They’re too busy criticizing Israel, it seems, to explain to my fellow peaceniks exactly how central Zionism is to their philosophy. I have to be candid with you once again: when I contemplate the J-Street Conference, I envision one jeremiad after another about Israel’s abuses and what needs to be done to ensure that Israel adopts “Jewish values.” But I envision very little being said to convince the left that unless the Arabs recognize the existence of Israel as a Jewish state, they will never convince the Israelis to make peace. In other words, I have trouble imagining that one-tenth of the attention given to the legitimate claims of Palestinian nationalism will be given to the legitimate claims of Jewish nationalism, or Zionism, as it is more commonly known.
Perhaps I have misunderstood the nature of your organization. Perhaps the peaceniks I know are not representative of your progressive community, and that the left-leaning mavens I’ve heard speak in such muted tones about their so-called Zionism were merely just warming up their vocal cords. But you will forgive Ambassador Oren and others in Israel if they are not so convinced that the American-Jewish left are as pro-Israel as they claim to be.
Here’s my request for you: convene a conference that would make my progressive non-Zionist friends every bit as uncomfortable as it would make Ambassador Oren. If that isn’t possible, at least smoke out your membership so that they can admit that their Zionism (if it exists at all) is skin deep, and that by “pro Israel” they really just mean “pro Middle Eastern melting pot.”
We will never have peace in this region unless everyone can trust each other. You and I might not like the positions of the Jewish right, but at least everyone knows where they stand. The Jewish-American left needs to be equally transparent. Good luck in holding a conference that brings people’s true attitudes to the surface.