Israel's Road to Peace:
The Role of American Jews

Plenary Address by Marcia Freedman
The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Where Have We Been? Where Are We Going?
Brit Tzedek v'Shalom's 2nd National Conference
October 31, 2003

My first speech in the Knesset, I was sitting very nervously-very, very nervously as you might imagine-and I was measuring where the podium came on everyone before me and thought, my God! They're not going to be able to see me because everyone who spoke before me was quite tall and it sort of came to mid-chest level and I came up there and expected my nose to peak out over it and all of a sudden the thing went down. There was somebody there with a magic button and he lowered the podium so it always came to peoples' chest level.

Naomi and I had a bit of an argument about who came first, and I lost. I don't lose too many arguments, but I don't mind losing them to Naomi. I want to talk to you a little bit about the Jewish community, where it's at today as far as I can perceive it. I don't pretend to be an expert about the Jewish community. I have been traveling a lot on behalf of Brit Tzedek, speaking for and to Brit Tzedek's activists around the country. In most places, we have been able to meet with Jewish community leaders and get a sense of where things are at. And we also know from the scene in Washington and among our national organizations. We have, as Jews…one of the major jokes that we have always made about ourselves and others love to quote is that if you have two Jews, you have five opinions. And we have devolved over the last few years into a community where that lively tradition of debate and discussion and diverse opinions has really been silenced and squelched and we're now rapidly becoming a people where ten Jews are allowed to have one opinion.

I think it's important to look at how this happened and why it happened. Israel today has the most right-wing government it has ever known, it's the most extremist right-wing government Israel has ever known. It, in fact, does not represent the political positions of most Israeli citizens who are in favor of a two state solution; and along the 1967 border, evacuation of settlements and all of the other things Brit Tzedek and all of us in this room are calling for. This has happened that when that government was first elected, when Ariel Sharon was first elected in 2001, he was elected on a call for unity. He instituted talk of Israel is at war, Israel's survival is being threatened and that everybody needs to unite behind him, and the Labor Party unfortunately gave credence to that slogan and it really spread, and it spread throughout the world-and the organized Jewish community, I'm sorry to say, has picked up that belief that there is an existential threat that Israel's existence is being threatened today. I think that the real truth of the matter is that Israel's existence is not being threatened. Yes, there is a threat to Israelis. Yes, is it not safe. Yes, it feels very insecure to be in Israel; it is very difficult-as I'm sure Naomi will also speak about-to get up in the morning and not know if at the end of the day you and yours are going to be fine or not. This is a very terrible and very frightening thing. It's terrifying, in fact. That's the point of it.

But it is not an existential threat. Israel's existence is not being threatened. In fact, Israel today has a real opportunity-and we're going to hear about that much more-to get what Zionists have dreamed about since the very beginning of the founding of the state of Israel, and that is to live in security and peace as a country of the Middle East, with good relations with its neighbors. Israel today has peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt. Iraq is no longer a threat to Israel's security. Syria had not been a threat to Israel's security for quite a long time now, therefore also Lebanon. But given that there is this perception that is very persistent in our community that there is a real threat to Israel's existence and we have to unite behind the current government of the state of Israel, there has been an enormous reluctance-and I would call it even more than that, almost a silencing that is going on in our community so we cannot criticize the policies and the practices of this government, and that has been very much, I think, posing a major problem for Israel. Israel is at a critical crossroads today, in my opinion. Israel had some very major choices to make.

I would like to quote to you from another member of Knesset, Avrham Burg, who-you probably know this, and I'm just going to say it again because we need to be reminded of it a lot-is a modern Orthodox man, Labor member of Knesset, was speaker of the Knesset, head of the Jewish Agency; he wrote in late August, and it was published in Hebrew in Haaretz and then translated in The Forward on August 29th, an article called "A Failed Israeli Society Collapses While Its Leaders Remain Silent." He wrote,

The Zionist revolution has always rested on two pillars: a just path and an ethical leadership. Neither of these is operative any longer. The Israeli nation today rests on a scaffolding of corruption and on foundations of oppression and injustice. As such, the end of the Zionist enterprise is already on our doorstep. There is a real chance that ours will be the last Zionist generation. There may yet be a Jewish state here, but it will be a different sort-strange and ugly. What is needed is a new vision of a just society and the political will to implement it. Nor is this merely an internal Israeli affair. Diaspora Jews for whom Israel is a central pillar of their identity must pay heed and speak out. If the pillar collapses, the upper floors will come crushing down.

I think that Israel today has got to, as Burg says very clearly, make a choice. Israelis must make a choice, the Israeli government must make a choice and we, in our support for Israel must make that choice. If Israel is to remain a democratic and a Jewish state, it cannot maintain the occupation of the Palestinian people, because if it does hold on to all of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as it does now and if that is perpetuated very far into future, Israel has to do one of two things. Either is has to enfranchise the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip-that is to say, it has to enfranchise three and a half million Palestinians as citizens of the state of Israel. There are another million Palestinians about who are already citizens of the state of Israel and there are about four and a half million Jews who are citizens of the state of Israel. That is to say, we'll have a population that is half Palestinian and half Jewish, and the Jewish quality of the state of Israel will not be long in standing. On the other hand, if Israel does not enfranchise those people, but continues to occupy them in some way or another and to continue to maintain the level of oppression of the citizens-the Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip-Israel can no longer be a democratic society. So we really, for those of us who care very deeply about the Israel that we have identified with, the Israel that we have supported, the Israel that has meant so very much to us, we need to understand that the end of the occupation and evacuation of settlements and the establishment of a Palestinian state is very important. No so much for the Palestinians because in our concern for Israel, we need to understanding that out of our care for Israel, this is what has to happen. Palestinians must have a state of their own along side the state of Israel.

I think that this has been-in the sense of impending crisis-a major impetus for organizing Brit Tzedek a year and a half ago. We felt, many of the organizers of Brit Tzedek-of whom there were sixteen, really, on an organizing committee that put on the founding conference. That sixteen, which has grown to fourteen thousand, felt that the voice of the Jewish center to left had been silenced in this country and that it was not being heard at the grassroots level, that it was not being heard in Washington, that it was not being heard where ever it needed to be heard. In fact, an alternative voice, a critical voice, was being made to seem suspect, disloyal and discounted. I think that we have gathered as an organization and are continuing to grow because we want to develop a strong, clear alternative voice to the voice of the organized Jewish community. We wan to do that in order to influence foreign policy, but I personally believe that we need to do that in order to ensure that our own Jewish communities and the tradition of lively debate in our communities is healthier than it is today. I think that we are doing important work as Brit Tzedek on the local level-not only because we are trying to advocate for positions in Washington and to change foreign policy, but because among our own we need to know that it's ok, it's really ok to criticize a government in Israel that is really leading Israel down the primrose path.

I want to say about Brit Tzedek one other thing and then I'm going to shorten my remarks because I want to make sure that Naomi has lots of time because she has exciting news for us. I that with the founding of Brit Tzedek, this enormous of outpouring of volunteer activists all over the country on the local and national level has said something to us about the great desire and need for us to be able to come together on a national level to create a new and alternative voice. We have hundred, literally hundreds, of activists locally and nationally who are providing this organization with a commitment of time and resources; that is truly extraordinary. Many of you are here in this audience today and I want you all to know that you are part of something that values your contribution enormously. When I've been traveling throughout the country-and I mean local, really local levels-to large communities and smaller Jewish communities, I'm beginning to sense that there's a way in which there's a breakthrough happening in the Jewish community that's a sense of the lack of dissent, the sense of discounting and alternative position is beginning to weigh somewhat heavily on people within the Jewish community and among Jewish community leaders as well. So there is an openness to us that has surprised all of us both on the national level and the local level. We have access to synagogues, Jewish community centers, local JCRCs, Jewish community federations; people want to speak to us, they want to hear what we have to say and we are accepted more and more as and alternative and a legitimate voice and I think that that's something absolutely incredible. I see Brit Tzedek as a kind of ingathering of the exiles who have been alienated in our local communities because we've been so silenced. We are gathering those people together and giving ourselves a voice back. I want to thank you all for being here and pass it over to Naomi.

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