"Let's Talk!"
Wrestling with the Conversation about Israel
By Diane Balser, National Advocacy Chair

I would argue, though, that without active dialogue and struggle over what is the best course for American policy vis-à-vis Israel, we will not be able to find the true path towards a genuine peace, an end to the conflict, and the acceptance of Israel in the Arab world.

Brit Tzedek v'Shalom was formed in 2002 in order to organize American Jewry to advocate for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in part by actively promoting a new dialogue about the issue among Jews in the United States.

Over the past two decades, the acceptability of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has emerged as the majority opinion among American Jews, American Arabs, Palestinians and Israelis. There has always been a wide range of opinions, about how best to get there, but ever since the failure of the 2000 Camp David talks to revive the moribund Oslo Accords, the discussion in the American Jewish community has been sporadic (for example during the Gaza withdrawal), and not deeply engaged. Support for the US government playing a real and active role in helping the parties return to the table has been minimal, especially among mainstream Jewish organizations. (But then neither have they spoken out against the Iraq war, which polls show nearly 80% of American Jews oppose.)

As a result, the American Jewish community has often appeared to be of one voice regarding Israeli policy, seeming to line up uniformly behind whatever approach the Israeli government might adopt. Now, however, with Brit Tzedek working in concert with other Jewish peace organizations, we have the beginnings of such a discussion, looking at our relationship to Israel and examining how to encourage a US foreign policy with diplomacy and conflict-resolution at its heart.

There has long been tension in the American Jewish community between the desire to form a unified Jewish front, in order to strengthen our political fortunes, and the strong belief among American Jews in pluralism. We are proud of the fact that we are "God wrestlers"*- that we believe in a robust exchange of ideas. Yet as a people, a minority living in Diaspora, we have faced oppression, and understand that if we are politically divided, we may be weakened.

How do we resolve the need to wrestle with ideas and ideologies, with the need to come together over a common sense of purpose and future? In some circles in the American Jewish world, the position has put forward that any criticism of Israeli policy leads to, or is by-definition, anti-Semitic - what a conversation stopper!
The discussion must begin, then, regardless of the hesitation of others in our community, regardless of the reticence of the Administration, regardless of the status quo approach of most of our elected officials.

I would argue, though, that without active dialogue and struggle over what is the best course for American policy vis-à-vis Israel, we will not be able to find the true path towards a genuine peace, an end to the conflict, and the acceptance of Israel in the Arab world. At different times in our history, of course, we have been willing to do just this sort of wrestling.

Before the establishment of Israel, in the early days of Zionism, there was major debate in the Jewish world about the essence of Zionism and the very notion of a Jewish state. Opposition to Zionism came from Orthodox, Reform, and leftist circles, for widely varying reasons. Fierce debate raged among Zionists about the founding ideals and values of the new movement: Should the state be based on the revolutionary values of social justice, or those of a regular nation-state that would normalize Jewish life?  Moreover, from the beginning there was always a debate, albeit among a minority, about how to develop a cooperative relationship with the Arab population of Eretz Yisrael.

The arguments about the nature and direction of the Jewish state hardly ended when Israel was born. From Israel's stunning victory in the 1967 war and on, however, the role that the American community played in setting Israel's fortunes grew, accompanied by heightened support for the young country, and the strengthening of ties with the US.

The fact of the occupation raised new questions, however, creating tension and debate over the growth of religious nationalist sentiment. The ideology of "Greater Israel" -- the idea that Israel should settle the lands it had so recently conquered in order to claim them in perpetuity for the Jewish people -- appeared alongside the hope that Israel could now forge peace with its neighbors. There were always small numbers of Israelis who expressed sincere unease over their country's occupation of another people, and since at least the 1980s, growing numbers have fought for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Certainly from then until now, we have seen a major shift in public opinion both in Israel and among American Jews away from the building of settlements and toward a two-state solution. Yet the palpable, painful discouragement that followed after the failure of the Oslo process has interrupted the momentum; at times paralyzing the discussion altogether.

In Israel, the Geneva Accords, unilateralism, disengagement from Gaza, the future of the settlement project are all open to discussion, and few would suggest that uniformity of opinion is the only way to safeguard Israel. With the failure of unilateralism as a strategy, and the intensifying struggles among the Palestinians themselves, the conversation is often muted now, shadowed by fears and uncertainty over what is even possible -- but the dialogue continues.

In the American Jewish community, there has been deep confusion over what the conversation is, in fact, about. In the wake of Hamas's electoral victory in January 2006, the uncertain outcome of the second Lebanon War, and growing concerns over Iran's nuclear ambitions and the anti-Semitism of its President, many have chosen to focus on Teheran, and remain silent on issues closer to Israel's borders.

Some still understand that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the single most important issue on Israel's agenda, and that its resolution remains critical to the well-being of Israel and regional stability. In today's America, however, it is very hard to get such a message heard.

The sad truth is that the present policies of both the American and Israeli governments have done little but deepen Israel's isolation. The continued refusal to consider negotiations with either the Palestinians or key Middle Eastern governments, the continued efforts to starve the Palestinian people, the refusal to engage creatively with the voices on all sides calling for a negotiated solution -- none of this will actually solve Israel's problems or give the Israeli people the peace and security they long for.

The discussion must begin, then, regardless of the hesitation of others in our community, regardless of the reticence of the Administration, regardless of the status quo approach of most of our elected officials. How do we get the Israeli- Palestinian conflict to the top of the agenda? How do we convey the viability of negotiations and diplomacy with all of Israel's neighbors -- the Palestinians, Lebanon, and Syria alike? How do we open up the conversation within the Jewish community in order to explore options to militarism and Israeli isolationism? How do we begin to suggest flexibility in our approach to the Palestinians?

We recognize that if there is no conversation, then there will be no solution.
These are hard questions, and the exchange we spark will not always be pleasant. This is what Brit Tzedek has been about since its very inception, though. We recognize that if there is no conversation, then there will be no solution.

Please, join us in re-opening the discussion; it's the first step toward peace.

 

 *The concept of "God wrestling" comes from the story of Jacob's struggle with a man, understood to be an angel sent by God, in chapter 32 of Genesis.  Jacob struggles not to defeat his opponent but rather to receive a divine blessing. The conversation among American Jews about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict likewise demands wrestling in the hope of being blessed with peace.



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Phone: (312) 341-1205
Fax: (312) 341-1206
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