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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace

A more nuanced view of Israel

Daily Camera

June 7, 2009

By Ira Chernus

Now the Jewish secret is coming out of the closet. The diversity of Jewish views on Israel is growing by leaps and bounds. In the Boulder area, as across the country, Jews are beginning to debate openly about the best way to keep Israel secure and keep American Jewry's moral soul intact.

Last year, five local rabbis spoke at a celebration of Israel's 60th anniversary. Not one stuck to the simplistic party line of AIPAC (the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee), which says that Israel is always right, no matter what it does. All showed a nuanced concern about the political and moral complexities.

Last month, Jewish groups hosted a dialogue between the head of J Street, the new pro-Israel pro-peace lobby formed as counterweight to AIPAC, and a local Israeli professor. The audience, filling the Boulder Public Library auditorium beyond capacity, listened and spoke in respectful ways, opening the door to the future dialogues that are sure to come.

One place to find them is the Boulder Jewish Festival on the Pearl Street Mall today. For the first time Brit Tzedek v'Shalom will be on the mall, billing itself as "America's largest grassroots Jewish organization dedicated to promoting a negotiated two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." Others, who are not so eager for quick negotiations toward a Palestinian state, will be there, too.

The debates will be serious, perhaps even a bit acrimonious. But there is a growing understanding that everyone brings the same good will to the table despite the sometimes wide differences of opinion. In a sense, it's all in the family.

In another sense, though, the Jewish debate is and should be part of a larger national debate, because every American has a stake in its outcome.

The Israel-Palestine conflict remains a pivotal issue for U.S. national security policy. And with $4 billion or more in foreign aid going to the two nations (most of it in military aid to Israel), every taxpayer has a stake in the matter too.

The Obama administration still seems unsure of its Middle East policy. One reason (among many) is that American Jewish opinion is so fluid and hard to read.

Many political leaders still see the Jewish community as solidly "pro- Israel." That picture is deceptive. It's drawn mostly by leaders of national organizations, who have the most access to the mass media. They still keep their criticisms of Israel private, as they did decades ago. But every time those leaders look over their shoulders, they see fewer and fewer Jews following on the Israel question.

Once the fiction of a monolithic Jewish view is dispelled the administration will be much more free to take a really even-handed position, replacing the long-standing U.S. support for the Israeli government, which has been such a roadblock to peace. Israel will accept a genuinely independent and viable Palestinian state only when the U.S. exerts gentle but steady pressure to accept it. And only then will Israelis as well as Palestinians have peace and security.

At least that's how I see it. Any Americans who agree that our country needs a new policy direction have a right to enter the political arena in ways that will push the administration toward that new direction. One fruitful way, for Jews and non-Jews alike, is to encourage conversation with and among Jews in living rooms and break rooms and chat rooms across the country; to bring the diversity of Jewish opinion into full public view.

That alone cannot guarantee a change in U.S. policy. But as long as the politicians and the media believe in the old fiction of a monolithic Jewish community, we are much less likely to see a substantive change.

Adopting new views on such an emotional issue is hard. Expressing them publicly is even harder. In any conversation with Jews who are going through such changes, it is important to show respect for their fears and uncertainties, along with sincere concern for the best interests of Israelis as well as Palestinians.

A thoughtful, sensitive approach will help the Jewish community move more quickly toward the changes it must eventually go through. Only then will the Obama administration feel free to make the policy changes that the people of the Middle East and the United States so desperately need.

Ira Chernus is professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he has been teaching the history of Judaism for 33 years.

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