SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) – The upcoming J Street conference will bring a thousand American and Israeli progressive thinkers and activists to Washington. Titled “Driving Change, Securing Peace,” the conference comes at a critical moment because dramatic as it may sound, we are in a battle for the future and soul of Israel. And despite the concerns of some in our community, Israel is strong enough to withstand free and fair debate about its most significant issues. Indeed, it is only through such debate that these issues will be resolved.
The J Street conference offers an opportunity to discuss the serious issues affecting Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship, to air out the controversies and to have the conversations that are avoided too frequently by mainstream Jewish organizations. It also will facilitate the building of connections and synergies among the disparate pro-Israel, pro-peace and pro-democracy groups in Israel and the American Jewish community.
The timing is critical. President Obama’s commitment to restarting the peace process, and his understanding that Israel must change its de facto support for the settlement enterprise, has changed the political dynamic between Washington and Jerusalem.
Despite the overwhelming support of the majority of the American Jewish community for this approach and for President Obama in general, most Israelis do not trust this administration to advance Israel’s interests. The growing rift between the two communities does not bode well for Israel and its relationships here.
The pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-democracy camp can serve as a bridge between the American Jewish and Israeli communities at a time when such a bridge is sorely needed.
As incoming CEO of the New Israel Fund, the leading organization committed to equality and democracy for all Israelis, I am alarmed not only by this rift but also by leaders in Israel and the American Jewish community who seem determined to repel all criticism or even thoughtful debate about the deepening tension between security and human rights imperatives in Israel.
Initiatives launched by the current Israeli government — including legislation that would require a McCarthyesque loyalty oath of all Israelis, and attempts to discredit and delegitimize the country’s human rights groups (of which we are a leading funder) — seem designed to erode civil society and further marginalize Israel’s Arab citizens.
Add to this the continuing Orthodox monopoly on religious practice and personal status issues, and the growing economic and educational gap between the haves and have-nots in Israeli society, and you have a recipe for potential disaster that should be of great concern to all of us who love and treasure Israel.
J Street, which has added an important new voice to the Washington policy equation on peace issues, understands that the “internal” Israeli issues that NIF works on are anything but. Israel’s record on social justice has a profound impact on its international standing. Countries that deny equality to their indigenous minorities sacrifice their moral standing in the eyes of the world and their own citizens.
A foreign minister who heads a party that consistently narrows the definition of citizenship and equal rights is properly regarded with suspicion by the leaders of other democracies, American and European. And a quasi-theocracy that uses one fervently Orthodox standard to define Jewishness – when Jewish identity is the raison d’etre for the state – raises hackles among the overwhelming majority of Americans and others who believe in the separation of religion and state.
Social justice and human rights issues in Israel also are crucially relevant here at home. The growing indifference of many American Jews, particularly young Jews, to Israel is directly related to their concerns over the occupation and the seeming indifference of some Israeli governments to basic democratic values.A Jewish community that voted overwhelmingly for President Obama; a community that proudly takes leadership positions in American progressive institutions and causes; a community whose record of concern for social justice and civil rights in the United States is second to none – this is not a community that will turn a blind eye to ultranationalism, extremism and intolerance in Israel.
Simply put, if American Jews cannot find a way to love Israel and help fix its flaws, if there is no role for the millions of Jews who want Israel to live up to the dreams of its founders, the American Jewish support that Israel depends upon economically and politically will continue to wane.
The New Israel Fund and the other progressive groups that will meet at the J Street conference are unabashedly pro-Israel, and we provide the means for American Jews to support Israel in ways consistent with their progressive values. We know there are too many voices on the left, both in the United States and worldwide, that are unquestionably hostile to Israel no matter what it does. We are the most obvious rebuke to the notion that support for Israel is a right-wing phenomenon, exemplified in the U.S. by evangelicals and neo-cons.
We are the bridge between a largely progressive American Jewish community and millions of Israelis seeking a way out of political stalemate and moral quandary. The quest for a humane, just and equitable Israel is the most pro-Israel act imaginable, and as we partner with J Street and other progressive organizations to amplify our voices, we expect that more and more, our voices will be heard.
(Daniel Sokatch, founding executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, takes over as CEO of the New Israel Fund on Oct. 19.)