Is it kosher for Jews in the diaspora to speak out against Israeli policy? As a Jewish-American opposed to the occupation of the West Bank, this question has special relevance for me.
Until recently Jewish-American politics was dominated by organizations that have been supportive of the settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Feeling uncomfortable with these right-wing groups, I limited my activism regarding Israel to working through groups like UJA-Federation of New York and the New Israel Fund, which aid disadvantaged Israelis.
But the emergence of J Street, the self-described pro-Israel, pro-peace organization that rejects settlement expansion and lobbies Congress in support of a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, has changed Jewish-American politics. With thousands of members, millions of dollars and a politically savvy leadership, J Street challenges me to jump into the fray.
Aligning myself with J Street presents the risk of being seen by some as anti-Israel. The pejorative label tagged on J Street stems from the perception that the peace lobby’s willingness to speak out against the occupation gives ammunition to Israel’s enemies.
I have felt the sharp sting of this charge. Years ago I published a letter to the editor, criticizing Israel for spurning Arab offers to mediate peace talks. At the time I was uninvolved in the Jewish community, and was shocked by the response to my words.
I received angry phone calls and letters from strangers. Some people I knew called me a self-hating Jew. The experience left me wary of engaging in the debate over the occupation. But remaining silent as the settlements grow and the possibility of peace fades tugs at my conscience.
If people like me are intimidated into inaction, the political playing field will be ceded to supporters of the status quo and their stupendously reckless bet that Muslim countries will live peacefully with their Jewish neighbor, even as the newly empowered Arab street rages over the mistreatment of their Palestinian cousins.
I also worry that the United States will grow weary of its alliance with Israel. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Gen. David Petraeus and former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft acknowledged, the Arab-Israeli is an obstacle to American goals in the region. Should the idea take hold in gentile America that our security is linked to Muslim anger over the plight of the Palestinians, all the efforts of the American Jewish establishment will not be enough to maintain Washington’s unfettered support of the Jewish state.
The linkage between American interests and the Palestinian cause has also been a source of tension for me. While I wanted the U.S. to continue helping Israel, the pro-settlement bent of the Jewish community’s efforts on Capitol Hill made it difficult for me to advocate for American aid, without compromising my patriotism.
But by joining with peace-minded Jews through J Street I can have the means to lobby Congress for policies I believe benefit both my religious homeland and my country of birth.
Besides, working with a large pro-peace group makes me feel that it has become more acceptable to criticize the Netanyahu government — there is safety in numbers. In this regard I was encouraged that CUNY was forced to reverse its decision revoking Tony Kushner’s honorary degree. While I disagree with much of what Kushner has said about Israel, the uproar over the revocation shows that there is a desire in the Jewish community to broaden the discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Despite greater tolerance for non-establishment views about the Jewish state, some people feel it is presumptuous for Jews in the diaspora to get involved in Israeli politics. These voices say that the Jewish state should be able to decide its future without outside interference. But world Jewry has an immense stake in the outcome of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which goes beyond security issues.
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Since her founding Israel has served as a link between Jews of all backgrounds. In some ways this connection has replaced religion as a unifying force.
But as Peter Beinart pointed out in a widely read New York Review of Books article, Jews in their teens and 20s are turning away from Israel in reaction to the country’s status as an occupier. Without loyalty to Israel to bind them to their heritage, politically liberal Jews could completely fall out from the Jewish community.
From this viewpoint the debate over the occupation is a struggle for Jewish peoplehood; will that future include progressive-minded Zionists, or will it belong to fanatical settlers and their ideological allies?
The future of the Middle East is too uncertain for me to claim that I know for sure what will happen if a Palestinian state emerges. But I am sure about the type of country I would like Israel to become and what path I want the Jewish peoples to take.
It is time for me to join the peacemakers in their struggle against the occupiers. With the Arab world in unprecedented flux, it might be too late to take a stand if I wait much longer.
Ben Krull is an attorney who works in Manhattan Family Court.