In less than two weeks, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) will hold its annual Policy Conference in Washington DC. President Obama, Prime Minister Netanyahu, and President Peres will speak before the assemblage of over 10,000 advocates for a strong US-Israel relationship. AIPAC’s Policy Conference comes in the midst of increasing concern about Iran’s nuclear program and worries about possible military action needed to address it.
There are no few who worry about a decreased amount of support for Israel among American Jews, Peter Beinart being the chief Chicken Little reporting that the sky is falling. But is it? One only need look at the lineup of speakers at the URJ’s recent Biennial Convention held in Washington DC to find it obvious that Israel and Israel advocacy were prominent there. At AIPAC’s annual Policy Conference this year, there will be over one hundred of my Reform clergy colleagues, including Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, and Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center (RAC), along with thousands of members of our congregations. Building on the pro-Israel advocacy momentum, the RAC stated this week that:
For the first time ever, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Religious Action Center will be hosting a Reform Movement reception during the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C.
The Israel advocacy sky isn’t falling. In the Reform movement, support for Israel is increasing both qualitatively and quantitatively. There is both more advocacy going on and better advocacy going on. Concern and advocacy for Israel have ballooned.
Why is this all of this happening? I will give you seven reasons among many.
First, there is a realization among many of us that the peace process, as it was up until 2007 when Hamas took over Gaza, is no longer likely to achieve peace anytime soon. Some have responded to that fact by seeking American pressure on Israel in a vain attempt to bring the Palestinian side to the table. Others of us, on the other hand, reject that idea and believe that the absence of progress toward peace is not primarily, if at all, the fault of Israel. Issues such as settlements and borders are obviously, to us, part of the negotiating process — not prerequisites for it. Parties seeking peace need to negotiate; parties who want something other than peace fight wars either on the battlefield or in the sphere of diplomacy. That is what we are seeing the Palestinian side do.
Second, we acknowledge the growing threat of Iran and its nuclear program. This is an existential threat and at least some of us feel a need to speak out about combating it.
Third, many of us have become tired of the criticism heaped upon Israel and attempts to delegitimize it. We have become tired of a narrative that basically says that Israel’s attempts to defend itself are wrong because the other side is weaker and has a right to murder Jews around the world because Israel will not give in to their demands, even risking the existence of the Jewish state in the process. Wrong!
Fourth, Rabbi Micky Boyden and I formed We Are For Israel two years ago in response to the firestorm of criticism of Israel’s response to the Free Gaza Flotilla. We created a Mission Statement about what we believe and an Advocacy Statement about how we believe advocates should go about doing their work. Well over three hundred rabbis have signed on to our mission statement, including leading rabbis from the Reform and Conservative movements and hundreds receive our blog postings about advocacy either directly or indirectly. We call ourselves “Rabbis for Israel” and we have made a difference in advocating in our congregations and in our movements in support of Israel. Rabbi Danny Allen of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) and Rabbi Stephen Fuchs of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ), both associated with the Reform movement, have done great work in this regard as well and should not go unmentioned.
Fifth, AIPAC’s Synagogue Initiative has made a big difference. Providing resources to rabbis seeking to strengthen Israel advocacy in their congregations and helping to make it easier for rabbis and their congregants to come to conferences, the Initiative has been invaluable.
Sixth, members of our congregations are urging their leaders, especially their rabbis, to get involved. When we speak of The Shoah, we mention that the greatest sin of our age was and is silent indifference. We cannot allow ourselves or others to simply sit by and do nothing. We cannot be shouted into submission by criticism though it hurts sometimes. We cannot listen to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spout hatred while planning to act upon it and do nothing. We, Zionist progressives and moderates, are not going to allow extremists to be the sole voice in our movements, in our congregations, or among our colleagues. We are speaking out.
Seventh, the days when criticizing Israel was the norm and simply accepted are over. Though we as progressive Jews are deeply concerned about many social issues within the Jewish state including the situation of our fellow Reform and Conservative Jews who are not granted the same rights to practice our Judaism as our Orthodox brethren, the criticism of Israel’s policies regarding these or other internal matters does not supersede the need to defend its very existence against the many existential threats it faces. We seek security for the Israeli people even as we continue to advocate for pluralism and civil rights.
Ultimately, these seven reasons have resulted in a dramatic upturn in advocacy for Israel, the state of the Jewish people: our state, our people.