My Optimistic Story about J Street, Israel, and Aspen Has a Sad Ending

The last few years have reminded me of the old Jewish joke (via my friend Rabbi Joseph Telushkin) about the man who perpetually had a gloomy disposition and never smiled, but insisted that he was an optimist. His friends asked him why, if he had an upbeat view of the future, was he always frowning and grumpy.? He replied with a growl, “With all the problems in the world do you think it’s easy to be an optimist?”

Over the last four decades I have been blessed with opportunities to study Jewish wisdom and values with the greatest teachers in the world and also to develop a special feeling of connection to the land of Israel through 20 visits there. I have lived a life of total immersion within American Jewish organizations ranging from Federations to CLAL to synagogue to Israel Bonds to Jewish Day Schools to AIPAC to J Street. And it has all added great value and meaning to my life.

But the last few years have been challenging. It has been harder to reconcile my love for commitment to those Jewish values and my special relationship with the land of Israel with many of the actions and policies of the Israeli government and the role that love for Israel has played in dividing instead of uniting our Jewish community here in the U.S. Like the Jewish “optimist” in that joke, it has been harder to reconcile my natural and perpetual enthusiasm about the future with much of what I feel and write on a daily basis.

But a chance meeting with Israeli U.N. Ambassador Ron Prosor at the Aspen Ideas Festival last month became a true cause for hope and joy. After a short conversation, the ambassador learned of my involvement with J Street, but rather than being critical or disapproving he instead asked if I could meet with him privately the next day.

He said that he had never heard anything good about J Street, but he also admitted that the only people he had talked with were people who hated or disapproved of J Street to begin with. As a career diplomat and a fair and reasonable person, he knows that to get an accurate picture about any person or group it is best to talk to someone who actually is on the inside and could speak from first hand experience. His point of view might seem simplistic and logical to some, but it is sadly lacking from most political and Jewish discussions today which are not conversations at all.

When we met, Ambassador Prosor was gracious and very friendly. He started by asking about J Street’s claim to be a pro-Israel organization.

“If I am a soccer fan of Manchester United or Liverpool, I cheer for my team and I want them to win. I don’t go around questioning or criticizing them. J Street claims to be a fan of Israel but they don’t act like a fan of Israel as I define the term,” he said.

“There are two kinds of fans,” I told him. “You are describing the booster club fans who desperately want their team to win and they show that by cheering for their own team, booing the other team, and yelling at the referees and claiming bias for every foul that is called against their team — even if it is not an unfair call. Those kinds of fans are important for every team and they are important for Israel.”

“But every strong team also has a call-in talk radio show where equally committed fans can offer suggestions and even make criticisms of the coach and players with the goal of making the team even better. Sometimes the same fans who are in the booster club will also call the radio show to suggest that the coach is starting the wrong players or using a bad strategy. Not because they hate the team but because they love the team and also want it to win.”

“For decades, Israel has had many outstanding booster clubs and advocacy groups but it has never had the call-in talk show,” I said. “J Street has filled that vacuum and Israel and our Jewish community are stronger as a result.”

And so it went for almost an hour. A respectful conversation, back and forth, between two Jews who care deeply about the future of Israel and our Jewish community. Except one of the participants was an ambassador of the Netanyahu government who actually seemed more interested in trading thoughts and ideas than promoting an agenda. Mr. Prosor never indicated in any way that he agreed with what I was saying but neither did he act dismissive or respond with talking points. We also exchanged private email addresses and cell phone numbers which suggested that he might continue to conversation going forward.

At long last, I could write an article about the Israeli government that reflected a real cause for optimism about the future and the hope for civil and respectful dialogue among caring Jews in a world where that has become a scarce commodity.

Sadly, that article did get written quickly enough.

Because earlier this month, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced that he was replacing my open-minded new friend with a new ambassador to the UN– a man named Danny Danon.

Danon, like many of the recent high-level Netanyahu appointments, has earned a reputation as a hard line right wing extremist who has consistently favored Israel resolving its problems with its neighbors by engaging in pre-emptive military strikes, who favors Israel annexing the West Bank outright, and who has been strongly in favor of settlement growth and opposed to any flavor of a two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

When reporting his appointment, the New York Times said:

Mr. Danon is an ambitious, headline-grabbing young politician who has called for Israel to annex all West Bank settlements, annul the Oslo Peace Accords and allow Jews to pray on the Temple Mount. He has described the Obama administration’s criticism of Israeli construction in East Jerusalem as racist and said the United States is not an honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians.

My guess is that if I run into the new Israeli ambassador in Aspen or anywhere else, I won’t be able to have a conversation such as the one I had with his predecessor. But hope springs eternal.

If there is a lesson to be learned from this experience it is that if you have something good or hopeful to say about the current Israeli government you had better say it right away before something changes.

Even if one is an optimist by nature, there are times when it is not easy to look or sound like one.

About the Author
Larry Gellman is a retired Managing Director--Wealth Management at a private worldwide investment firm. He has studied and lectured on Jewish wisdom and ethics. He has spent 40 years as a Jewish philanthropist and a current National Board Member of organizations including J Street, Americans for Peace Now, and CLAL and a past chairman and former board member of Israel Bonds, Jewish Federations, AIPAC and Jewish Day Schools in two major cities.
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