Last week I attended JStreet’s National Conference in Washington DC. What follows are some of my impressions. First a word about JStreet’s mission. JStreet was founded a little over ten years ago to advocate for, and lobby in behalf of, a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In other words, it supports the creation of a Palestinian state in a large portion of the West Bank, as well as perhaps Gaza, living alongside the Jewish State of Israel. AIPAC by contrast, although officially affirming the need for two states, avoids prescribing a solution to this conflict, claiming instead that this is for Israelis, and Palestinians, to decide. AIPAC’s mission is to make sure there is strong bipartisan support for Israel, and in particular for Israel’s security, in the United States Congress.
I will also be attending the AIPAC Policy Conference the beginning of March. Unlike AIPAC which both Democrats and Republicans attend, there were only senators and representatives from the Democratic Party at JStreet. There were also only Israelis from the center and left in attendance. While I recognize that many find JStreet controversial I struggle to understand why it is deemed out of bounds. Among those in attendance, and those who spoke to the 4,000 participants, were Ehud Barak, former Prime Minister and Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, and Ami Ayalon, former director of Shin Bet (Israel’s internal security service) and admiral in Israel’s navy. Their security credentials are unmatched. More about that later. First a few details about my personal journey regarding the question of two states for two peoples.
I have long believed that the two state solution is the only answer, albeit an imperfect one, to the conflict. In fact I first gave a sermon advocating this soon after returning from year one of rabbinical school in Jerusalem. That was in 1988. During those years, I was deeply troubled by the first intifada, in which Palestinian protestors and rioters were met with deadly force by Israeli soldiers. In fact Yitzhak Rabin, who later signed the Oslo Accords and whose assassination still pains us, twenty four years later, then said about Palestinians, “We should break their bones.” I was also touched by the acquaintances and friendships I made during that year of living in Israel, most especially in the Arab village of Beit Safafa, and deeply moved by David Grossman’s groundbreaking book Yellow Wind. I came to believe that if Zionism is about the fulfillment of the Jewish people’s aspirations for a state of their own then how could Israel deny that national right to Palestinians, most especially given that the United Nations affirmed both these rights in 1947. My faith in this belief was soon shaken when I watched in horror as Palestinians cheered Saddam Hussein’s scud missile attacks on Israel in 1991.
My faith was completely shattered when, following the Oslo Accords and the break-down of negotiations between Clinton, Barak and Arafat, and Arafat’s rejection of Barak’s offers, we saw an unprecedented eruption of deadly violence in the second intifada. I briefly visited Israel at that time, when buses were being blown up, when restaurants were being targeted, when Israelis were murdered throughout Jerusalem’s streets for doing the most ordinary of things of two friends going out for a slice of pizza or a father and daughter having coffee days before her wedding. I still recall growing nervous every time a bus idled nearby. In fact, on one occasion a would-be homicide bomber was tackled, and his device defused a block from where I was sitting with a friend at lunch. But every Israeli I know, most especially those living in Jerusalem, have exponentially more stories like these. For them, my narrow escape was multiplied by tens and hundreds. They have stories as well of those whose lives were taken. I then lost faith in the hope, and even in the prayer, for peace.
Soon Israel went on the attack. It built the security fence. It restored a sense of safety and security to its streets. Then it decided to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza and allow Palestinians to establish a state there. And soon the terrorist organization Hamas gained power there. Those living near Gaza’s border still must live through rocket attacks. And so many have understandably lost faith in the promise of peace. Many are afraid. They just want to be able to do what people of any country are able to do, go out for coffee, enjoy a pizza. And in Tel Aviv you can actually now go about your day as if there is no conflict. But in Jerusalem where I spend most of my time, the conflict remains in the air because there Jews and Arabs live within close proximity to each other. There have been times as well on my visits to this holy city when I too had to hurry to bomb shelters to avoid rocket attacks.
And in the West Bank where Israel continues to expand settlements the conflict is often found on just the other side of these communities’ gates. To be sure not all settlements are created equal. What the world calls settlements we would not. There are areas of Jerusalem which were once part of Jordanian territory that almost no Israeli thinks of relinquishing. There are three large settlement blocs that almost all Israelis agree must remain part of sovereign Israel. But then there are these small, isolated, settlements whose continued expansion might make a future Palestinian state impossible. These settlements are often isolated both geographically and ideologically. Their residents do not believe what most affirm, that Israel must remain true to its Jewish and democratic principles. They care little for the values of democracy and only for Israel’s Jewish commitments.
I desperately want Israel to remain faithful to its democratic and Jewish values as enshrined in its founding declaration of independence. And that is why I continue to believe in the two-state solution because a separation from the Palestinians is the only way to preserve Israel as both Jewish and democratic. These isolated settlements, most especially, make these two states less and less likely. If Israel continues to hold on to the majority of the West Bank it will have to either make these current facts into law, namely denying Palestinians citizenship rights in order to maintain a Jewish majority or grant Palestinians these rights but then soon lose its Jewish majority and therefore its Jewish character. That is the simple equation.
Ami Ayalon, the former director of Shin Bet, who appeared in the movie The Gatekeepers, argued that separating from the Palestinians is the only way, or at least the best way available, for Israel to maintain its security as well as its Jewish and democratic characters. Ehud Barak spoke quite movingly. He spoke of his years of serving as a soldier and the people he was required to kill. He can still picture the faces of these enemy soldiers. He shared with the crowd how on his first state visit to Egypt, soon after the Israeli-Egyptian peace accords, he asked to lay a wreath at Egypt’s tomb of the unknown soldier—he wanted to honor their courage and bravery—and he shared how he later joined the Egyptian band in singing an Arab love song. And then much to the crowd’s surprise, the former Israeli general and prime minister, sang to us this Arabic love song. And I thought that if a general can sing his one-time enemy’s love song then maybe peace really is possible. He summarized his views by saying, “Even at the height of the most heated battle, never lose sight of the fact that, a millimeter underneath our skins, we are all the same. And a day might well come, when we will sit together in peace, unable to explain even to ourselves, why did it take so long?” Why does that millimeter seem so beyond our vision and grasp?
The leader of Israel’s Arab party, the Joint List, Ayman Odeh, spoke about the need for Israel to grant its Israeli citizens greater rights (make no mistake, this argument about granting more democratic rights to all people living within Israel’s borders resonates in the ears of our Jewish youth). He pleaded for support, speaking of the importance of moving peace negotiations forward. And then he quoted from our Bible’s psalms, in perfect Hebrew, “Even mah-asu habonim, hay’tah l’rosh pinah.” He was then good enough to translate it into Arabic and thankfully, English. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” You have to love a country that gives voice to a man born a Muslim who now quotes my Jewish faith’s most important book as an argument for his vision and our shared dream. Perhaps that rejected stone is indeed our salvation.
I do not know any way forward but the two-state solution. This brings me now to the most controversial part of the conference and the part that has received the most attention in the press. Many of the Democratic candidates for president attended the conference and were all interviewed by Tommy Vietor and Ben Rhodes of “Pod Save the World.” It was invaluable to have the same interviewers question all the candidates. They pushed all the candidates about the security aid the United States gives to Israel and in particular if that aid should be opened for debate, or even adjusted, if Israel were to annex West Bank territory.
Some candidates evaded answering the question. Other said security aid should not be on the table regardless of what Israel does. Senator Bernie Sanders was of course the most controversial. He said Israel should give some of its aid to Gaza and that this would be one of his first priorities as president. And while he is right that the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and the staggering unemployment and festering despair there, are not only in Israel’s moral interest to address but in its security interest as well (as but one example, the sewage from Gaza is literally clogging Israel’s desalination plant in Ashkelon), this seems a problematic strategy, in no small part because of the corruption of Gaza’s leadership and their continued promotion of terrorism. President Obama by the way rejected using American aid to Israel as leverage.
But I am grateful that JStreet was willing to raise the question and put it on the table. Personally I thought Mayor Pete Buttigieg offered the most reasoned, and informed, response. He suggested that if Israel were to annex territory, as Prime Minister Netanyahu promised in the last election, then the United States would have an obligation to reexamine its aid package. He suggested that friends have an obligation, not just a right, to help someone they care about do better and do right. (Wasn’t that in part Bibi Netanyahu’s argument when he came to Congress to speak against the Iran Deal?) If you believe that annexing territory is dangerous to Israel’s security, and as a consequence contrary to American interests, then he might have a point. I am certain this makes many in our community quite uneasy. I am also certain that this issue is going to become a lightning rod for division in the upcoming presidential election.
What makes me however the most uneasy is not the airing of such difficult, and controversial, questions, but instead the oversimplification of the debate and the attempt to eliminate all nuance. We hear now that Democrats want to destroy Israel or cut all its security aid. This is not true. These are complicated questions. And we should not shy away from asking them. We should also not demonize those who ask them from a place of love. Both sides of this polarizing debate want Israel to remain safe and secure.
To be sure the JStreet Conference is more challenging than AIPAC’s. It’s a lot of criticism of Israel. It’s a lot of asking how Israel can do better and far too little criticism of Palestinian leaders’ many failures, their corruption and their continued support for terrorists. How many days of tough love can one take? It’s exhausting. An analogy occurs to me. It’s as if I came home and my wife Susie offered me only hours and hours of all the things I did wrong and could do better. “You should have done this. You should have done that. I can’t believe you said that.” (She has never done such a thing, by the way.) At AIPAC, by contrast, I have felt as if it was like I came home and Susie said, “You’re the best. You’re the smartest. You’re the best looking and tallest man in the world.” (She has also never done this.) She is of course the perfect combination of the two. Sometimes she gives me some tough criticism, because she loves me so much, wants me to do better and also believes I can do better. And sometimes, she offers me some needed praise most especially when I am feeling down. And perhaps there might even be a few times when she exaggerates those compliments to help lift me up. But to be honest, that is not a healthy place to live. It’s not the measure of a good, loving relationship. It’s also not so healthy to offer hours and hours of critique. We need to be somewhere in the middle. And that is place is where I would like our love of Israel to reside.
We can love Israel and be critical of its policies. Just as we can love America and be critical of its policies. Policy disagreements should be part of what love means. Whether one believes a Palestinian state is in Israel’s best interest, as I emphatically do, or to its great detriment are not the metrics by which we should measure love and devotion.
Let us agree that we love Israel and that we want it do better. Wanting someone you love to do better is what love should mean. We might disagree about how Israel should get to that better place, but let’s agree that we must first, and always, begin with love.