Avi S. Olitzky

Unite Us, Don’t Divide Us

There may have once been a time when a “one-issue” voter was not impossible — a person could choose their issue and use that as the barometer for a presidential candidate. Society has gotten far too complex and the issues have become far more nuanced. And yet, it seems as though we have reached the age without nuance — and have for some time.

In my relatively young memory, Israel never used to be a partisan issue. Indeed, in recent years it has become a wedge tool for those attempting to create a deeper schism between republicans and democrats, the right and the left. No doubt, the current political climate has intentionally lent itself to using Israel and the Jewish community as a political football.

The part that concerns me presently, however, is the gamesmanship and dangerously loaded words surrounding AIPAC and its upcoming Policy Conference.

AIPAC is a bipartisan organization of U.S. citizens committed solely to strengthening, protecting and promoting the U.S.-Israel relationship in ways that enhance the security of the United States and Israel. Simply put, it is about deepening and strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship. And frankly, it is effectively the last address for bipartisanship in our nation’s capital.

And in full disclosure: I am one of AIPAC’s citizen activists.

I believe, in my heart of hearts, that the American Jewish community cannot exist without Israel, and Israel cannot exist without the American Jewish Community. Further, as a proud child of these United States, we have no stronger strategic partner or ally, especially in the Middle East, than Israel. This is why I am involved in AIPAC and why I bristle at grandiose full-sweeping criticisms of it.

I agree with Senator Sanders when he tweets that “the Israeli people have the right to live in peace and security. So do the Palestinian people.” But I take full exception when he suggests that AIPAC provides a platform “for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights.” Is he referring to elected Israeli officials? Elected Republicans? Elected Democrats?

Surely Senator Sanders can’t be referring to speakers from the United States Institute for Peace, the Alliance for Middle East Peace, or the Palestinian Internship Program. What is he really suggesting?

When Senator Sanders tweets “As president, I will support the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians and do everything possible to bring peace and security to the region,” I applaud such a statement. But when it is introduced by the above content and context, it leads Representative Omar to respond with: “Thank you @BernieSanders for standing up for Palestinian human rights. All candidates should follow Bernie’s example and #SkipAIPAC!” And then, all of a sudden, Israel is absent from the conversation and the statement undermines that “effort” toward peace and security.

I am definitely not a one-issue voter—but that is because in my mind the U.S.-Israel relationship should be paramount for any of our presidential candidates, left or right, democrat or republican. And further, attendance at AIPAC Policy Conference is not a must, by any means, for any presidential candidate. But using one’s absence from AIPAC Policy Conference as a political football, or worse, to make a statement suggesting that AIPAC enables bigotry and opposition toward basic human rights, not only does such a statement lack nuance, but it also undermines the entirety of bipartisan discourse we long for in a president.

We want a president who unites and not one who divides.

We want a president who unites the parties. We want a president who unites the left and the right. We want a president who unites the Israelis and the Palestinians. We want a president who unites the Arab world with the Western world. We want a president who unites Jews and Muslims.

Instead, in scant characters, Senator Sanders has suggested otherwise—and that leaves me quite disheartened. Bring us together. Stop tearing us apart.

I am hopeful that I will be reassured by those candidates I do hear from at Policy Conference—and I will be certain to share with them the following:

We need direct and bilateral talks. We need a two-state solution. We need to ensure that such a solution cannot be imposed on the parties. We need both sides to be willing to make key compromises. And we need to ensure that disagreements be resolved privately.

Maybe if Senator Sanders agreed with those sentiments, he too would realize that AIPAC is the only effective and impactful bipartisan forum for progressive discourse and the promotion of peace and security in the region. But instead he shows us that his “concern” means he’s not interested in discussing—he’ll take his kickball and go play somewhere else.

That is not how one makes peace. That is not how one engages in dialogue.

About the Author
Rabbi Avi Olitzky is a senior rabbi of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. He graduated from the Joint Program at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2003 where he was awarded a BA in Sociology and a BA in Talmud and Rabbinics. Rabbi Olitzky went on to receive an MA in Midrash in October 2007 and his ordination as a rabbi from JTS in May 2008.
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