Jeremy Ben-Ami's Speech Welcoming Conference Participants

October 26th, 2009

To kick off J Street's first annual conference, Jeremy Ben-Ami delivered the following remarks to the assembled participants following an interactive discussion on why we care about Israel. Thank you so much to everyone for participating in this amazing moment. Please give yourselves a rousing round of applause for an engaging and open discussion of some really difficult questions. Thanks as well to Daniel Sokatch, my partner and friend – and thank you to Ronit, Andy, Lauren and Jim for your contributions and for starting us on a journey of exploration into issues of identity, religion and politics – exactly the topics my mother always told me to avoid on a first date. But here at J Street, you may have noticed we like to break the rules. What better way to spend our first night together than talking not just about religion and politics but how the two mix together in the volatile hotbeds of the Middle East, Washington and the American Jewish community. Frankly, it’s a conversation that some would say it’s better to have privately – or not at all. And – to make matters worse – not only are we talking publicly, we’re webcasting and tweeting. Welcome to the 21st century! And welcome to a new era when it comes to advocacy on Israel and the Middle East. I know I speak for many who are here – and many more who couldn’t be here – when I say that this event is far more than simply a policy conference. It’s a moment with deep significance and real meaning for people who have struggled for a long time with some very difficult issues. First, what it will take to finally end the Israeli-Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflicts diplomatically and peacefully. Second, how do we change the unconstructive way this issue plays out in American politics and policy. And, third, how do we alter some of the unhealthy dynamics that have emerged inside the American Jewish community when it comes to talking about Israel. I dare say that many if not most of you would not have made the long and costly journey here if one or more of these questions did not strike the core of who you are and the way in which you define your identity. And you may well be here because you’re tired of feeling alone in your community when you start raising these questions. Well – as I think you can see – you are alone no longer. Substantively, of course, we’re here because we care so deeply about changing the course of events in the Middle East. Because we know the path we are on – of endless conflict, failure to compromise, terror and bloodshed – leads only to hopelessness and despair. We rally tonight around this simple premise: that the security and very future of the Jewish, democratic homeland in Israel is at risk without an end to the conflict and to the occupation of the Palestinian people. The work begun in the generations before ours to build a nation in the image of our people to be the home of our people will only be complete when Israel has defined borders, a Palestinian state has been established next door and the rest of the region and the world recognizes Israel and accepts its existence. Our presence here in such numbers and with such energy demonstrates the powerful base of political support ready to back active pursuit and achievement of comprehensive, regional peace in the Middle East – as an urgent priority not a distant, almost meaningless, aspiration. We do not want the United States to simply be a passive facilitator of fruitless negotiation. No – as President Obama has said, we have had enough talking about talking. We want action and we want resolution. We want the United States and the international community actively at the table – and we want this conflict to end. As I hope has been clear in the early stages of the conversation tonight – while this movement is welcoming to all who seek peace, justice and an end to the conflict – it is rooted in a love of Israel and concern for its future. We value the partnership and engagement and support of our non-Jewish friends – both here tonight and in our work overall. We need and appreciate allies and alliances, individual and institutional. But at heart they know – as we know – that the root of this movement and heart of this conversation has to be in the American Jewish community. For many of us as Jews, this conversation taps into our deepest personal feelings – of family, history and community. Perhaps at your tables tonight you began to share some of those feelings. And we hope when you return home, you will continue to do so. It is our goal to change traditional conversations when it comes to Israel and to broaden the notion that there is only one way to express love and concern for it. We are here to redefine and expand the very concept of being pro-Israel. No longer should this pro- require an anti-. The frame for this evening is to explore our relationship to Israel in the 21st century. And in this new century and for this new generation, we will not accept that the world must be seen through the prism of us-vs-them conflict – that we must look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a zero sum game. We do not see the world only in black and white. No, to be pro-Israel in our movement is to recognize that history is filled with shades of gray and that the only way forward to a better future is a win-win solution that leads to two states for two peoples. Until that happens the work of the generations that came before us – of my great grandparents in the first aliyah, of my grandparents who built Tel Aviv out of the sand dunes, of my father who fought for independence – will not be complete. We – like those who came before us – know the dangers that lurk in the world. We yearn for safety and security not so much for us as for those we love. But it is our movement that offers the best path to the very security that all people in the region desperately seek. Only through peace will there be security. For both peoples. And perhaps more importantly, only through peace can there be a state truly created in our own image. The founders of the state of Israel had a clear vision – they aimed to create a democracy that reflected the highest values of the Jewish people – justice, equality, treating your neighbor as you wish to be treated yourself. They knew of what they spoke because for nearly 2,000 years our people had lived in the lands of others. At times this has worked out well – throughout the ages and in various corners of the globe, Jews have flourished intellectually, culturally, materially, politically and otherwise. Needless to say, in generation after generation, we have also painfully learned the perils of being a minority and of the mistreatment that can be wrought by the majority on a minority. Now after 2,000 years, we again have our own state and the chance to show the world that we can achieve a proper balance between the exercise of sovereign power and adhering to a set of values in accordance with the standards we held up for others. But working to create a just and peaceful future for Israel and for all the people of the region is only the first aspect of our work. The second is to change the way this issue plays out in American politics and policy. For too long, our voice – the voice of mainstream progressive Jews on Israel – has been absent from the political playing field in Washington and around the country. We progressive Jews – who voted 78% for Barack Obama and continue to give him high approval ratings as President – have focused on other, extraordinarily important fights. We fight to save the planet, to end poverty and to ensure equal rights for all regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation. But when it comes to Israel, our voices and our positions have been drowned out by those to our right with the intensity and passion of single-issue, single-minded advocates. As we care deeply about the state of Israel and the security of the Jewish people, so too does this passionate minority. But we come here to Washington DC to make clear to politicians and policy makers alike that no one group speaks for Jewish Americans as a whole. Our movement’s second goal therefore is to make our voices heard and our power felt from the corridors of power in Washington DC to the campaign trails in all fifty states. We will make it clear that a majority of American Jews – and a majority of Americans period – support the same sensible pro-Israel, pro-peace policies toward Israel and the Middle East that we do. Yes, most American Jews favor a two-state solution and comprehensive regional peace. Most oppose the expansion of settlements by Israel. Of course, we oppose the use of terror and violence by Palestinians and others to achieve their goals – and we’re concerned whether peace is actually still possible. But we clearly and unequivocally want the United States to lead and to do whatever can be done to end the conflict and bridge the differences between the sides. This is not simply an interest of Israel’s, it is a fundamental American interest as well. Third and perhaps most important – this is a movement that is fighting for the heart and the soul of the American Jewish community. How the Israel conversation plays out in our communities, on our campuses, and in our synagogues speaks volumes about who we are as a people. What values are we modeling to others? What are we teaching our children? Though we are 6,000 miles away, how our community relates to the conflicts in the region will be an essential component of our identity as American Jews in the 21st century. Many in our community are concerned about the fraying bonds of connection of Jewish Americans to their Jewish identity. Many are worried that the young people of today will not be there for the Israel of tomorrow. We too are concerned. Yet the answer is to us self-evident. We say open up the doors wider to the generations of tomorrow, and trust that the American Jewish community of the 21st century and Israel itself are strong enough to handle wide open discourse. So our final goal as a movement is to change the nature of the Jewish communal conversation on Israel. We want to broaden the conversation. We value nuance. We encourage debate and discussion. As we want Israel to be the embodiment as a nation of our people’s character and values, so too our 21st century Jewish community here should reflect the best of what it means to be Jewish. To be Jewish is to argue. To be Jewish is to think. We value curiosity, tolerance, and free expression. Now, let’s put these values into practice – here in our community in our generation. In closing, let me again say how pleased I am to see so many of us come together tonight and in these three days. We announce today our readiness to build a movement – together with all the many wonderful existing organizations who share our pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-democracy values – to reclaim the voice of our people, to inject our voice back into the political and policy debate and to press for one last chance to build a peaceful, just and democratic Israel. Do not think we are looking to build a new voice in this process. Far from it. Ours is – in reality – an ancient voice. The voice of our people and our prophets through the millennia. It is a voice that speaks from the soul of our people. It is the voice that forms the character and conscience of our community. Yes, it is a voice that loves Israel as the state of our people. But one that expresses love not in unquestioning embrace but in caring partnership. A voice that gives expression to the most basic of Jewish and universal values. A voice that cares not simply about our people’s destiny but about the future of the Palestinian people – not just because it is in our interest, but because Palestinian children deserve a future and freedom, hope and happiness every bit as much as Jewish children. A voice that rejects racism and prejudice as much when it is directed at our community as when it is directed at those of other backgrounds, particularly Muslims. My friends – it isn’t the voice that’s new – we’ve simply got ourselves a megaphone. Let’s commit tonight to project that voice of our proudest heritage loudly and clearly throughout our community, across this country and in the Halls of Congress – and, yes to echo further afield with our friends in Israel. This majority will be silent no more. Our voice will help guide the way to a safe and secure future for the state of Israel, to the creation of a Palestinian state alongside it and to American policies that help to secure a better future not only for the children of the region but for our children back at home. That is our mission. Tonight, tomorrow and going forward as a movement. Thank you so much for joining us in this historic task.