Finding My Pro-Israel Voice While Interning at J Street

August 14th, 2012

By Jeremy Zelinger, J Street Summer 2012 Communications Intern

The discomfort in their voice was palpable. They stammered, hesitated, and tried to convey their disapproval without offending me. It didn’t make a difference whether I was talking to my family in the US or in Israel. When I told them I would be interning at J Street, the reaction was equally negative.

I was abroad in Tel Aviv. I had wanted to return to the United States to intern in Washington, DC, so I applied to J Street. But as I sat on the long plane ride across the Atlantic Ocean, only days away from starting my new job, my family’s doubts became my own.

I grew up in a traditionally pro-Israel household. With more cousins in Israel than in the US, my family closely followed events in the Middle East. I remember tense moments of my childhood, sitting in silence with my parents in front of the television, watching the scenes on repeat of scrambling medics and bloodied civilians after another suicide bombing. Unquestioning support for Israel was a given. A poster in my father’s office summarized our voice on the issue: “Wherever I stand, I stand with Israel.”

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, then, that I was discouraged from interning at J Street, which seeks to be “a new voice for Israel.” We already had our voice, and we were proud of it. Why would we want a new one?

After living in Israel for five months, I had fallen in love with the country – its language, people, culture, traditions, food, and rudeness – everything. It is a vibrant, Jewish democracy and I was ready to stand up to anything that threatened it.

On the plane home, I thought about the threats Israel faces: a fanatical Iranian regime with aspirations for a nuclear weapon, chaos in Syria as Bashar Al-Assad brutally attempts to retain his power, uncertainty about the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and violent attacks from Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

It’s enough to make your head spin. Israel’s enemies are real and their capability to inflict harm is substantial. Israel must be prepared to defend itself, and the pro-Israel community should provide support. In many ways, this is the pro-Israel voice of my family, and the voice that spoke to me as the plane landed at JFK airport.

On my first day at J Street, I peppered my supervisor with questions. I knew J Street’s basic pitch – that a two-state solution is necessary to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish democratic state. Like many, I agreed that a two-state solution would be ideal, but I doubted its feasibility considering the current dynamics of the region. She responded with detailed answers to my questions, while returning to a theme; although there might be risks in creating a Palestinian state, the status quo carries us closer to a one-state nightmare, a result we cannot accept.

As the conflict continues without a resolution, Israeli and Palestinian populations further integrate in the West Bank. If the two populations become inseparable, Israel will have to choose between sacrificing its Jewish majority by granting political rights to the millions of Palestinians in the West Bank or sacrificing its democratic character by denying those Palestinians political rights. Either option would put an end to the Israel I had just visited.

This issue, however, hadn’t crossed my mind as an existential threat to Israel. The need for a two-state solution hadn’t been a part of my pro-Israel voice.

The following two months of my internship affirmed not only the severity of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the danger of its absence from the public conversation. True, many Israelis and supporters of Israel may believe that other issues are more important. That’s fine with me. But it doesn’t justify ignoring the threat completely. Israel faces too many challenges for us not to multitask. And ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a two-state solution must be on the agenda. Ignoring this reality is akin to supporting the status quo, which creates more obstacles to reaching a compromise.

I am not satisfied with a pro-Israel voice that shouts about military threats from Hezbollah but is silent about the demographic threat from a stateless Palestinian population. Just as Israel needs to prepare for war, it must also prepare for peace. A pro-Israel voice should express the importance of both.

As an avid supporter of Israel, I am not willing to pick and choose which threats to combat. I will speak out against anything that I see as a threat to Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic state and if my analysis differs from the policies of the Israeli government, I think I have an obligation to continue saying it anyway. We, as Jews, have always grown wiser in our disagreements. We must keep having them.

When my family discouraged me from interning at J Street, I had little to say in response. I muttered some justifications about getting the opportunity to live in Washington, DC, and the importance of gaining more office experience.

Today, I tell my family that there are many ways to be pro-Israel because there are many types of challenges to Israel’s existence. I praise them for their commitment to Israel’s safety and encourage them to continue their advocacy. But I also explain that Israel needs a resolution with the Palestinians in order to guarantee its future. I stress that this issue cannot be ignored, and that I wish to support Israel not only in war but also in peace.

I share my pro-Israel voice, loud and clear.