Being on the right side of history

Jeremy Ben-Ami
on January 31, 2011

The events unfolding over the past week in the Middle East are as dramatic as any I’ve witnessed in my lifetime.

I read and watch with awe as history unfolds. And with trepidation, I wait to see what the next act will bring – for the Arab world, for Israel and for the United States.

As an American, I profoundly hope that America’s own story still inspires those seeking freedom and a better future for their children anywhere in the world.

As a Jew, I know I relate whenever any people’s rights are denied and as they struggle against oppression. That is why we stand with the Egyptian people as they seek to achieve that most basic of human rights, the opportunity for a better life for themselves and their children.

But, as a friend of Israel, I also can’t help worrying over the implications of convulsions in a neighbor so critical to Israel’s relationship with the region. There may only be a ‘cold peace’ with Egypt – but it is peace nonetheless and has always been the potential gateway to Israel’s broader acceptance into its neighborhood.

These are epic times – not simply for the Arab world, but for Israel too. Since we started J Street nearly three years ago, we’ve said that Israel’s long-term security and future hang in the balance, dependent on the achievement of a two-state solution to its conflict with the Palestinians.

Sadly, the prospects for a negotiated resolution to the conflict are perhaps as dim today as they have ever been. The Israeli government leans against taking the steps necessary to achieve a deal, and the U.S. government leans against the active engagement needed to promote it. The Palestinian leadership, badly hobbled by the stagnation of the peace process, is turning away from efforts to resolve the conflict directly with Israel and toward the United Nations and international community.

Against this backdrop, J Street strives to establish a voice in the American Jewish communal conversation that is principled and nuanced and that reflects the politics and values of the majority of Jewish Americans.

I’ll be the first to celebrate our successes – and to state proudly that we are filling an important vacuum in the political and communal conversation – but I also will be the first to acknowledge our lapses.

At times, we miss the mark. In particular, we allow ourselves to be dragged into the bitter hand-to-hand scuffling that marks modern politics, rather than remaining focused on sparking intelligent conversation on difficult issues. Too often, we descend to the level of those with whom we disagree and our campaigns and actions become too personal.

This happened last week with Congressman Gary Ackerman, when we reacted sharply to statements regarding J Street to which we objected. We may disagree with him over policy matters at times – but he and we share important larger goals for the United States, Israel and the Jewish people. Our discussions with him and with all those with whom we may disagree at times should be conducted with respect.

So allow me to apologize for the tone of our email on Friday.

More important, I want to promise our supporters (and our detractors) that we will continue to focus our efforts and our actions on doing what we do best: advocating, organizing, and speaking up for policies and politics that move Israel and its neighbors closer to peace, not further away from it. This is the theme of our conference- Giving Voice to our Values – and we will continue to honor that in all aspects of our work.

I hope that, as a community, we are constantly aiming to place our work in a more constructive and inclusive tone, even as we express our differences. The situation in the Middle East is too dire for us to get mired in the petty politics that all too often govern our community conversation.

Don’t expect us to shy away from taking hard positions on issues or from engaging the American Jewish community in some difficult discussions. Some of you may take issue with our position on the UN settlements resolution – so let’s discuss what exactly we said and why we said it.

Do expect that we will promote with a full voice our belief that liberal values and a love of Israel are reconcilable, and that Israel’s future as the democratic home of the Jewish people depends on achieving a two-state solution now.

Our definition of victory remains the same – to ensure that the state of Israel is secure within recognized boundaries and living in accordance with the democratic and Jewish values that we’ve been raised to believe in. We will do everything in our power to focus our work and our energy on that goal, day-in and day-out, in Washington, in the Jewish community and across America.

To the extent that our tone or our tactical choices damage that mission, we do our larger purpose no service. I hope you will hold me and us accountable from this day forward for living up to this promise.

These are difficult times and treacherous waters. Let’s work together to navigate them and to build a brighter future not simply for Israel and the Palestinians but for our own children and families here at home.

And let’s do it in a way that ensures we and our community are on the right side of history.