J Street Philadelphia Newsletter: December 2017

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When Everything Changed: Yitzhak Rabin and the Loss of Peace

By Mark J. Ehlers

All is changed; changed utterly – William Butler Yeats

Some events make history; others transform it. In my lifetime, few events had a greater impact on the American psyche than the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. Both events caught Americans off guard. The first catapulted America from the Age of Innocence into the volatile and revolutionary Sixties. The second forced us to confront an unpredictable form of stateless warfare. With each event, America was changed forever.

For the people of Israel, history is a state of mind; life-altering events a more frequent presence. Since the nation’s founding in 1948, when the War of Independence broke out and this tiny Mediterranean country was forced to defend itself against surrounding Arab armies ten times its size, existential threats have been a fact of life. History there is made every day.

In the first two decades of its existence, Israel was an exotic land where Jews could make aliyah and, for some, escape the anti-Semitism and persecutions of their countries of origin. Israel was an experiment, a land of refuge, of visionaries and kibbutzim, a place of deserts and archaeological digs and ancient biblical history.

And then the Six-Day War happened, and everything changed.

In 1967, when the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soundly and swiftly defeated five surrounding Arab armies threatening Israel’s destruction, the nature of Zionism and the perceptions of Israel changed forever. Israel was no longer just a safe haven for the victims of Jewish oppression and persecution, but a state to be reckoned with. For the first time in history, Jews were perceived as strong and powerful, able to defend themselves and create their own destiny. No one personified Israel’s new status better than the IDF’s then Chief of Staff, Yitzhak Rabin.

Rabin was a man of undisputed toughness and pragmatic wisdom, uncompromising in his commitment to the security of Israel, but pragmatic in his understanding of the geopolitical limitations of Zionism. Having helped lead the forces in 1967 that resulted in the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Rabin understood that the occupation could not continue forever. He also understood better than most that the visionary ideals of Israel’s Zionist founders, of a free and democratic Jewish state, remained in constant tension with the more expansionist religious and nationalistic claims to a Greater Israel.

“Israel is no longer a people that dwell alone,” he said over a quarter century later, alluding to the burdens of occupation. “Peace requires a world of new concepts, new definitions.” Rabin understood that to achieve peace great leaders must be willing to negotiate and compromise with their enemies. Even in times of great stress, perhaps most especially then, when destructive forces are determined to sabotage the peace process, “We must think differently, look at things in a different way.”

In my lifetime, peace between Israel and the Palestinians has remained elusive. There are times — and the present is no exception — when peaceful coexistence seems almost impossible. But just after the Oslo Accords of 1993, when then Prime Minister Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn standing between the outstretched arms of President Bill Clinton, the promise of peace seemed within reach. In the Declaration of Principles signed by these embattled leaders, the PLO formally recognized Israel’s right to exist and Israel agreed to formation of an independent Palestinian Authority as a starting point for future peace negotiations.

“We are destined to live together, on the same soil in the same land,” Rabin declared from the White House lawn on a beautiful, sun-filled September day, his archenemy Arafat standing right behind him. “We say to you today in a loud and clear voice: Enough of blood and tears. Enough.” Rabin spoke of the need for mutual respect and understanding, and in words directed specifically to the Palestinians, he emphasized: “We, like you, are people who want to build a home, to plant a tree, to love, live side by side with you in dignity, in empathy, as human beings, as free men. We are today giving peace a chance and again saying to you in a clear voice: Enough.”

I remember watching the White House ceremony on television that September day 24 years ago, and feeling profoundly hopeful. I truly believed I was witnessing one of the more significant historical events of my lifetime. I still get goose bumps when I think of the momentous possibilities that occasion promised. It was a day of hope and longing. The dream of peace seemed real and achievable. But it was not to last.

On November 4, 1995, after addressing 100,000 people at a Tel Aviv peace rally, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was struck down by an assassin’s gunshots. Yigal Amir, a 25 year-old law student from a suburb north of Tel Aviv, convinced that he was fulfilling the commands of God, murdered Rabin in the public square. It was a day that shocked the world and forever altered the course of history.

The murder of Rabin shook Israel to its core and dealt the peace process a mortal blow. Most shocking of all was the notion that an Israeli Prime Minister was killed not by a Hamas sympathizer or Palestinian extremist, but by a fellow Jew who believed Rabin’s murder was justified by an arcane category of Jewish religious law. Equally disturbingly, Amir’s actions were tacitly encouraged and provoked by a growing segment of Israeli society dominated by ultra-Orthodox rabbis and militant West Bank settlers, who believed Rabin was a traitor to the Jews.

The country was changing from within. The Israel created and developed by its mostly secular Zionist founders, people like Rabin – David Ben Gurion, Chaim Weizmann, Golda Meier, and others – was being threatened by political and religious forces that demonized Rabin and anyone who sought a territorial compromise to the occupied lands. The peace rally where Rabin was assassinated had been formed in response to the many opposition rallies then taking place in Israel, organized and led by right-wing nationalist and ultra-Orthodox religious groups opposed to any compromise with the Palestinians. At these rallies were signs of “Death to Rabin” and photos of the Israeli Prime Minister in a Nazi uniform. Many of the people who attended the anti-peace rallies considered the West Bank part of the rightful, biblical land of Israel, the land of Judea and Samaria, and believed that anyone willing to cede these lands to the Palestinians was treasonous.

These were dangerous times. Extremists on both sides shared the same goal – defeat the peace process at any cost. For two years after the Oslo Accords, Palestinian extremists stepped up their terror campaign with a string of deadly suicide bombings on public buses and crowded streets, each attack designed to undermine Israeli tolerance for a peace deal. Occasionally, Palestinian extremism was countered by the acts of Jewish extremists, including Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 gunned down 29 Palestinians in Hebron as they prayed in a mosque. Goldstein was part of a West Bank settler movement that viewed Rabin’s decision to transfer parts of the West Bank to Palestinian control as an existential threat to what they perceived as their biblical birthright. These were dangerous times indeed.

And yet, Yitzhak Rabin, a war hero, the first native-born Israeli Prime Minister, and one of the most respected military leaders in the history of Israel, was the one man who had the fortitude, backbone, and credibility to see the peace deal through despite the Palestinian terrorists and Jewish extremists who sought to undo the deal. Not since Rabin’s death has Israel had a leader to match the visionary toughness and pragmatic wisdom of Rabin. In that time, Israel has become even more divided. West Bank settlements have expanded and become more entrenched. Palestinian divisions between the Hamas and Fatah factions have become more intensified, Hamas growing stronger with the construction of each new settlement.

The tragedy of the November 4, 1995, assassination is not simply because a great man and visionary leader was murdered. It is because an inconsequential man succeeded. Yigal Amir altered the course of history from which Israel has yet to recover. As noted by Dan Ephron in Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel (W.W. Norton & Company, 2015), the assassination of Rabin helped “tip the balance in the right’s favor by killing the one man who had both a vision for peace with the Palestinians and the public confidence required to keep it going, even in the face of terrorist attacks.”

The death of Yitzhak Rabin destroyed the collective innocence of the Israeli people. Until then, they believed that, however divided they may be religiously and politically, they would never take the life of one of their own for religious or political reasons. The murder of Rabin plunged Israel into a state of despair from which it has not recovered. It changed everything.

In 1975, Rabin told then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that he regarded “every IDF soldier as my responsibility – almost as if he were my son.” It was with this heavy burden of obligation that Rabin created a momentum toward peace. He knew the value of military power. He also understood its limits. Twenty years later, we can only hope that the legacy of Yitzhak Rabin and the path toward peace are rekindled like the eternal flames that burn in his honor. For otherwise Israel’s greatest tragedy will not be the downfall of a great leader, but the rise of a destructive movement led by those opposed to peace and compromise at any cost.


Mark Ehlers serves on the J Street Philadelphia Executive Committee. A lawyer, author, and former federal prosecutor, he currently is the managing director of a corporate investigations firm. This essay is re-printed from The Journey Continues: Collected Essays on Life, Baseball, People, and Ideas 2014-2016 by Mark J. Ehlers (Bookstand Publishing 2017), pp. 134-138.

A Rabbinical Commitment to Liberal Zionism

By Rabbi Beth Janus

A few months ago I was speaking to one of my rabbinic pulpit colleagues about J Street. While he wholeheartedly supported the mission of J Street and had even participated in some J Street lobbying, he felt like it would be too risky politically to officially sign on as a J Street clergy. I empathized. At this time, for many of my colleagues, to take any public stand regarding Israel, especially a stand on the left, is perceived as a liability. For many pulpit rabbis in particular, the risk of alienating or upsetting a prominent member of the congregation, or of causing division and controversy, is not worth the expenditure of prophetic or political capital. And that is a shame.

As the head of the local J Street Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet in Philadelphia, this is what I am trying to change. I am currently focused on increasing the number of local Jewish clergy who have signed onto the J Street Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet Principles, which as set forth on J Street’s website, encompass the following five basic principles:

1. Commitment to and support for the people and the state of Israel.

2. The future of Israel depends on achieving a two-state resolution to the conflict with the Palestinian people.

3. Israel’s supporters have not only the right but the obligation to speak out when we think the policies or actions of the Israeli government are hurting Israel and the long-term interests of the Jewish people.

4. A vibrant but respectful debate about Israel benefits the American Jewish community and the people of Israel.

5. Our work is grounded in the values on which we were raised.

These should not be controversial principles for rabbis and committed Jewish communal leaders to embrace. Indeed, the future of liberal Zionism and the preservation of a Jewish and democratic state depends in part on Rabbis being willing to prophetically embrace these principles. While it may be treacherous for Jewish clergy to declare liberal feelings about Israel, these principles are what most American Jews believe. By increasing the number of local rabbis and cantors on this list, more of the Jewish community will see J Street for what it is: an authentic and vital expression of Zionism. And this will allow more clergy to openly support J Street, and to express without fear their support for peace, for two states for two peoples and for a vision of Zionism that embraces our liberal Jewish values.

As a rabbi, I passionately believe in the mission of J Street: that the path to peace for Israel is for the Palestinian people to have their own sovereignty. I do this work with Deuteronomy 16:20 in mind. “Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may live. And only then, will you be able to inherit the land that the Holy One is giving you.”

Rabbi Beth Janus is a community rabbi in Philadelphia, where she serves on the J Street Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet and the J Street Philadelphia Executive Committee. She was ordained as a Reform rabbi in 2001 from the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. Upon ordination, Rabbi Janus moved to Santa Cruz, California, where she served for four years as the Associate Rabbi at Temple Beth El in Aptos.

Report of the 2017 Zionist General Council Meeting

By David Dormont

The Zionist General Council (“ZGC”) of the World Zionist Organization met just outside of Jerusalem from October 31 to November 2, 2017. This annual gathering of Zionist leaders from around the world serves as the only truly democratic organization of World Jewry. Each year members of the ZGC hear from various Israeli leaders and discuss issues related to the operations and function of the World Zionist Organization (“WZO”).

Theodore Herzl created the WZO 120 years ago during the first World Zionist Congress.  The ZGC consists of approximately 130 Zionist leaders from around the world, with each delegate elected to represent a given country and faction. The current ZGC members were each elected to five-year terms during the 2015 World Zionist Congress (“WZC”). Representation at the ZGC is proportional to the representation of the WZC factions.

I became a delegate to the ZGC as a representative of the World Union of Meretz/Partners for Progressive Israel following an election held by the American Zionist Movement, which election was open to all members of the American Jewish Community. I ran on the Hativah slate comprised of Partners for Progressive Israel, Amenu, Hashomer Hatzair, and Habonim. Prominent members of J Street, including Jeremy Ben-Ami, were also members of the Hativah slate, which represents the progressive voice of the American Jewish Community.

At past ZGC meetings, representatives of Meretz, the Labor Party, and the Reform Movement (ARZA) caucused and voted as a unified bloc. While this bloc was significant, it represented only about a quarter to a third of all delegates. This year, for the first time, and as a result of the coalition building by the progressive factions, delegates from the Conservative Movement (Mercaz) and Yesh Atid joined our coalition. Together, this resulted in a strengthened progressive bloc that constituted nearly half of all delegates at the ZGC.  

The focus of this year’s ZGC meeting were proposed changes to the WZO’s Constitution. All changes to the constitution require a two-thirds vote to pass, but only a simple majority to table. Many of the proposed changes were administrative in nature, while others were substantive and impacted policy.

One key issue addressed in several proposals related to the election process for future World Zionist Congresses. Many of these proposals were problematic, including one that would have taken away the right of countries to run their own elections to the WZC and would have transferred control over the elections to the WZO in Jerusalem. All of these proposals were tabled as a result of progressive bloc opposition.

Meanwhile, the progressive caucus backed an important proposal related to the Audit Committee. Historically, right-wing factions have controlled the audit function and have allowed WZO and Israeli Government funds to be used to fund settlement activity beyond the Green Line. Although progressive members of the committee have asked to examine individual expense lines in connection with these expenditures, they have been rebuffed by majority vote. At the ZGC, the progressive caucus proposed allowing an examination of such expenses when only a minority of committee members sought such an examination. Although this proposal received a significant majority of votes in the affirmative, as a constitutional proposal it required a two-thirds majority to pass. In the end, the proposal lost by one vote after raised hands were counted. Although the progressive side sought a recount, the Likud chairman of the plenary session refused and the amendment failed.

In attendance at the ZGC were a number of prominent Israeli politicians, including Tzachi Hanegbi (Israel’s Minister for Regional Cooperation), Nir Barkat (the Mayor of Jerusalem), and Avi Gabbay (the Head of the Labor Party).

In his public comments, Minister Hanegbi acknowledged that Likud made a historic mistake in opposing the peace treaty with Egypt. He reminded those in attendance that he had personally spent 23 days up a pole at Yamit opposing the handover of the Sinai settlement. But “we were wrong,” he said. The peace treaty has been “very successful,” has provided 40 years of benefits to Israel, and has strengthened Israel’s security. The relationship between Israel and Egypt remains intimate and has resulted in much cooperation in the Sinai. Hanegbi also acknowledged that the 1993 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan is holding and that the two countries closely collaborate on security and have been cooperating on a Med-Dead sea agreement. But Hanegbi failed to draw a link between the Right’s mistaken judgment on peace with Egypt and the roadblocks that currently prevent negotiations with the Palestinians.  

Mayor Barkat addressed what is happening in Jerusalem and how the City is growing and expanding physically and economically. His comments, however, failed to mention the Arab residents of Jerusalem.

Avi Gabbay spoke of Israel and the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (“BDS”) movement. Gabbay stated that BDS is not an existential threat to Israel, but rather a fringe movement, and he specifically noted J Street’s opposition to BDS. He said that, when the Zionist Movement elevates BDS to an existential threat to Israel, the Zionists succeed in making BDS more important than it really is. Gabbay also criticized the Israeli Government’s rejection of the proposed compromise that would have allowed men and women to worship together at the Western Wall. He called the current situation “intolerable” and stated that the actions of the current government weakens Israel’s relationship with the diaspora. In his address, Gabbay identified the following four priorities that Israel needs to achieve:

  1. Protect its own security.  
  2. Negotiate and achieve a two-state solution. He stated that Jews have never lived here alone and that Israel cannot ignore the 4.5 million Arabs living west of the Jordan River. Israel must also avoid igniting the situation on the Temple Mount.  
  3. Promote a just and growing economy. Israel is facing increasing inequality among its citizens and needs to return to a society of mutual responsibility for all citizens.
  4. Protect and enforce freedom of worship for all citizens. Israel must respect the needs of its religious citizens, while protecting the needs of all others. In particular, Gabbay discussed the need for citizens to access public transportation on Shabbat. He said the current rules only hurt the weak.  

To ensure the future of a liberal Zionism that reflects the values of progressive Jews, it is important to remain involved in the ZGC and to ensure the continued relevance of liberal Judaism and Jewish values.

David Dormont is a member of the J Street Philadelphia Executive Committee and a voting delegate of the Zionist General Council of the World Zionist Organization. For more than 25 years, David has been a prominent lawyer in Philadelphia specializing in commercial and bankruptcy-related litigation. He earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and master’s degree in mathematics education from the University of Pennsylvania, and received his law degree from the University of Minnesota Law School.