J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami’s remarks at the Peres Conference

June 23, 2011

Thank you very much Shmuel, and thank you to President Shimon Peres and the organizers of this year’s conference for inviting me to participate. We come together at a time when serious decisions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are under discussion, whose resolution will have implications not just for the future of Israel but for Jews living all over the world. It is not surprising that deep tensions accompany these discussions as they raise questions of life and death, the success or failure of the state of Israel and the very heart and soul of the Jewish people. How we engage in our disagreements over these questions and what rules govern our communal conversation on these vital issues is of the utmost importance. With that in mind, let me open my comments by suggesting that the construct of this panel – pitting criticism and loyalty as contradicting values – presents a false dichotomy. Are we not loyal to our family members we love when we urge them to change their behavior? Don’t loyal friends give advice about tough decisions – even when that advice is not heeded? I would argue that friendship and loyalty are demonstrated precisely by caring enough to engage. What would it say if any of us heard that our sibling had done something we felt was against their interests and we simply sat by silently and let them do what they pleased? As a starting point this morning, therefore, I’d like to suggest that we reject out of hand the notion that criticizing the policies of the government of Israel in some way exhibits disloyalty to the state of Israel or to the Jewish people on the part of those who love them. And certainly I think it should mean both for the Israeli government and for the established institutions of the Jewish community that the doors should be open far wider to those who may present alternative views. It is, for instance, a mistake for the government to refuse to meet or engage with organizations that disagree with some of its policies. Needless to say, it also runs counter to this country’s best interests, its democratic values and its Jewish character for Members of the Knesset to hold hearings into whether an organization’s love of Israel is sufficient to be allowed to call itself pro-Israel. I would suggest that a national policy built on the concept that loyalty depends on refraining from criticism undermines the interests and the democratic nature of the state of Israel. And it is an approach that runs counter to the tradition of open debate that is a hallmark of Jewish history and Israeli democracy, and that is one of the strengths of the Jewish people. At a time when Israel finds itself increasingly isolated internationally, it should welcome its friends – even those with whom the government may disagree – rather than imposing litmus tests based on loyalty or the content of our views. I would note thankfully that, according to a Jerusalem Post report on Monday, 71 percent of Israelis seem to share this view and believe that the government should be ready to engage with Jewish organizations that are critical of its policies. The more important point that I’d like to make this morning, however, is that the focus on loyalty, and, by extension, on what is called the size of the “pro-Israel tent” is distracting the Jewish people from engaging seriously with the significant issues facing the state of Israel and the Jewish people today. This past week, Ha’aretz reported that our host, President Shimon Peres, has been expressing deep concern to friends over the continued freeze in the peace talks. According to the paper, the President is telling friends, “I’m concerned that Israel will become a binational state. What is happening now is total foot-dragging. We’re about to crash into the wall. We’re galloping at full speed toward a situation where Israel will cease to exist as a Jewish state.” I hope this report came to the attention of all those attending this year’s Conference. Shimon Peres – our host and unquestionably the country’s senior statesman – is warning that Israel as we know it and love it is doomed unless negotiations with the Palestinians leading to a peace agreement begin immediately. In effect, the captain of our ship has announced that there’s an iceberg dead ahead. Yet just as our a community should be gathering in emergency session to discuss how to change the direction of the ship, we’re instead spending valuable time debating the passengers’ right to question the ship’s course and to point to the impending disaster. All throughout the global Jewish community, I would argue that opponents of the two-state solution – those who oppose reaching peace based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps – are more than happy to divert communal forums, organizational conferences and synagogue discussions away from the looming existential crisis facing Israel and toward questions of loyalty. We need to call this effort out for what it is – a deliberate strategy to distract attention from a conversation about the sustainability of the path that Israel is on today and its implications for Israel’s democracy, its security and the values of the Jewish people. Unfortunately, the focus on loyalty and the right to criticize and dissent has created an atmosphere of fear, and this in turn has made too many of our community leaders reluctant to place these critical issues squarely before the communities that they lead for discussion. Attacks on the “pro-Israel” credentials of rabbis, community leaders, Hillel Directors and others lead them to tone down their criticism, divert discussions to safer topics or in some cases to silence their voices altogether. Most often, their concern is that their views might impact fundraising for their institutions or even their own personal job security. Sadly, the effort to quiet critics by questioning their loyalty is the more respectable public face of a far less respectable campaign of smears and lies being waged against those who dissent in an effort to delegitimize them and to push them to the fringes of the communal discussion. The words of President Peres about the dangers ahead are nearly verbatim to the central call being issued across the global Jewish community by many of us who see our national homeland on a tragic path. We fear the demise of the Zionist dream that so many of us and our families have worked for over a century to realize. We see, in effect, the iceberg dead ahead. We who do not live here may not be on board the ship but the disaster – should it happen – will impact us all. I would urge those attending this conference and the Jewish community more globally that the time has come to raise the alarm about Israel’s future and the path the present government is charting. It is time for our leaders to step forward and to encourage a meaningful conversation about how we save the very existence of this most precious country and how we change course before it is too late. If we do not, I fear that, in a couple of decades, we’ll be attending conferences where the main question on the agenda will be to examine how it came to pass that with the iceberg dead ahead and the captain sounding the alarm, we were too busy administering loyalty oaths and litmus tests to act to save the ship. Thank you.