J Street’s Commitment to Israel’s Future

Jeremy Ben-Ami Image
Jeremy Ben-Ami
on January 23, 2019

For millennia, Jews have vehemently debated politics, religion and more. Argument has featured centrally in communal life and Jewish education. Today, much of the debate in global Jewry centers on Israel and its role in modern Jewish identity. Some seek to equate Jewish identity with support for Israel, and support for the state with acquiescence to its government’s actions. They demand allegiance to Israeli policy as the price of entry to communal life and deflect criticism of government policy as anti-Zionist or anti-Semitic. On the other extreme, a small but vociferous minority is stepping forward as openly anti-Zionist, arguing that for Jews to stand for liberation and against oppression demands opposing Israel’s very existence.

In this polarized environment, it is important to define and defend a space where Jews can care deeply about Israel and be proud of its accomplishments while remaining free to recognize its shortcomings and criticize some of its government’s policies.

J Street is a proudly pro-Israel organization. We believe strongly that the state of Israel is, should be and must be the homeland of the Jewish people. We also believe in the democratic principles on which it was founded, eloquently articulated in its Declaration of Independence which demands that all who live in the state should be treated equally regardless of race, religion or ethnicity. We are strongly committed to defending and upholding these principles and to promoting social justice and equality in Israel.

We believe Israelis deserve to be safe — irrespective of the behavior of their government. Israel has faced real military, strategic and terrorist threats from the first day of its existence until the present day. Iran — with its growing military presence in Syria and its Hezbollah allies — poses a real threat to the safety and security of Israelis. Hamas rockets and tunnels in Gaza too are real as is instability across the Middle East.

J Street works — day in and day out — to help Israelis ensure the state’s long-term success and security and that it lives up to the values that form the core of our Jewish identity.

We share a belief in the core premise of Zionism: that the Jewish people have the right to self-determination in the land of Israel, their historic homeland. We disagree vehemently with those who claim that Israel is an inherently racist state or who blame the existence of Israel for anti-Semitism around the world or for the destruction of historic Jewish communities.

We reject the contention that Jewish identity itself or inclusion in the organized Jewish community demands support for Israel or Zionism. We oppose the imposition of any form of pro-Israel litmus test to determine who should or should not be welcomed in the Jewish community, and we do not accept the contention that all anti-Zionism should be automatically defined as anti-Semitism.

In fact, debate over the legitimacy of Zionism as a solution to the threats and challenges Jews faced to their safety and physical existence has been raging for over a century — since the very inception of the Zionist movement. Historically, socialist movements such as the Bund opposed Zionism, arguing that Jewish culture rather than a state or specific place could act as the glue to bind Jews together. Similarly, in the religious sphere, many orthodox and Hasidic sects opposed the idea of creating a secular Jewish homeland, arguing that they were enjoined to wait patiently for the coming of a future Messiah.

Our belief in the state of Israel is rooted not only in its role as a safe haven, but in the belief that it is right that there be one place in the world where the Jewish people can fully express and develop its identity, language, culture and potential.

Most of the debates that marked the first decades of Zionism faded away after the Holocaust. Hundreds of thousands of displaced survivors had no homes to return to and many were killed when they tried to return to their countries of origin. The persecution of Jews continued in Europe long after the Holocaust, from Stalin’s infamous Doctor’s Plot to a massive “anti-Zionist” riot in Poland in 1968. Many formerly anti-Zionist Jews responded to fascist and Soviet anti-Semitism with horror, and realized that a Jewish state was necessary to protect the Jewish people from continued assaults. Unfortunately, today, Jews continue to face persecution around the world. Some, who proudly proclaim their anti-Zionism, including recently Jewish Voice for Peace, ignore much of this history and its consequences, which echo down to the present day.

In fact, the long and tragic story of Jewish history has demonstrated that without such a homeland and haven, the safety of Jews in other countries in the long term cannot be guaranteed. The revival of virulent anti-Semitism in Europe, around the world and even in the United States should remind us that the forces that led to the Holocaust have not been eradicated from the world.

In the face of rising white nationalism and renewed and violent anti-Semitism, J Street stands in solidarity with those fighting for liberation and justice in the United States. We do so as proud believers in the Jewish right to self-determination and reject the contention that only those who oppose the very existence of the state of Israel should be welcome as partners in the struggle for justice. Our commitment to justice in this moment means fighting for it not only in the country where we live but also in the country that is the national homeland of the Jewish people. Our stand for liberation thus includes a core belief that the Palestinian people too must have a state of their own next to Israel where they can exercise their right of national self-determination.

It is central to our pro-Israel worldview that Israel’s future as a Jewish homeland and a democracy depends on resolving the conflict with the Palestinian people over the land that both claim as their home. These conflicting claims are tragic and have led to generations now of violence, bloodshed and loss.

The answer to the conflict is not — as some with more rigid views would have it — to dismantle the state of Israel or to will the Palestinian people out of existence. It is to work toward a diplomatically-negotiated agreement under which Israel ends its occupation of the land conquered in 1967 and a viable, independent Palestinian state is established. Any such agreement will have to resolve equitably such issues as sovereignty over Jerusalem and the claims of Palestinian refugees. J Street’s core work includes promoting an understanding that all issues in the conflict can be resolved diplomatically with proper political leadership on both sides and strong international support.

Those who maintain that the only way to support Israel is to blindly support its government are deepening the gulf between Israel and Jewish communities worldwide. Their rigidity is helping to drive a generation of young, liberal Jews away from the state of Israel itself and even from their Jewish communities.

J Street believes it is not only possible, but necessary, to be both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian because Israel can only be secure and live up to its stated values if Palestinians too are free and secure. That’s why we fight for Palestinian as well as Israeli rights. We defend Palestinian communities against threats of eviction by those implementing the creeping annexation of the West Bank. We advocate practical steps to ease the intractable humanitarian disaster in Gaza. We oppose the human rights abuses inherent in the occupation and by vigilantes associated with the settlements; we back Palestinian legal rights, and we support an immediate cessation of settlement expansion. We oppose legislative attempts in the United States to erase or blur the distinction between the territories and Israel. But we also oppose Palestinian terror and any manifestations of Palestinian anti-Semitism and the denial of Jewish history and Jewish connections to Israel.

We believe that all the important issues affecting the future of the Jewish community, of the United States, of Israel and of a future state of Palestine should be open to debate. Such debates strengthen rather than weaken us, and our support for freedom of speech is fundamental to our tradition as Jews and Americans. Attempts by any side in this debate to determine who belongs in or out of our community based on their beliefs, or to define who is or is not “Jewish” based on their political views are profoundly damaging.

The movement for justice of which we are a part will be stronger for welcoming into its ranks those who support the state of Israel. The ranks of Israel’s supporters will be stronger for welcoming those with critiques of government policy. The Jewish community will be stronger for welcoming even those who claim the mantle of anti-Zionism. Ultimately those who broaden their ranks by welcoming dissent and debate will be stronger than those who narrow their ranks through exclusion and litmus tests.