J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami made the following remarks at the launch of J Street Local on February 4th. The remarks were simulcast from Philadelphia to 20 other launch events around the country.
Tonight we open a new chapter in the struggle for tzedek v’shalom – justice and peace – in the Middle East.
It’s a chapter that some in Philly and around the country would prefer we weren’t opening – either here at the Penn Hillel – or, frankly, anywhere.
The organized effort to demonize, ostracize, and shut J Street and other groups out of the Jewish community for our views is just one part of a larger struggle raging not just here in the US but in Israel as well.
It’s a struggle not just for the right to speak. It’s a struggle not just for an open discussion within the Jewish community and beyond about difficult issues related to Israel.
It’s a struggle not just about the security and survival of the state of Israel.
It’s a struggle for the heart and soul of the Jewish people, a struggle over the type of country that Israel as the national home of the Jewish people will be, and about the application of our community’s most basic values and principles to the real world politics of the 21st century.
It’s a struggle that each of you have chosen to join for your own particular reasons.
Maybe you’re fed up – as I am – with the way your views on Israel keep getting pushed out of the community conversation.
Maybe you’re tired of the voices that claim to speak for you when it comes to Israel.
Maybe you’re fearful that the current path in the Middle East is leading only to further hatred, bloodshed and conflict.
Maybe you’re looking for a home – as a Jew or as a progressive – where you can talk, explore, debate and wrestle with complex issues related to Israel and the Middle East.
Maybe you’re deeply committed to the security and survival of Israel and you’re scared of what the future holds without a two-state solution.
Or maybe you just believe that all people have a right to self-determination, opportunity, and security – and you want to see an end to the occupation of the Palestinian people.
Whatever your reasons – welcome to J Street Local – your new home in your community for pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-democracy activism.
While you may have come to this place for any of a thousand different reasons – you’re now part of a large and growing movement with a few clear, shared objectives.
First, we are looking to inject our voices loudly and clearly into the American foreign policy making process.
We believe in the state of Israel and support the notion of a national home for the Jewish people. We are advocates for that state, for its people and for its security and survival – and for its democracy.
We recognize that for Israel to survive as that national home for the Jewish people there will also have to be a state that is the national home of the Palestinian people living at its side in peace and security.
We believe in two states – not one – as the only solution we can support to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And we believe in the right of the Palestinian people to live in peace and dignity in a state they can call their own.
It is our belief that reaching such a resolution requires active American leadership, as an urgent priority not a distant, almost meaningless, aspiration.
And we believe it not just because it’s in Israel’s interest – or in the interests of the Palestinian people. It’s a fundamental American interest as well to bring this conflict to an end.
President Obama came into office promising to work tirelessly toward that objective from day one. His administration early on made it clear that they’d had enough talking about talking.
Well, Mr. President – with all due respect – we are going to hold you to that! We supported your appointment of Senator George Mitchell and appreciated that it was done on the first full day of your administration.
But expect us to press you to do more – a lot more. The community organizer in you would expect no less.
We’re not going to be satisfied with simply “getting the parties back to the table.” We’re looking for results. Because time is running out.
We know the parameters of the end of the conflict. So do the parties. And so does the world.
So our first objective as a movement is to press for real American leadership to achieve a regional comprehensive peace that ends the Arab-Israeli conflict once and for all.
Second, we come together to express our support for an Israel that upholds the best of the principles and values of the Jewish people.
Of course, we’re concerned about Israel’s security and survival – that’s why we’re promoting a peaceful end to the conflict.
But we are equally concerned about the democratic character of that state and we intend to speak out when that character is at risk.
We’re going to support and defend organizations promoting equal rights for all Israeli citizens.
We’re going to support the right of Israelis to free expression of their opinion. We’ll support Israelis promoting respect for universal human rights.
In particular, we’re proud to stand with our partner in this movement, the New Israel Fund, whose mission is to strengthen Israel’s democracy.
Over the past week, they have come under withering attack from the pro-settler movement which views human rights as a dirty word and has failed to learn from centuries in which we ourselves were the minority subject to abuse and worse.
Third and finally, we’re coming together to promote an American Jewish community that is open to vibrant, critical debate even on difficult issues related to Israel.
We will not allow our community to be held hostage to the coercive threats of vocal hard-liners who seek to limit debate and demonize rather than to converse rationally with those with whom they disagree.
We will fight to ensure that our community opens its doors to those who have both serious questions about Israel’s policies and a deep commitment to the values and heritage on which they have been raised.
We will build a home together where our organizing and advocacy around Israel lines up with the values and traditions of our people.
A community where it is acceptable to study and to learn about history and about competing narratives and claims to the land – where we can hug and wrestle with Israel at the very same time.
I believe the real reason so many of you have come out this evening and why over one hundred forty thousand people have joined our movement is that we really aren’t talking about some abstract foreign policy problem thousands of miles from home.
We’re talking about a struggle over who are we as a people and the type of community we’re building for ourselves and our children.
Will we stand up for the rights of a minority – even though few stood up for our people? Will we live up to the ethical and moral standards our greatest teachers laid out to guide the way we should conduct ourselves in the world?
Will the collective expression of the Jewish people in American politics be a voice that represents the best of our people?
Tonight, we take an important step toward meeting that challenge by launching a presence for J Street all across this country and bringing our voice to our elected representatives right in our communities.
J Street Local will – we hope – be your new home when it comes to Israel – the place where your activism, your Jewish and progressive values, and your political energy can come together.
You and Locals all over the country will represent this movement in your communities. You’ll reach out to Jewish community organizations and synagogues. You’ll engage your local media, meet with and educate your elected officials, and host educational events in your communities.
You’ll facilitate and participate in respectful, vibrant community conversations on Israel – conversations that challenge conventional wisdom. You’ll help redefine and expand the very concept of being pro-Israel. No longer will this pro- require an anti-.
You’ll help stand up for our friends when they need grassroots help. You’ll help us push the right policies on Capitol Hill, the ones that actually bring us closer to a resolution of the conflict and align with our Jewish and progressive values.
You’ll help us to build a voice that you can be proud of on this most difficult of issues.
On campuses, we’ll be building this voice with J Street U and I’d like to offer a quick shout out to the organizers and students with us here and all over the country tonight.
Our growing presence on campus is critical to the future of our community.
Tonight marks the beginning of a new chapter for the pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-democracy movement.
The road ahead is not easy. The challenges are great. The obstacles large – and the opposition strong and vocal.
A struggle this important will call for courage, leadership and patience.
Those of you gathered tonight will be the vanguard of this movement – helping to answer tough questions, open up eyes and minds, challenging some powerful pre-conceptions.
And we will be here to help you in this important work – providing guidance, resources and encouragement.
You have much work to do this evening – so I will let you get started.
Thank you from all of us at J Street’s national headquarters and have a great meeting and congratulations on a great launch for J Street Local.