J Street at Knesset: Don’t Push Away Your Friends

March 23, 2011

Current & Former Knesset Members, Jewish Leaders Strongly Defend J Street in Unprecedented Committee Debate

J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami and Board Chair Davidi Gilo addressed an unprecedented Knesset committee meeting convened to look into the question of whether the American organization is sufficiently “committed” to Israel. They presented over 15,000 petitions and hundreds of personal letters from J Street supporters calling on the Israeli Government to accept the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement as allies or risk alienating a significant part of American Jewry. Members of Knesset from the Kadima, Labor, Meretz, and Independence parties and Jewish leaders have joined the debate, criticizing the decision to hold this debate on the views of a pro-Israel American Jewish organization.

Jeremy Ben Ami’s presentation at the Knesset committee debate

Remarks by J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami Knesset Committee on Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs March 23, 2011 Thank you very much Mr. Chairman. I am honored to represent J Street and our 170,000 supporters before your committee and the Knesset. Three years ago, I helped found J Street to give voice to a large number of Jewish Americans who – like me – care deeply about Israel and are profoundly concerned about its future. Through J Street, we’ve built a home where we work for Israel’s security through a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians and ground our work in the Jewish values on which we were raised. My own family’s connection to Israel goes back 130 years and four generations. My great-grandparents were in the first aliyah. My grandparents were founders of Tel Aviv. My father was in the Etzel and a friend and comrade in arms with the parents of several members of today’s Knesset. My parents are buried here in Jerusalem, a city where I’ve lived and in which I got engaged to be married. Like so many members of J Street, I am committed to the dream of a secure and thriving national home for the Jewish people in the land of Israel rooted in the values of the Jewish prophets. Allow me to be clear, contrary to the press release from the Committee Chairman this morning, we did not come before this committee to apologize but to deliver two clear messages. The first is to reaffirm the deep commitment of J Street to the state and the people of Israel. I bring with me a petition signed in just 48 hours by over fifteen thousand J Street supporters affirming our hope to work with you as allies. I also bring hundreds of personal letters from J Street members, including from parents of soldiers in the IDF and from people who raised money for Israel’s independence in the 1940s, explaining how they have found a home on J Street. I will leave you these letters to read so you can see how clearly J Street’s supporters are friends and allies of the state of Israel. Second, I come to warn of the grave risk that Israel faces in thinking that only those who hold certain political views can be your friends. This country is too small, our people too few and the dangers too great for us to let political differences sever the bonds between Jews living here and abroad. The Jewish people are one family – scattered by history to the corners of the globe yet bound together by shared values and traditions. Like all families, at times we see eye to eye, and at times we have our differences. In the past, some American Jews have criticized the government of Israel for giving up too much for peace – whether withdrawing from the Sinai, pulling out of Gaza or entering the Oslo process. Others have criticized Israel’s government for not doing enough for peace – for instance, for continuing the expansion of settlements. Such political disagreements are part of the life blood of the Jewish people. Given the difficult road ahead, our disagreements may very well continue or even deepen. But, in keeping with our traditions, we should work through our differences with respect, vibrant discussion and open dialogue. It only weakens Israel and the Jewish people to make differences of opinion into something greater and to accuse those who criticize Israeli policy of being anti-Israel or worse. The choices ahead for Israel are, of course, yours to make. We cannot tell you what to do. But as friends and family, we also cannot in good conscience stand quietly by and pretend not to see the dangers you face – in particular the growing international isolation Israel will confront without a resolution of the conflict. We also cannot be silent in the face of troubling trends that threaten Israel’s democratic and Jewish character. These include not just this unprecedented hearing into the political views of a Jewish American organization, but proposals to narrow the definition of who you consider to be a Jew or the application of a loyalty oath to Israeli citizenship. Now is not the time to push away your friends and family, even if we criticize one policy or another. Such an approach to Jewish Americans will only leave Israel further isolated and at risk. It will particularly alienate the younger generation of Jewish Americans who are less comfortable with a relationship in which they are not allowed to raise questions or in which their discussions are limited. Now is the time to pull together, recognizing that we are in this as one people and one family, with a shared heritage and a common interest in achieving real peace and security. Israel will be stronger if its Prime Minister, its civil servants and its diplomats – including your Ambassador in Washington – meet and work with J Street to advance the interests of Israel despite our disagreements over policy. We owe this not simply to the dreams of our parents and grandparents but to the hopes of our children and the generations yet to come. Thank you very much for the opportunity to engage in this discussion. [Return to top] —-

J Street Board Chair Davidi Gilo’s presentation at the Knesset committee debate

Remarks by J Street Board Chair Davidi Gilo Knesset Committee on Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs March 23, 2011 Shalom, Chairman of the Committee and Knesset member Mr. Danny Danon, members of the Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs, representatives of various organizations and other guests, good morning to everyone. First of all, I would like to thank Knesset member Mr. Schneller, and the Chairman of the Committee, Knesset member Danon for enabling this discussion regarding the relationship between Israel and the Jews in the United States. To me, the Knesset represents the renewing sovereignty of the Jewish people in Eretz Israel and this committee that deals with Diaspora affairs is indeed the appropriate place to conduct the dialogue concerning the relationship between Israel and the American Jews. I am proud to be present here today and to represent a notable part of the Jewish Community in the United States. Let’s start at the end. We firmly support the Jewish people, the Jewish state and Eretz Israel. This support does not contradict the fact that we disagree with the policy of this government, or any other. Today, more than ever, we are deeply concerned about the direction in which the present government is headed in. We are aware of the fact that some of you are concerned about different standpoints expressed by [J Street] in matters related to Israel and hence, you have, in front of you, a booklet containing significant and comprehensive information regarding our positions, our sources of finance and our organization’s leadership. It is very important that you read this document. Nevertheless, we have not come here today in order to argue about our differences, but to share with you the importance of allowing these differences [to exist], and including [those who hold them] as supporters of Israel. It is advisable to dedicate a moment to the past. Historical events brought at the same time some of us to Israel and some of us to North America. 63 years after the establishment of Israel, and approximately 100 years after the last wave of immigration of Jews to America, our communities here and there are almost similar in size, share common Jewish practices, but have different history, experiences and national identity. As a people, we have much to be proud of. In Israel we have established a glorious state, an oasis with a stable and developed economy, Israeli culture and a strong defense. In the United States, from a poor minority we have turned into an inseparable part of the elite of American society. Our successful integration in the American politics, society and economy are unprecedented in the history of modern world. The generation of my father and grandfather had seen and even experienced the Holocaust on one hand and the establishment of the state of Israel on the other. From Holocaust to rebirth, this generation was embedded with a deep and uncompromising emotional commitment to the state of Israel and to the preeminent need for its existence as an open and strong state of the Jewish people. I share this idea. We teach our children that being a Jew means being a good person. Our leading principles are freedom, peace and justice, as rooted in the values of the Jewish prophets. American Jews have always been involved in struggles for social justice and for tikkun olam. From Rabbi Heschel who walked arm in arm with Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama and up to the Jewish students who go to fight for the rights of the refugees in Darfur. Prior to the revolution of knowledge, globalization and social networks, our young people learned about Israel only in sunday schools. There they were told that Israel is a miracle of the Jewish people, the expression of its independence and strength. They were told that Israel is the land of milk and honey and that despite the wars, Israelis like us, dream about peace. We wanted to be proud of Israel and even when things happened here [in Israel] which were no cause for pride, we tried our best to hide, to minimize and to simplify them. It is clear to all of us that in this era in which people, and particularly young people, consume huge amounts of information directly, there is no way to hide the complexity of Israel’s situation, the difference of opinions about Israel, and the internal debate amongst the Jewish people about the different options Israel faces in its struggle for its future and identity. The contract between the Jews in Israel and their brothers in America, which was founded on basic assumptions and a reality that has changed over time, is about to expire. The perception of Israel amongst American Jews has changed. Dedicate some thought to your own lives – is there even one relationship, either personal or professional, in which one party consistently demands and receives total support, while the other party has no right to express its position and opinions? We are presently engaged in drafting and creating a new Jewish contract, adapted to the new reality in which we are living today. A contract which represents above all our commitment to the safety and future of Israel as the home of the Jewish people, but also a clear and piercing statement derived from our Jewish values, that Israel must be a democratic state. The new contract cannot be based on unilateral dictation of what is right, who is right and who is wrong. Only agreement on common values and a genuine attempt to understand where each party comes from can reinstate an Israeli-American-Jewish partnership. Such new partnership will alter the trend of distancing from Israel and will widen the circles of those who take interest in it and are concerned with its future. Such new partnership will help us strengthen and consolidate our Jewish-American identity. As you can probably tell, I was born and grew up here in Israel, I served as a commanding officer in Golani and afterward I studied abroad. Israel is precious to me, I have founded here successful companies that have contributed to the Israeli economy, I have been, and still am, involved in philanthropic activities in Israel and in America, I was a member of the Board of Trustees of the Jewish Agency, I was active within the Jewish Federations, and I have even contributed to AIPAC. A good businessman must pinpoint the next market and the next customer. The reason I founded J Street together with other Israel-loving people, was the recognition that the existing institutions in the United States do not appropriately represent the Jewish community. We must ask why, after years and years of investment and large amounts of money, only a handful of Jews take interest in Israel and the rate of Jewish assimilation continues to grow. Shouldn’t a new, more open and more liberal approach be adopted? It is well known that the old Jewish establishment did not welcome the founding of J Street. This is how the world work: when a lifetime venture and sometimes also the source of revenue of a certain group of people depends on it, there is an opposition to change. The reason for the huge growth of J Street and its development from a startup into a true organization which is active all across the United States, is that it represents a real movement, a group which we believe is the majority of American Jewry. Two weeks ago we held our yearly conference in Washington. There were more than 2000 people from all over the United States, including 500 students. 500 Jewish students who came to talk about Israel. It’s not something that can be taken today for granted. In simple words, during the last three years we have expanded the market. We have not deprived anybody of their power. Thanks to J Street, there are today more Jews and more young people who consider Israel as part of their Jewish identity. You, our brothers in Israel, are responsible for conducting with us a sincere dialogue, to explain, to listen, to understand and to debate as well. Just as we have come to this committee in the Knesset to conduct a dialogue, we are inviting you to continue this discourse with us. We will be happy to host any Committee Member personally in the United States, in order for him to be acquainted with us and [our] activists’ deep support for Israel. I repeat myself – do not reject these American Jews who support the state of Israel just because they do not agree with the policy of this or any other government. Those who impose upon us tests and hurdles – who is sufficiently Jewish for them, who is sufficiently loyal, and who is sufficiently pro-Israeli in their view – are endangering the unity of the Jewish people. While we are trying to broaden the support for Israel to additional groups, the present Israeli government pushes away and alienates the great majority of American Jewry. We have come here because we wanted to present J Street again to Israeli decision-makers and to Israelis in general. We are not foolproof. We should have been more sensitive and attentive to the feelings of the Israeli public and we should have been more conscious of your sensitivities in the matters in which we have expressed our position. We are ready to accept this criticism, as long as it is part of a constructive discussion and not intended to defame us or as incitement against us. The headline of this discussion today is: “Breaking the conventions of the relationship between communities of the Jewish world and the Israeli governments”. I have also read the speech of Knesset member Schneller in the Knesset, and it seems that in his view, in order to be considered pro-Israeli, an organization has to unconditionally support the Israeli government. As I have already said, we are against this approach, but I have a surprise for you: we are not the first and are certainly not the only ones who have disagreed with the Israeli governments. For example, the Zionist Organization of America has spoken harshly against the Israeli governments during the Oslo Agreements, the Disengagement Plan and lately has even criticized Netanyahu’s government with regard to the temporary freezing of settlements. You condemn J Street for criticizing the lack of a political process, but you are indifferent when an American Jewish billionaire such as Sheldon Adelson finances a daily newspaper and blatantly tries to change the political map in Israel. You are indifferent when another Jewish millionaire such as Irwin Moskovich tries just as boldly to instigate dispute in Eastern Jerusalem between Jews and Arabs. These “conventions” that we supposedly break never existed. We believe that Jews all over the world have the right to express their opinion in respect to Israel’s policy, from both the Right and the Left. There is no place for hypocrisy or preference of one opinion over another. I shall finish with a quotation from the words of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, at a conference of “Taglit” Jewish young adults in 2003: “I want you to know that Israel is not just an Israeli project. Israel is a Jewish universal project. It is yours no less than it is ours and you share the responsibility for what will happen here. No, you don’t have to carry the whole burden upon your shoulders, but it is your responsibility, because whatever will happen in the future in the state of Israel, will influence the lives of Jews the world over.” May the One who causes peace to reign in the highest heavens let peace descend upon us, upon all inhabitants of the world, and let us say: Amen. [Return to top] —-

Video of the Knesset Committee Hearing

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Statements of Support

Jewish Leaders | MKs | Polling Ed Rettig Director, American Jewish Committee’s Jerusalem office “In holding hearings on whether a voluntary American Jewish organization is indeed a pro-Israel lobby, the Knesset committee has interfered in an entirely inappropriate way in the internal affairs of the American Jewish community… We are a voluntary community in a democratic country and we settle our differences, of which there are many, in the only proper forum — the arena of open debate within the Jewish community. Israeli parliamentary committees have no proper role in such a discussion.” Abraham Foxman National Director, The Anti-Defamation League “I would hope that the Israeli Knesset had better things to do than hold hearings on American Jewish organizations or American organizations. It’s inappropriate, it’s counterproductive — it’s beyond their purview and jurisdiction. There’s nothing positive that could be achieved from any of it.” –“Knesset hearings on J Street up ante in debate about ‘pro-Israel, pro-peace’ lobby,” by Ron Kampeas. JTA, 3/15/2011. Jeffrey Goldberg National Correspondent, The Atlantic “J Street is still a Zionist organization. I believe it is fighting for Shimon Peres’s vision of what Israel should be, and Yitzhak Rabin’s, and more to the point, it is fighting for the vision espoused by Israel’s George Washington, David Ben-Gurion…. The Knesset is debating whether or not J Street is Zionist. This is a farce. The prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, refuses to meet with J Street. This, too, is a farce. The Prime Minister, in fact, will meet with Sarah Palin (whose politics are favored by a tiny minority of American Jews) but he will not meet with J Street. He should argue with J Street, yell at J Street, grapple with J Street, but most of all meet with J Street. Those Israelis, and those American Jews, who believe that J Street, and the spirit it represents, are fleeting phenemona have absolutely no idea what is happening in the Jewish world.” Rabbi James Lebeau Former Director, Fuchsberg Center Former Representative, United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism “To learn that Israel’s government is considering admonishing and discrediting an organization that supports Israel is a disgrace. The Knesset should applaud the work of J Street and Israel’s Foreign Ministry should insist that the Israel Embassy and its consulates in the United States reach out to J Street leaders and regard them as partners. “ Naomi Chazan President, The New Israel Fund “J Street has become a significant voice for a very large component of the American Jewish community. That community is watching what is taking place in Israel with growing concern about Israel’s direction and about attempts by its government to deny pluralism and open debate. It is especially disconcerted by the behavior of some members of the Knesset who not only embarked on a witch-hunt against Israeli civil society, but are now attempting to arrogate to themselves the power to investigate American Jewish organizations. “Let us be clear about what is happening here. Proponents of a narrow, demagogic, ultra-nationalist, pro-settlement, anti-peace point of view have decided that every other point of view is illegitimate. They believe that only they can define what it means to love and support Israel and what is best for its future. In so doing, they undermine Israel’s standing as a liberal democracy, alienate its most stalwart supporters in the Jewish world, and sadly contribute to its de-legitimization in the international arena. “We at the New Israel Fund have been a direct target of these retrogressive assaults; we continue to do everything to safeguard Israel’s diverse and democratic character. While we deplore the tendentious and unfounded attacks on J Street, we also believe that these will serve to shine a spotlight on the battle for democratic values here in Israel. With the help of millions of Israelis and lovers of Israel worldwide, the vision of a just Israel, at peace with itself and its neighbors, will ultimately be realized.” Rabbi Michael Melchior Former Minister of Social and Diaspora Affairs “A large portion of the Jewish world, mainly the non-orthodox, are drifting away from Israel and I find it very disturbing. We mustn’t push them away but bring them closer to us. They are allowed to object to legislation and our views. J Street is within the family.” Shlomo Molla Member of Knesset (Kadima) No one requests to ban those who are against a settlement freeze and those who finance building in the settlements. I will not give up on a single Jew who supports Israel” Nachman Shai Member of Knesset (Kadima) This discussion is unprecedented, this important dialogue has nothing to do with the Knesset committee. J Street represents an important sector in the United States and even if I don’t accept all its views, I accept that they have the right to represent and they should not be banned.” Daniel Ben Simon Member of Knesset (Labor) “As someone who was at the [J Street] conference, I got to meet a pro-Israel pro-Zionist organization and I’m proud to support them. When I gave my speech at the conference, I felt Israeli pride.” Einat Wilf Member of Knesset (Independence) “We must be in a trend of coming closer together and not drifting apart. I have my criticism about J Street but the it’s important to have a conversation.” Yohanan Plesner Member of Knesset (Kadima) “Netanyahu’s policy is what’s hurting the state of Israel and not J Street. The cooperation between Israel and American Jews is essential to the state of Israel.” Polling Recent polling of Israeli Jews, commissioned by the Jewish Daily Forward and conducted by Smith Consulting, a respected Israeli polling firm, shows support for J Street’s positions. 19% of Israeli Jewish respondents called for unconditional support of Israeli policies from American Jewish organizations. 40%  said American Jewish organizations should defend Israel’s right to exist, but not necessarily Israeli government policy. 27% said American Jews should promote what they consider best for Israel, even if it conflicts with government policy. Read more: “Is J Street a Threat? Not to Most Israelis,” by Nathan Jeffay. The Jewish Daily Forward, March 23, 2011. [Return to top] —-

News Coverage

“U.S. Group Stirs Debate On Being Pro-Israel,” by Ethan Bronner. The New York Times, March 25, 2011. “Letter: Criticism of Israel,” by Seymour Reich. The New York Times, March 30, 2011. “In the Israeli Knesset, Some Undemocratic Activities,” by Harold Meyerson. The Washington Post, March 30, 2011. “We Have a Problem, but Rick Jacobs Isn’t It,” by J.J. Goldberg. The Jewish Daily Forward, March 30, 2011. “Thank You For Putting J Street on Trial,” by Dan Fleshler. Realistic Dove, March 29, 2011. “J Street v. Knesset: You’ve Read the Review, Now See the Movie,” by Ron Kampeas. JTA, March 29, 2011. “Goldblog is a Pro-JStreet Blog,” by Jeffrey Goldberg. The Atlantic, March 28, 2011. “J Street at the Knesset: Don’t Push Away Your Friends,” by Jeremy Ben-Ami. The Hill’s Congress Blog, March 28, 2011. “Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street.” Background Briefing with Ian Masters, March 28, 2011. “Israel’s Problem is the Settlements, Not J Street,” by Carlo Strenger. Haaretz, March 24, 2011. “The New Self-Hating Jew,” Bradley Burston. Haaretz, March 24, 2011. “Supporting Settlement Freeze Has Been Labeled ‘Subversive’,” Akiva Eldar. Haaretz, March 24, 2011.  “AJC Criticizes “Inappropriate” Knesset Hearings on J Street,” by James Besser. The New York Jewish Week, March 24, 2011. “Knesset J Street Hearing Inappropriate, Some Jewish Groups Say.” JTA, March 24, 2011. “Raucous Knesset Committee Debates J Street,” by Rebecca Anna Stoil. The Jerusalem Post, March 24, 2011. “Is J Street Anti-Israel?,” by Jacob Heilbrunn. The National Interest, March 24, 2011. “Raucous Knesset Committee Debates J Street,” by Rebecca Anna Stoil. The Jerusalem Post, March 24, 2011. “The Jerusalem Attack and J Street’s Very Uphill Battle,” by Jesse Singal. Boston Globe, March 23, 2011. “Is J Street a Threat? Not to Most Israelis,” by Nathan Jeffay. The Jewish Daily Forward, March 23, 2011. “Israeli Committee Debates Whether U.S. Jewish Group is Pro-Israel,” by Janine Zacharia. The Washington Post, March 23, 2011. For The Love Of Israel? J Street, the Knesset and the Limits of Dissent,” by James Besser. The New York Jewish Week, March 22, 2011. [Return to top] —-

Photos from Knesset Committee Debate on J Street

Images from Knesset Committee Debate