J Street U Brings John Ging to Campus

November 12, 2010

J Street and J Street U are sponsoring a number of events around the country featuring UNRWA’s Gaza Director John Ging.

J Street U Director Daniel May highlighted the importance of having these difficult but necessary conversations in his remarks introducing Mr. Ging:

Good afternoon.  I want to thank all of you for being here today for what we hope will be a challenging and important conversation.  And of course I want to thank Mr. John Ging, who has traveled so far to be with us today.

As the director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Gaza, Mr. Ging manages a staff of 11,000, a budget of $450 million, and administers over 200 schools throughout Gaza.  You think you are busy.  We deeply appreciate him giving so generously of his time, spending a week with us and traveling throughout the country on behalf of J Street and J Street U.

J Street U is the student arm of J Street, an organization founded two years ago to address a glaring absence both in our nation’s politics and within the American Jewish community: a clear and powerful voice on behalf of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  And the rapid growth of J Street – which today counts over 160,000 supporters –  demonstrates the heretofore untapped appetite for just such an organization.

This should come as no surprise.

American Jews have always been on the forefront of movements for social change.  The labor movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement and the environmental movement were all led in part by Jews who saw in their people’s history and in their tradition’s commandments an obligation to stand up against persecution, to welcome the widow, the stranger, the orphan, and to respond to the prophetic call, tzedek tzedek tirdof: Justice, Justice shall you pursue.  J Street was founded to create a home for those people hungry to bring together values of equality and democracy and justice with their commitment to Israel and its future.

While this has not been the dominant tone of the conversation on Israel within the American Jewish establishment, these twin convictions — a deep commitment to Israel alongside an unwillingness to stand idly by in the face of suffering –- are interwoven deep in the soul of American Jewish political identity.

In the Judaism in which I was raised, what it meant to be part of the ongoing Jewish story was to have a particular obligation to the universal – a particular obsession, born of a particular history and a particular tradition, with ensuring that all people, regardless of color or creed, are guaranteed dignity, freedom from want, and equality of opportunity.

As a student in Jewish day school in Minneapolis, the founding of Israel was an integral aspect of this narrative.  For in Israel was the living manifestation of the idea that all people deserve a home, a place in which they can forge their own destiny.  Of course, at Talmud Torah in Minneapolis, there was little emphasis that this historical miracle came at such tremendous cost to so many.  And while the dream of Jewish self-determination lives, the dream of Palestinian self-determination remains an aspiration unfulfilled.

It is at this point irrefutable that these two national aspirations are interdependent.  Without a Palestinian nation Israel becomes – in the words of former prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak – either an apartheid nation with a Jewish minority ruling over a Palestinian majority, or a binational state.  For the dream of a Jewish democratic homeland to persevere, a Palestinian state must exist by its side.  For Palestinians, a state alongside Israel provides the most expedient means by which the ongoing occupation will finally reach its end and freedom for Palestinians may finally be realized.

Yet despite this truth, at campuses across the country these two national aspirations are set firmly against one another.  The camps are set: one is either Pro or Anti, either for Israel or against it.  There are reasons for this paradigm – there has been tremendous loss suffered and loss perpetrated by both peoples.  The resentments and furies exist for a reason.  The tragedy is real.

Yet these positions, despite their internal logic, have blinded us to one another and to the reality on the ground. Those who reject Israel outright fail to recognize Israel’s free press, vigorous supreme court, and vibrant community of democratic activists.  A country wrestled into existence by people who had been for two thousand years thrown out of every other place they had ever lived cannot be described with any intellectual honesty as colonialist or imperialist.  The cause of peace is not served by cheap and easy political slurs.

Yet the fact that Israel’s enemies are real does not and cannot serve as justification for an occupation that denies Palestinians democratic freedom and fails to guarantee the most basic human rights  – whether that be legal due process, access to clean water, the ability to further ones education, gain meaningful employment, or simply travel to visit loved ones.

When we allow ourselves to dismiss such realities we are complicit in their continuation.  And the continuation of such conditions does not serve peace.  And it does not serve Israel.

There are few people in the world better equipped to reflect upon the interdependent aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians than John Ging.  Widely recognized for his passionate advocacy on behalf of human rights, Mr. Ging is a man who, it can be rightly said, has the “courage of his convictions.”  His insistence on teaching the Holocaust and on gender equality in UNRWA schools has invited the rage of radical Islamic groups in Gaza; he has survived two assassination attempts.  His public criticism of the ongoing blockade has provoked the fury of right-wing groups in Israel and in the US.

Luckily he is a man accustomed to pressure.  His time in Gaza is only the latest chapter in a long and illustrious career in peacekeeping and conflict resolution.  After serving as an officer in the Irish Army and acquiring two law degrees, he worked in some of the most war-torn regions of the last quarter century: Rwanda, the Balkans, and Southern Lebanon.  With his experience and his knowledge, Mr. Ging provides a crucial contribution to our understanding of the conflict and our efforts to resolve it.

This does not deny that his presence brings with it a measure of discomfort for some of us  It must be acknowledged: Gaza is not an easy issue of discussion – for all who feel passionately about this conflict.  The rockets that continue to terrorize innocent Israeli civilians living in Sderot are murderous and defy justification.  And the conditions in Gaza – extreme poverty amidst a decimated economy, near complete limitations to movement – ought to trouble all who believe in basic human rights.

Yet despite the difficulty of this conversation, peace demands that we look at the most difficult issues and bring to bear upon them our convictions as well as our reason, our passion and our generosity.  The historical moment demands it.  For Jews, a tradition of argument and debate obligates it.

It is in the hope of encouraging such a discussion – difficult, challenging, crucial and reasonable – that I invite you all to continue involvement with J Street U.  At universities across the country students are working to forge a middle path in a polarized debate; joining together to host programming and advocate powerfully on behalf of peace and human rights.  We hope this is just a beginning of that ongoing conversation and it is with great hope in the potential of that conversation that I am so honored to welcome, with you, Mr. John Ging.