J Street’s Open Letter to the Conference of Presidents

May 13, 2010

J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami wrote the following open letter to Alan Solow, Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.  The letter is in response to a full-page ad published yesterday by the Conference.

The letter is also posted on The Huffington Post here.

Dear Alan,

I read with great interest the full page ad taken out yesterday by the Conference of Presidents to mark Jerusalem Day, excerpting at length a moving speech by the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin about Jerusalem’s personal importance to him and its significance for the Jewish people.

Jerusalem does indeed hold a unique place in the hearts of the Jewish people, and it is a place of special importance as well for Christians, Muslims – indeed for nearly all people around the world.

Precisely because it is so special, Jerusalem is among the most difficult issues to address in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I write to ask you to clarify the message that the Conference was trying to convey in its ad by invoking the words and the memory of the late Prime Minister.

I know we both cherish other important words of the late Prime Minister – specifically those spoken on the lawn of the White House at around the same time, invoking the need to finally end the legacy of blood and tears that flowed from the ongoing conflict between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.

To me, the message most in keeping with Prime Minister Rabin’s legacy on Jerusalem Day would have been that precisely because Jerusalem is so special to us, we must do all we can to ensure that we find a peaceful resolution to the conflict and to finally end the work that he began eighteen years ago.

I believe that the Conference’s ad – by quoting language that implies that Rabin opposed “compromise” or that he believed Jerusalem to be “ours” in an exclusive way – presents a distorted picture of the Prime Minister’s legacy and his message to us.

I would hope that his message – and yours – to the American Jewish community and to the political leadership of this country would be that the future of our people and the future of all people in the region depends on finding a workable compromise that allows us to end the conflict once and for all.

The only way that Israel will remain secure as a democratic, Jewish home and the only way Jerusalem will be recognized by the world as Israel’s capital is if we come up with a reasonable plan for sharing the city.

That was certainly the vision underlying the parameters of a final resolution on Jerusalem laid out by the Prime Minister’s close friend, President Bill Clinton, in the year 2000. That vision remains the likely basis of any peace agreement today as well: Jerusalem encompassing the internationally recognized capitals of two states, Israel and Palestine; what is Arab should be Palestinian, what is Jewish should be Israeli, and what is holy to both requires a special care to meet the needs of all. As the former President said, “no peace agreement will last if not premised on mutual respect for the religious beliefs and holy shrines of Jews, Muslims and Christians.”

I write to ask you to avert any possible misunderstanding of the Conference’s intention in placing yesterday’s ads. Specifically, I call on you to clarify publicly:

1. Whether the Conference does in fact support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

2. If so, whether the Conference would accept that – as part of a two-state solution – Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem should be not only part of a new Palestinian state but its capital.

3. If not, whether the Conference believes that Israel should retain sovereignty over the more than 200,000 Palestinians living in the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem such as Walaja, Shuafat, Bet Hanina, Kufr Aqab, Kalandia, and Wadi Joz.

4. Finally, if these Arab villages are to remain part of Israel – are you supporting granting Israeli citizenship to the Palestinians who live there and who don’t have it now? If so, how can you reconcile such an enormous exception with otherwise unquestioning opposition to providing citizenship to other Palestinians, for instance in the context of addressing the “right of return” in a final status agreement?

I hope that the Conference of Presidents will continue to invoke the legacy of the late, great Prime Minister. However, I hope that you will acknowledge that he didn’t simply give his life “for his country” as the ad states. He gave his life to the cause of peace, and his life was taken by someone whose ideology brooked no compromise – not on Jerusalem or any other issue.

I urge you and the Conference – as you speak in the name of the American Jewish community – to voice strong support as well now for the type of compromise that is so much a part of the late Prime Minister’s legacy.

Former Prime Minister Olmert spoke eloquently several years ago about that legacy: “[Rabin] understood that if we want to maintain Israel as democratic Jewish state, we must concede to a lack of choice and to our great torments and give up parts of our homeland for which we dreamt for generations of yearning and prayers… We must also give up Arab neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem and return to the seed of the territory that is the State of Israel up until 1967, with obligatory amendments as a result of the reality created in the meantime.” At the same ceremony, Israeli President Shimon Peres added, “The shots that were fired at Yitzhak’s exposed back did not succeed in killing his vision, because you can’t assassinate an idea.”

Realizing Yitzhak Rabin’s vision of peace for Israel will take leadership, vision and courage. I hope that, as someone who has been called to step to the forefront of the American Jewish community, you will honor that responsibility by using your platform to help educate the community about the compromises that are necessary for peace, the tough truths about sensitive issues like Jerusalem and the real meaning of the legacy of the late, great Prime Minister.


Jeremy Ben-Ami
J Street