Statement in response to Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s Comments in the Forward on December 31

January 4, 2009

J Street takes serious issue with Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s op-ed in the December 31st Forward, in which he attacks us for questioning the wisdom of the Gaza assault.

Our position on the crisis reflects our support for Israel, our hope for its security and our sympathy with the ongoing suffering of the people on both sides in this conflict. It is hard for us to understand how the leading reform rabbi in North America could call our effort to articulate a nuanced view on these difficult issues “morally deficient.” If our views are “naïve” and “morally deficient”, then so are the views of scores of Israeli journalists, security analysts, distinguished authors, and retired IDF officers who have posed the same questions about the Gaza attack as we have.

And, when tens of thousands of pro-Israel American Jews are joining with statements made by J Street, Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek, Israel Policy Forum and others calling for a ceasefire – it is simply wrong to call these views out of touch with Jewish sentiment.

American Jews are, as Rabbi Yoffie says, by and large sensible and centrist, and they support Israel in her hour of need.  But many of those same Jews – and their friends who want the best for Israel – are well within their rights and within the centrist mainstream to question the wisdom of the actions taken this week, to question where they will lead and to ask the US and others to help bring an end to the violence as quickly as possible.

They are also in line with many in Israel, where on Friday, 30 peace organizations (including the Peres Center for Peace, the Geneva Initiative and Peace Now) signed a public call for an immediate ceasefire, joining such pillars of the national conscience as David Grossman and Amos Oz.

J Street understands that Hamas is a terrorist organization and a harsh enemy.  We are neither dovish nor pacifist, nor are we blindly opposed to the use of force.  We support Israel in defending and protecting its citizens from attack, including through military action if necessary and appropriate to the threat.  We believe, however, that force cannot be Israel’s only or preponderant response – even to Hamas.

We are pragmatists grounded in the real world and the lessons it teaches.  As such – and as avid supporters of Israel – we are asking whether the specific actions taken by Israel in Gaza actually do advance Israel’s and America’s interests.  In this case, J Street believes they do not.  We believe that the actions taken this week – disproportionate to the threat and escalatory in nature – will be seen, with time, as counterproductive.  They will further isolate Israel and the US internationally, deepen hatred among the Palestinian and Israel peoples, foment extremism throughout the Arab world and undercut the position of more moderate Arab regimes

Further, we have asked from the first day of this operation, for clarity as to Israel’s exit strategy.  An operation of this scale is easy to start, but far more difficult to wind down successfully.  The alternatives without a ceasefire – ongoing Israeli reoccupation of Gaza, re-imposition by force of Fatah rule or international/Arab forces taking over – all are either undesirable or unrealistic.

J Street believes the only option at this point for Israel and the U.S. is to work urgently and immediately to achieve a ceasefire now that stops the violence, ends the rockets and eases the blockade of Gaza, rather than allowing a ground campaign to proceed.  Perhaps if similar calls had been made – and heeded – in the first week of the Lebanon War in 2006, much of the damage and loss in the conflict could have been avoided.

Anshel Pfeffer, correspondent for Ha’aretz, portrayed the debate within the Jewish community outside Israel today slightly differently than Rabbi Yoffie.  To him, the three parties to the debate are, first, the “large number of Pavlovian flag-wavers, good and innocent Zionists and Jews who see only the trauma inflicted on the people of Sderot, Ashkelon and other parts of the country’s south-west” and, second, those on the far left who feel “compelled to atone for Israel’s manifold sins and join its enemies in the demonstrations and sign petitions accusing the Zionist entity of war crimes.”

Then, says Pfeffer, there is a

“third stream of Jews – perhaps not the widest one, but I believe quite significant – who have more complex and uncomfortable feelings on the matter. They care deeply for Israel and understand even why its government felt compelled to launch the devastating Operation Cast Lead, but they are extremely disturbed and hurt by the level of civilian deaths and destruction that almost seems part and parcel of the action. Surely, they say, there must, there has to be another way of doing this. And they live with those doubts, often unexpressed, even among families and close friends because the worst thing they find is that others around them don’t seem to discern between the different nuances, and can’t find in themselves compassion for the dead and wounded on the other side. They begin asking themselves very awkward questions: Are they surrounded by latent racists, or is something wrong with them that denies the feelings of certainty of those around them? Or does everyone have similar doubts but are simply afraid to express them?”

J Street proudly identifies itself as swimming in this third, centrist stream.  The only difference: we are unwilling to leave our doubts unexpressed.  The views we hold may not be those of Rabbi Yoffie, and that’s fine.  We accept and welcome an open and honest debate about the merits of our pro-Israel positions.

But to call our views “morally deficient”, “naïve” and “out of touch” with Jewish sentiment is to misread the emerging dynamics of centrist, pro-Israel Jews.

J Street is very grateful to Rabbi Yoffie for the important leadership he has demonstrated over the years in speaking out on controversial and complex issues.  We look forward to continuing this conversation with respect for each other’s support for Israel and for our differences on how best to move forward.