J Street: Tell me about your background and relationship with Israel.
Emma: When I was growing up, I was caught up in the miracle of the formation of Israel and the ideals and hard work that made the country possible. But from the beginning, I also had concerns about relations between Jews and Palestinians.
My husband and I went to Israel for our honeymoon three years after the Six Day War. The country was still agrarian and a little rough around the edges–only dirt roads in the village where my husband’s relatives lived. Our host told us, “It’s a great country and it’s getting bigger,” and I recognized his pride in victory and his hope for peace—he had lost a son in the war—but I also worried about the implications of Israeli occupation.
When I got home, some of my American friends and family didn’t want to really discuss the complexity of all that we’d seen and learned. Once, when I brought up the massacre of Deir Yassin [in which right-wing militias killed over 100 Arabs] in the 1948 War, a relative snapped, “Jews aren’t killers,” and that ended the conversation. Back then, there wasn’t a place for a serious conversation about the real Israel, instead of the one in our heads.
Now I’ve been there five times, several times to visit my daughter, who moved there to study and work on issues of Israeli-Palestinian co-existence. In 2003, my husband and I toured Jerusalem with lawyer and advocate Danny Seidemann and learned about the encroachment of Jewish settlements into Palestinian areas, and many more issues that most American Jews never hear about.
J Street: How did you get involved with J Street?
Emma: I was significantly influenced by my daughter’s work in Israel. I joined [the American Jewish peace group] Brit Tzedek v’Shalom early and when J Street came along, I felt that it was finally possible to have a reasonable conversation about Israel.
Before J Street had a presence in New Hampshire, it had an event in Portsmouth and put out a call for people to help build a new chapter. I knew that it would mean a lot of time and responsibility, but it’s important work, so I agreed. As co-chair I have great partners, working with our media chair Judy Ullman and our advocacy chair, Joan Jacobs.
I see J Street as playing a critical role in pushing both against the status quo and against a one-state solution, which I believe would mean the end of a Zionist Israel. J Street’s focus on making it possible for Members of Congress to support smart Middle East policy is really critical.
J Street: What have been some of the biggest successes and challenges for J Street New Hampshire?
Emma: When we launched the chapter last fall, some people tried to shut down our first event in Portsmouth. It’s not comfortable to be in a situation of conflict in your community, but the event went very well. [J Street Vice President of Communications] Alan Elsner spoke and handled tough questions beautifully. People felt as if they had had a real conversation. That was a huge success. And though the rabbi of the congregation where the event was held initially didn’t like the idea of having politics in the synagogue, he soon decided to start an Israel affairs committee to create a space for open dialogue about Israel where everyone could feel welcome.
Since then, our chapter has continued to grow and reach out to other areas of the state. We have held discussions on contentious issues of Israel’s borders, and an hosted an event on the Israeli elections. We’ve written letters to local newspapers and met with elected representatives. I was especially pleased to see my friend and former colleague [New Hampshire] Senator Jeanne Shaheen be endorsed by J Street and be our ally in Congress.
J Street: What motivates you to keep working for a two-state solution?
Emma: We need a two-state solution because Palestinians have the same right to self-determination as Jews do. It’s also the only way that Israel can be a true democracy with equal rights for all citizens. I believe it’s possible for Israel to be Jewish and still respect the rights of minorities.
Some people say that as Americans, we shouldn’t tell another country what to do. But the American Jewish community has been instrumental in helping Israel to succeed from the very beginning. We have a responsibility to help Israel stay true to our Jewish values. Especially now, when it’s easy to despair and walk away, it’s more important than ever that we keep working for justice.