Expanding the Conversation for a Peaceful Future: On Israel’s 66th Birthday

This past week we moved through the most important holidays of the Israeli civil calendar: Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day, and Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day. These holidays came this year at an interesting time of reflection in the American Jewish community and its relationship with Israel.

A few days prior to the observance of these days, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations (CoP) voted to exclude J Street from admission. The CoP is exactly what its name implies-it is an umbrella organization representing the major Jewish communal organizations in the United States. This organization has traditionally been called upon to represent American Jewish interests both domestically and abroad.

J Street is an organization established several years ago with the goal of offering a different voice on Israel. Critical of Israeli policies and the Occupation, and advocating strongly for a two-state solution, J Street has grown to represent a large number of American Jews who are supportive of Israel yet disillusioned with what this support traditionally means. J Street sought its seat at the table as the major organization it has become.

The vote was unfortunate, but perhaps welcome. For after the vote the reaction and criticism was swift. And the criticism was not because of any process point, which is not in dispute (the vote was in secret with each member organization getting one vote, as is standard CoP procedures). The criticism is because of the need to admit that conversation about Israel in the American Jewish community has and is changing.

There are other Jewish organizations in addition to J Street offering new voices. Jewish Voice for Peace is another voice in the mix, one that is being summarily dismissed because of its support for BDS, but yet one that is representing a segment of our diverse Jewish community. Another is the “Open Hillel” movement: Hillels on college campuses (including my alma mater) are pushing back against the national Hillel organization’s exclusion of JVP and other opinions critical of Israel, and instead are insisting on hosting speakers and representatives from diverse points of view.

At a time in which the BDS movement is promoting academic boycott-which must correctly be seen as an affront to academic pursuit and the free exchange of ideas-do we want to be in the position of boycotting each other?

[I do draw a distinction between conversations within the Jewish community, and those in the greater community. Those outside the Jewish community who have been critical of Israel and supportive of BDS, at least locally, are quick to draw lines in the sand, cherry picking Jewish voices to hear and not hesitating to portray me, or TBH or other members of the Jewish community as thinking one way or another (oftentimes without asking first). I find it frustrating when Jewish speakers are brought and presented in a particular context-I get the feeling (unfair or not) that they are being presented as “here are the good Jews, unlike those other ones”-whereas those same speakers, like a recent visit by a solider from Breaking the Silence, would be compelling to hear in a Jewish context.

I draw the distinction because Jews talking about Israel among ourselves have a different set of assumptions and values that don’t always feel represented in other conversations. The historic weight of centuries of first religious then racial anti-Semitism is a huge one, for example. The very real stories of relatives who fled their country of origin because there was no where else to go is another. The constant challenge of living as a minority in this country and having to deal with Christian privilege. And more.]

The CoP vote in exclusion of J Street is both a setback and a revelation. It reveals that much as the CoP is meant to represent a consensus, there is none. The conversation is changing.

Part of the change is generational. Younger Jews have different associations with Israel because their experience of the history is different. I was in college when the watershed moment of the Oslo Accords happened, a hope that has thus far gone unfulfilled. But I was left with the power and hope of that moment. Today’s young adult Jews reached maturity in the shadow of the failure of that hope. Where does that leave them?

Part of the change is simply the continuation of the conflict. I do view the establishment of Israel as a phenomenal success of modern statebuilding, especially in light of Jewish history for the first half of the 20th century. It is a vibrant center of Jewish cultural and intellectual life, and a haven for many. Israel as a democracy struggles with issues of civil rights and religious freedom (as does the United States) and yet aims to fulfill the promises of all of its citizens. For this it must be applauded.

At the same time we must admit that Israel has been the cause of much suffering for a great many people. The occupation of the Palestinians has a devastating effect on Palestinians who live under terrible conditions, and also, I would argue, on Israelis themselves. The failure of this most recent round of peace talks is being put on Israel and its unwillingness to cease settlement activity (as reported by Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot), and President Shimon Peres recently reported that a peace deal was in hand but jettisoned by Prime Minister Netanyahu. Successes are to be praised, but they don’t negate the failures.

As Yom Ha’atzma’ut passed we are reminded that for Palestinians this is marked as the Nakba, the catastrophe. And it is, both/and. The Israelis and the Palestinians have a different narrative of history. This does not negate one or the other, but they live side by side, in tension.

And history is history, to be studied and analyzed, acknowledged and accepted.  But it can’t be undone. The only way to move is forward. This too we must admit. Critics of Israel will point to the “Original Sin” of 1948, but that is a moot point (and a very Christian reading of history). The State of Israel exists, it is a political and social reality. It seems the finger pointing of who did what when is the name of the game when it comes to talking about Israel. But that doesn’t get anyone anywhere. We can not use the past to hemorrhage the future. The real question is, where do we go from here?

I struggle daily about this, as a Jew and a rabbi. I worry. I worry for the Israelis. And I worry for the Palestinians. I worry that Israel is moving towards apartheid within the West Bank (even Israel’s leading newspaper Ha’aretz is using this term now). And I worry about divisions within the Jewish community over people who can’t seem to talk to each other.

I have been attacked from all sides over the years whether in private emails, or in this letter to the editor which claims I have my “head in the sand.” I sometimes tell myself if I am annoying everyone then I am doing something right. But that isn’t always satisfying. There are those who approach this conflict who are recalcitrant in their positions, who view one side as the enemy and their side the keeper of truth. I don’t like to engage with these folks in the same way I don’t engage with fundamentalist Christians-there is no dialogue with true believers. The CoP vote and the reaction, though, I believe is a breaking down of this picture of uniformity.

I do still have hope. I’m not a diplomat or a scholar, but it seems to me that everyone knows what the initial solution will look like: two states with appropriate land swaps, some resettlement of refugees and compensation for the rest, the division of Jerusalem. The ideas are there, the will is not.

And this part I can understand, for what has to happen on the national level happens on a daily basis on the individual level. In our relationships and interactions if we want to be successful we need to keep an open mind and an open heart, we need to be self-affirming and self-critical, we need to release our hold on the truth, and we need to be willing to compromise, even with those we do not like. We need to be empathetic, hear each others stories and narratives, and acknowledge and forgive the past. And this is difficult.

It is a fundamental desire of mine that as American Jews we have a deep appreciation and love of Israel and its place in the Jewish history and the worldwide Jewish community. Its ethnic diversity and its food. Its cultural expression, its literature, its music, its poetry and its art. Its scientific accomplishments. And we do what we can to help Israel attain its vision of peace and justice.

My parents just returned from a two week trip with their synagogue to Eastern Europe and Israel. They just got back, so while I have spoken with them I haven’t gotten a sense of the enormity of their experience. I do know it made a huge impact. During the trip my mom sent me this picture of artwork, called, “To Sow Tomorrow’s Wheat in the Battlefields of Yesterday.”


For Israelis, for the Palestinians, for all humanity, ken yehi ratzon, may it be so. Let’s hope and pray that everyone finds a seat at the table.

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I am a Rabbi, serving the Jewish community of Olympia, Washington and the surrounding area.

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