J Street at the Knesset: Don’t push away your friends

The debate was held in the Committee on Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs – whose chairman was recently in the news for accompanying Sarah Palin around Israel - and was prompted by right-wing criticism of five Knesset members’ participation in J Street’s national conference last month. The American Jewish Committee and Abe Foxman of the ADL joined a plethora of Israeli leaders in speaking out against the committee’s interference in American Jewish affairs.

Three years ago, I helped found J Street to give voice to a large number of Jewish Americans who care deeply about Israel and are profoundly concerned about its future.

We’ve built a home for over 170,000 supporters and a very large number of American Jews who believe that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an existential necessity if Israel is to remain both Jewish and democratic. We advocate for the policies necessary to secure this future – for instance, the recent Schakowsky-Eshoo letter, which was signed by 116 members of Congress, urged maintaining current levels of foreign aid to Israel and the PA and seizing this critical moment in the Mideast to reaffirm American leadership in pursuit of a two-state solution.

I flew to Israel to participate in the Knesset debate over what it means to be pro-Israel in the United States with two messages:

The first was to reaffirm the deep commitment of J Street to the state and the people of Israel.  I delivered over 15,000 signatures, collected in under 48 hours, from J Street supporters encouraging the Israeli Government to work with us as allies.  I also brought with me hundreds of personal letters, including from parents of soldiers in the IDF and from people who raised money for Israel’s independence in the 1940s, explaining how they have found a home on J Street.

The second was to call attention to the grave risk that Israel faces in thinking that only those who hold certain political views can be its friends. 

The country is too small, the Jewish people too few and the dangers too great for us to let political differences sever the bonds between Jews living there and abroad.

Like all families, members of the Jewish community who often see eye to eye, at times have our differences. Such political disagreements are part of the lifeblood of the Jewish people – and in keeping with our traditions, we should work through our differences with respect, vibrant discussion and open dialogue.

In the face of genuine efforts to undermine and delegitimize Israel, we hope its Government can distinguish between legitimate criticism of Israeli policies and attacks on Israel’s fundamental right to exist.  In fact, the Israeli public recognizes this. A recent Forward poll shows that a significant majority of Israeli Jews (67 percent) believes it is legitimate for American Jewish organizations to criticize Israeli governmental policies, while only 19 percent call for unconditional support of these policies.

As friends and family, we cannot in good conscience stand quietly by and pretend not to see the dangers Israel faces – in particular the growing international isolation Israel will confront without a resolution of the conflict. And we cannot ignore the larger troubling trend that threatens Israel’s democratic and Jewish character, including not just this unprecedented inquiry into the political views of a Jewish American organization, but proposals to narrow the definition of who is considered to be a Jew or the application of a loyalty oath to Israeli citizenship.

Now is not the time for Israel to push away its friends and family, even when we disagree on policy. This was the message echoed by the majority of current and former Knesset members in the room during the committee debate last week and echoed by so many Jewish and Israeli leaders.

J Street will continue to stand for the values and policies that we believe are critical to the long-term security and vibrancy of Israel and the Jewish people.

We owe this not simply to the dreams of our parents and grandparents who helped to create and strengthen a national home for the Jewish people, but to the hopes of our children and the generations yet to come to see a strong, secure and democratic Israel living within internationally-accepted borders.

Jeremy Ben-Ami is the president of J Street.