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How Do You “Love Israel”?

What does it mean to be ‘pro-Israel’ within the context of liberal Jewish thought?  This is one of the most complex and frustrating questions that has dogged me since my return from the recent J Street conference.  When this topic … Read More

By / November 17, 2009

What does it mean to be ‘pro-Israel’ within the context of liberal Jewish thought?  This is one of the most complex and frustrating questions that has dogged me since my return from the recent J Street conference.  When this topic was the focus of one of the breakout sessions, it was clear that I was not alone in struggling for answers.  The ensuing discussion was not only one of the most provocative and revelatory of the two and a half day event, but also one of the most personal.  The conflicted and charged atmosphere forced everyone in the room to confront and struggle to define and defend their positions on this fundamental issue.  At the same time, it pushed the bounds of the conversation, prodding both the audience and the panelists to ask the core questions:  What does J Street stand for? and Where do I fit in? 

Jonathan Chait, a journalist for the New Republic and one of the discussants, addressed these issues by suggesting that J Street has cast its net too wide and insisting that it needs to be clearer in defining itself.  If not, he added, it would continue to attract unwelcome supporters.  This fear was made tangible by an exchange between the panelists and a female audience member.  A self-defined peace activist, the woman stood up and declared, "I don’t love Israel."  She went on to say, however, that she feels a great deal of sympathy for the people of Israel and is an advocate for peace in the region.  In response, the panelists asserted that if she isn’t comfortable declaring that she "loves Israel," then perhaps she doesn’t belong in J Street.  

By focusing solely on what people say rather than what their intentions are, we shun complexity for simplicity.  Throughout the event, Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s Executive Director, emphasized repeatedly, that J Street’s mission is to encourage a plurality of voices in a conversation that has too often been reduced to one voice.  In order to do that, we must be willing to hear someone say that she does not love Israel.  Instead of turning her away, we can ask her to unpack her statement, to clarify her position.  When simple words like ‘pro’ or ‘love’ are such polarizing forces-as they are when it comes to discussing Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict– it is essential that a progressive voice, such as J Street wishes to be, continue to provide a space for a multiplicity of definitions of these words.  This does not mean, of course, that it should be accepting of all views, such as those who question Israel’s right to exist or who use radical language to discredit its leadership.

The debate over language is not a trivial one and speaks to the larger question: how should J Street define itself?  In his speech, Chait said that he sees it as a conflict between a broad definition and a narrow one.  I disagree.  It is instead a conflict over how to reconcile its centrist and activist ambitions.  To be an effective political organization, J Street needs to maintain a moderate position, clearly define itself and be willing to repudiate statements that are seen as questionable by the mainstream public.  However, to be a catalyst for change, it must remain an open tent, available to all those who  support Israel‘s right to exist and have an emotional attachment to the existential meaning of the state of Israel, but who differ on what forms that support should take. Activists such as the woman in the session are outspoken and assertive and represent the energy that J Street needs to continue to build grassroots support.  It cannot afford to push her, and many others like her, away.  The centrist and activist sides feed off of each other and the enthusiasm that each generates pushes it closer to becoming a significant player on the political scene.  At the same time, each side’s positions have been, and will continue to be, used by critics to discredit the overall goals of the organization.   How this conflict is handled will determine J Street’s effectiveness in the future.

With the rise of J Street, a swath of the American Jewish community feels that it finally has a place where its voices can be heard.  For too long, this kind of debate has been publically stifled while it has flourished in private.   The 1,500 conference goers are back in their communities eager to open up the discussion among their peers.  This is not the time to shut down the conversation.  Rather it’s time to ask: What took them so long?

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