An adviser to J Street and an Israeli professor from the College of Judea and Samaria clashed at a local forum on United States-Israel relations, reflecting a wider debate over the appropriate role of the United States — and American Jews — in the Mideast peace process.
The lively dialogue, cosponsored by Drew University Hillel and several Jewish community relations councils, was titled “Who Speaks for American Jews on U.S.-Israeli Relations?”
The goal of the panel, attorney David Lentz told the audience at the Cooperman JCC in West Orange April 29, was to “see how big the tent of the Jewish community is at this pivotal point in history and if there is space for a wide range of viewpoints.”
Lentz, chair of the Community Relations Committee of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, certainly got the wide range of viewpoints organizers were looking for.
Media consultant Dan Fleshler, a board member of Americans for Peace Now and an adviser to the left-leaning J Street, said Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians “cannot be solved without American help, and that help must include a willingness for the U.S. to press and prod both sides in the conflict, rather than just one side.”
“That doesn’t mean forcing Israel to surrender territory against its will or to allow Hamas to use the West Bank as a staging ground for rockets,” he said. “It means Israel must stop all settlement expansion once and for all, including houses in Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem. Those buildings are pointlessly provocative and accomplish nothing except throwing a match into what is already a dangerous tinder box.”
Even as he called for an end to Palestinian violence, Fleshler insisted that “the U.S. president should have the wiggle room to suggest ideas that neither side is happy with but both could potentially live with.”
“If either side breaks its promises or stalls the journey to peace,” he added, “there will be consequences from the U.S., real penalties, not just ineffectual complaints.”
Fleshler’s call for U.S. pressure infuriated panelist Alexander Bligh, currently the Schusterman Visiting Israeli Professor at Notre Dame University.
“We do not need any group to tell us what to do in our country because this is our national will,” said Bligh, speaking strongly and sometimes angrily. “You want to attack our decision? Come to Israel. Make aliya,” and campaign to elect pro-peace candidates.
Bligh also chairs the department of political science and Middle Eastern studies at the College of Judea and Samaria in Ariel and is director of its Center for International Strategic Assessment.
“You are not Israelis,” he told the audience. “You are our brothers and sisters and family, and yet you are U.S. citizens…. Therefore, as much as you do not want us to make your decisions, we don’t want you to make our decisions.”
He went on to urge American Jews to accept support of Israel from the Christian Right. “They would very much like to make a coalition with you guys to help Israel,” he said.
Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of New York’s Jewish Week, praised Bligh for urging Jews to accept support of evangelical Christians, despite their embrace of domestic politics that many Jews disagree with.
“We are always worried about our numbers and our supporters,” said Rosenblatt. “We would be wise not to dismiss tens of millions of people who love Israel because the Bible says to love Israel.”
At the same time, Rosenblatt defended a need for “a pro-Israel Left.”
“There are many Jewish young people who need to find a home, and they are not going to find it in some of the more traditional long-standing Jewish organizations,” he said.
Seeking to bridge the gaps between Fleshler and Bligh, moderator Steve Gutow, CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, invited the two to defend one another’s political positions.
“I would like you to put a J Street hat on,” he told Bligh, and the professor responded amicably.
“Perhaps the time has come for a new initiative coming right from the heart of the Jewish community,” said Bligh, “channeling” a J Street supporter. “If they over there in Israel cannot do it, we over here are going to suggest a new and original way, and perhaps that may lead to a breakthrough.”
Inspiring a second role reversal, Gutow asked Fleshler to explain “why expansion of Israeli settlements is the right thing to do on the road to peace.”
“The settlers themselves have been demonized,” said Fleshler, warming to the role. “The vast majority are loyal Israeli citizens, and whatever decisions the state makes they are going to listen, despite the controversies that have happened. They are patriots. The idea that the territories should be Judenrein and Jews should not have the right to live anywhere is offensive. Perhaps drawing that line in the sand now will convince the Arabs that their quest to remove Israel’s hand on the West Bank is futile.”
In the question-and-answer period that followed, however, the two dropped the role playing.
“Just wait five years, just wait 10 years,” Fleshler warned a Drew University student. “Eventually the terrorist groups are going to have the capacity to wreak havoc, and unless this is solved, the safety of both Israeli and Palestinian children are in jeopardy. I don’t see any contradiction in trying to save both children’s lives.”
Countered Bligh: “I do not believe negotiations would produce anything. A two-state solution is a danger to this country and a danger to Israel.”
But adding a touch of optimism, he said that “coexistence, then peace, will happen,” although “not in our generation or perhaps the next generation.”
In addition to Drew University Hillel and the MetroWest CRC, the event was cosponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey and the JCRC of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey.