First of a two-part series:
The Obama years are gone and the American Jewish left faces a critical choice: be pragmatic and engage constructively with the Trump administration to advance the goal of two states for two peoples, Israel and Palestine, living side-by-side in peace and security; or be part of the “resistance,” the #NeverTrump faithful, opposing the president at every turn. And if the left is prepared to be pragmatic, would it be possible to forge a coalition of interest with the Jewish center based on support for a two-state solution?
Pressure on groups such as J Street and Americans for Peace Now to resist normalizing Trump is enormous. Among most progressives, both Jewish and non-Jewish, the new president is reviled and regarded as beyond redemption. The infamous comments by Trump’s nominee for U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, that J Street supporters were “worse than Kapos,” have not been forgotten, despite Friedman’s disavowal of the statement during his Senate confirmation hearings.
In addition to what some would consider principled reasons to join the anti-Trump camp, lies an institutional interest. Organized Jewish engagement with the administration might lead to abandonment by institutions with the most fervent objections to the president, as well as the financial support that comes with them. In fact, some constituents might be tempted to move even further left toward the non-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), whose strength has grown in recent years, especially on college campuses.
Without minimizing these concerns, and recognizing the dilemmas, my hope was that the Jewish left would choose engagement with the White House. The stakes simply are too high not to. It’s hard to find anyone these days who predicts a conflict-ending agreement between Israel and the Palestinians anytime soon, though if Jared Kushner, who seems to have been given this portfolio, pulls a rabbit out of his hat and helps broker the “ultimate deal,” yours truly surely won’t complain.
But the continuing absence of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement doesn’t mean that the situation remains static. On the ground there is either movement toward two states or a one-state reality. Because of the Jewish-Arab demographic balance between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea, a one-state reality would jeopardize Israel’s ability to maintain its identity as both Jewish and democratic.
It was with these thoughts and questions in mind that I attended at the end of February the J Street national conference in Washington, D.C. Whether you support or staunchly oppose the group, with attendance estimated at 3,500, there is no doubt that J Street has become a political force. I was especially impressed with the thoughtfulness about issues and commitment to Israel and peace of the 1,200 students representing J Street U. The energy in the conference rooms was palpable, as was the disgust participants felt about Trump and Friedman.
I asked J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami whether his organization sees Trump as “treif,” or would it be prepared to work with the new administration? His response was clear and pragmatic. J Street, he said, has “had a set of principles from day one.” We would oppose any attempt to “walk back” the two-state solution. “But if the president listens to people like Secretary of Defense [James] Mattis, then maybe we will have something to talk about.”
This practical approach was reflected in the conference sessions I attended. Nadav Tamir, director of international and government affairs for Peres & Associates Global Consulting, urged the attendees to give the president the benefit of the doubt. He said, sometimes leaders “play a role in history that you don’t expect, and Trump might be that one.” Allies to advance the two-state agenda, he observed, might even be found among moderates in the Republican Party. Speakers in that session and others referred to the changing regional dynamic, which could open new opportunities for peacemaking, with Sunni Arab states now considering Israel as an ally in resisting the hegemonic designs of a radical Shiite regime in Tehran.
The two-state solution is also supported by the Jewish center or, to put it another way, the “establishment.” Across town, at the same time as the J Street event, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) was holding its annual conference. An umbrella organization comprised of a wide spectrum of national and local Jewish public affairs organizations (JCRCs) as well as religious movements, the JCPA has long supported two states for two peoples. The Jewish Federations of North America, an umbrella body for 148 federations and 300 small network communities across North America, has officially endorsed the two-state solution as well.
Following last month’s joint press conference with President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at which the president seemed to express indifference about the goal of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) stated that it “continues to believe that a two-state solution is the only realistic resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as established through direct bilateral negotiations between the parties themselves…AJC has long recognized that the alternative of a one-state reality is simply untenable and, therefore, a non-starter — an abrogation of the Zionist ideal of a Jewish and democratic state.”
So again we ask, is a Jewish left-center, two-state coalition possible, and, if so, is it desirable? My answer to both questions is yes. Given expressions heard in recent months from the right, both in Israel and the United States, about alternatives to two states and the possible annexation of a sizable portion of the West Bank, it is more important than ever to send an unambiguous and strong message both to Washington and to Jerusalem that the rest of the American Jewish community, the overwhelming majority, supports the two-state solution. The passion and focus of the left, which I experienced at the J Street conference, coupled with the political influence of the Jewish center would enable the community to more effectively convey such a strong message.
But forging a left-center coalition won’t be simple. The challenges were on display at a J Street session on American Jewish leadership in the Trump era, which included Barry Shrage, president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston. Representing the center/establishment, Shrage acknowledged that “we need to be talking with each other,” but he warned the audience that even though members of the Jewish community he deals with do support social justice and a two-state solution, “they don’t want to see Israel demonized.” They understand that “Israel lives in a dangerous neighborhood and [is] deeply skeptical of Palestinian intentions.” Placing disproportionate blame on Israel, he observed, is wrong and counterproductive.
J Street believes that it has been unfairly demonized and excluded from Jewish establishment tables. Rejection of its application for membership in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations still stings. Representatives of the left believe that the reluctance of the center to stress the pernicious nature of Israel’s occupation of the territories — or even just to use the term occupation — is a serious failure.
To operate comfortably as a coalition of shared interest, groups in the center will need to live with what they regard as excessive criticism of Israel by the left. Conversely, groups on the left, without being required to give up their distinctive agendas, will also need to associate themselves with more moderate positions espoused by the center.
For example, the left places great emphasis on Israeli settlements as severely destructive to the viability of two states. The center also is critical of certain Israeli settlement activity, but it regards Palestinian rejection of Jewish sovereignty in Israel as the core of the conflict. There is a common denominator here: the view that Israeli settlement policy should be consistent with the goal of establishing two viable states through the negotiating process.
Certain organizations tend to straddle the left and center, possibly making them well suited to foster this coalition. They are the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the largest of our religious movements, and the Israel Policy Forum. AMEINU, a progressive Zionist group, also might serve this mediating function; Gideon Aronoff, the organization’s CEO who is active with the JCRC of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, told me that “acceptance of diversity of expression is the key to building a truly broad coalition for a secure and sustainable Jewish future for the state of Israel.”
Bottom line: There is no unanimity in the Jewish community on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but the creation of a broad-based, left-center coalition able to articulate consensus in favor of a two-state position and ready to engage pragmatically with the new administration would bring us closer to that goal.
Part II: “What could this coalition achieve?” will appear in the next issue.