Rabbi Douglas Sagal doesn’t regard civil discourse on the topic of Israel as merely an intellectual exercise; he sees it as an antidote to an “existential danger.”
Just how difficult it is to keep that discourse cordial was evident at the opening session of Temple Emanu-El’s new Varied Voices program, on Oct. 16.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder and president of J Street, was the featured speaker, and virtually every audience member who spoke out described his views as naive, wrong, or outright harmful to Israel and the Jewish people.
In response, he calmly acknowledged the differences in opinion, but maintained his view that, for all the danger involved, if Israel doesn’t seize what opportunities it has now to negotiate a peace agreement, it risks exchanging “a bad scenario for an even worse scenario.”
Ben-Ami described his own background; he is the son of Yitshaq Ben-Ami, an Israeli follower of the right-wing Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky. The elder Ben-Ami later joined the Bergson Group, whose members made an aggressive effort to rescue Jews during the Holocaust.
Ben-Ami went on to describe his own credentials as a supporter of Israel and those of the organization he started three years ago. With regard to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, J Street insists that without a negotiated two-state solution with land swaps, Israel will lose its democratic character and Jewish majority.
“I am very afraid, however, that we are watching Israel gradually decide to sacrifice its democratic character and the very values of our people in order to maintain control of the territory won in 1967,” said Ben-Ami.
He acknowledged that the Palestinian leadership leaves much to be desired, but he was emphatic that President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayad represent “the best Palestinian leadership we’ll ever know.” Losing the opportunities available now would undermine moderates, empower groups like Hamas and Hizbullah, and lead to far greater world isolation, he said.
Ben-Ami also emphasized J Street’s approach that “Israel’s supporters have not only the right but the obligation to speak out when we think the policies or actions of the Israeli government are hurting Israel or harming the long-term interests of the Jewish people.”
“We do not revel in criticizing the Israeli government,” he said. “We do it with a heavy heart.” He lamented that a number of Jewish groups have declined opportunities to debate J Street, while others have attacked it as anti-Israel and worse.
“The right way to contend with ideas that you do not like is with better ideas, not by refusing to debate,” he said.
‘Unity is strength’
Invited to play the role of “responder” to Ben-Ami’s presentation, New Jersey Jewish News editor-in-chief Andrew Silow-Carroll said he shared Ben-Ami’s belief in a two-state solution and in the need for broad communal conversation. He did respond, however, with what he called a “few of the tougher questions I know you may have heard before.”
Silow-Carroll asked if J Street had been strict enough in differentiating between those who criticize Israeli policy and those who challenge the legitimacy of Israel itself, especially within the boycott and divestment movement.
Ben-Ami said the “red line” defining acceptable criticism was that it come from people who accept and support the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own, and their right to effectively defend it. He also drew a distinction between proponents of a one-state solution who call for a boycott on all economic activity with Israel, and Israeli and Jewish activists who call for labeling products made in the settlements.
Silow-Carroll also asked how J Street’s criticism of the role of pro-Israel money and political influence differs from that of critics, like Philip Giraldi or Stephen Walt, who insist that a vast “Israel lobby” coordinates efforts to skew American policy or shut down political debate.
As he does in his new book, A New Voice for Israel, Ben-Ami criticized those whose criticism of Jewish political involvement “feeds into historical tropes about Jews” or who say Jews control the media or policy. He said there is nothing conspiratorial or insidious about the pro-Israel lobby; rather, the American-Jewish community knows how to “play by the rules” of political involvement extremely well.
But he also disputed the idea that Israel doesn’t get “a fair shake” from the media, saying the problem is often its government policies, especially in expanding West Bank settlements.
When Sagal invited questions and comments from the audience, hands shot up all around the room. Many more wanted to speak than got a chance in the two-hour program.
One woman, visibly angry, said, “Unity is strength,” adding that the Jewish community is weakened when groups like J Street promote “factionalism.” Ben-Ami responded that there is unity on basic principles — of Israel’s right to exist and for a strong alliance between Israel and the United States — but if large numbers of American Jews find their views ignored “they walk away — and that weakens us.”
When another speaker objected to the way Ben-Ami characterized Israel’s behavior toward Palestinians, Ben-Ami acknowledged that what he had to say “is hard to say and hard to hear.” Contrary “to the mythology taught to the American-Jewish community over decades,” he went on, millions of Arabs in areas occupied by Israel do not enjoy full citizenship — and “those violations of human rights are being done in your name.”
Toward the end of the program, Ben-Ami surmised that the audience was split “about 60-40,” with the majority critical of his positions. After the program, a long line formed in the lobby as he signed copies of his book. Audience members included Rabbi Charles Kroloff, Emanu-El’s rabbi emeritus, and Rabbi Amy Small of Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit. Both are members of J Street’s rabbinic cabinet.
Sagal, Emanu-El’s current religious leader, said the program is part of the Reform congregation’s bid to generate a respectful exchange of views on the subject of Israel, and possibly create a model that other groups might use. In December, the series will feature a presentation by a representative of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, whose views — especially on the United States’ role in brokering a peace deal — are often seen as at odds with J Street’s.