An open letter in response to J-street’s

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-16-09

Dear Jeremy Ben-Ami,

Allow me to respond to your open letter to Ambassador Michael Oren with an open letter of my own.

I share your worry “that the connection to Israel for a large number of Jewish Americans has become strained over time.” I love your statement to the Ambassador, and presumably to the entire pro-Israel community, that “what J-Street shares in common with you far outweighs that on which we disagree.” As someone trying to figure out how to sing a new song of Zion for the next generation of Jews and as someone who champions “big-tent” Zionism, like there was during the movement’s early days, it sounds like you’re singing my song.

Alas, when I examine what you advocate and what you ignore, when I read your statements, surf your website and look at your conference program, I am troubled. For starters, I do not see the use of the word “Zionism” anywhere. I wonder if that is tactical or ideological.

I wonder if you would display on your website the following statement:

Year after year, century after century, Jews carried on their traditions, and their dream of a homeland, in the face of impossible odds…. And I deeply understood the Zionist idea – that there is always a homeland at the center of our story.”

Those are the words of then-Senator Barack Obama, spoken on June 4, 2008, the day after he clinched the nomination.

Or what about this:

My starting point when I think about the Middle East is this enormous emotional attachment and sympathy for Israel, mindful of its history, mindful of the hardship and pain and suffering that the Jewish people have undergone, but also mindful of the incredible opportunity that is presented when people finally return to a land and are able to try to excavate their best traditions and their best selves.”

Obama again. If President Obama is not afraid to affirm Zionist ideals, why do you seem to be?

Note on your website the comment that:

The Palestinian people are likely to continue to nurture an anger that leads some to armed struggle as long as there is no mutually accepted resolution to the underlying political conflict.”

True, Palestinian anger must be acknowledged. But why do I hear nothing about the other phenomenon that must be acknowledged, Israeli anguish? Why do I hear nothing from you about the 850,000 Jewish refugees expelled from Arab lands, decades of Arab rejectionism, Palestinian anti-Semitism, the fact that withdrawal under Oslo and after the Gaza disengagement has only fed more violence, or the pain of Israelis whose blood has been spilled over the years? Why have I not heard a J-Street statement as passionate as this one:

The first job of any nation-state is to protect its citizens…. If somebody was sending rockets into my house, where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that. And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.”

That, too, was said by President Obama, during his visit to Sderot in July, 2008. Without the assurance that Israel’s pain is felt, without understanding that Israel faces a series of untenable choices when defending its people against terrorists who hide among civilians, without noticing that Oslo and Disengagement triggered more violence, the “peace of the brave” we all seek is reduced to a delusion – or an anti-Israel mugging.

I understand your desire to be evenhanded, and believe there is room in the pro-Israel and Zionist movements for voices such as yours. I hope that from your “J-Street” address you can see the Golden Path to a solution. My fear, though, is that you can only see Israeli sins and not Palestinian crimes; that your mythical address prevents you from seeing the facts on the ground we see in Israel, on campus, in the UN and elsewhere. I would love to see progressive voices lead the fight against the ugly campaign to de-legitimize Israel. We need civil rights activists who fought against apartheid to repudiate the libel falsely comparing the Israeli-Palestinian nationalist conflict to South African whites’ ugly racist oppression. We need people with impeccable progressive credentials willing to confront the Arab dictatorships, condemn Muslim homophobia, racism, and sexism, and to denounce terrorism.

Instead, I see a conference program more comfortable with finger-pointing at Israel. Why not call your “Messaging ‘Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace'” session “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace and Anti-Delegitimization,” acknowledging how much the rejection of Israel harms the peace process (just as most Israelis learned in the 1990s that denying Palestinian nationalism is counter-productive)? Will “Israel on Campus,” address the dilemmas so many students face: Attacks on Israel are so extreme, they fear any constructive criticism of Israel they utter will be used as fodder to continue demonizing their homeland – and all too often, their people?

And I would be more comfortable with the Americans for Peace Now session “West Bank Settlements: Obstacles on the Road to Peace,” if anything in the conference program acknowledged the “Obstacles on the Road to Peace” constituted by the Hamas charter, terrorism, demagoguery in mosques, rabble-rousing on the Temple Mount, harassment of Palestinian moderates, refusal to acknowledge Jewish rights to the land, Arab anti-Semitism, etc.

I hate to sound so unwelcoming. I believe there is no inherent contradiction between being progressive and being a Zionist, that Israel represents a remarkable attempt to establish liberal, democratic and Jewish values in the Middle East. We need a broad coalition of pro-Israel forces. But my sense is that Ambassador Oren senses what I sense. You find it easier to bash Israel than to criticize Israel’s adversaries. Maybe the burden is on you to establish some street cred by fighting the anti-Israel delegitimizers, the anti-Semitic anti-Zionists, who are affronts to what you so eloquently call “the values we bring to the table as Jews and as Americans.”

In friendship,


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