I want to begin by making sure that everyone knows about the disgusting story that came out of France a few days ago: That the noted French fashion designer John Galliano turns out to be a raging anti-Semite.
I am going to spend the rest of this column writing about Israel and Zionism. But I begin with the Galliano story because it's imperative to remember that...for Theodor Herzl, the initial impulse to organize, and ultimately call for a World Zionist Congress at the very end of the 19th century was in response to the latent French anti-Semitism that showed itself during the infamous Dreyfus Trial. For Herzl, the Dreyfus Trial was a knock upside the head - a realization that anti-Semitism would continue to persist....even in the most rational and enlightened countries of the world. And that the only reasonable Jewish response to the ongoing "problem" of anti-Semitism is Zionism: the establishment of a Jewish homeland - the one place in the world that Jews would be theoretically guaranteed to be safe from anti-Semitism sponsored/supported by the government under which they lived.
What is the state of Zionism today?
I offer one perspective on that question today, as I reflect on my experience attending the latter part of the national gathering of the organization known as J Street in Washington, DC.
J Street bills itself as "Pro Israel and Pro Peace." If you are interested, you can read about their platform here. Highlights from the conference can be viewed here. Rabbi David Saperstein (head of the Reform movement's Religious Action Center) opened the session with this speech, which courageously pressured J Street to re-think its approach on the UN resolution from a few days earlier:
As you may know, J Street is not without controversy in the wider Jewish/Pro-Israel community.
That controversy stems, in part, from the fact that J Street prominently advocates for a two state solution. The organization passionately believes that the Palestinian people have a right to be treated humanely and fairly - and that they have waited long enough for a Palestinian state. J Street continues to call for American and international pressure to be put on both the Israelis and Palestinians to enter immediately into final status negotiations so that a Palestinian state can come into existence, and so that Israel can thus end its more than four decade "occupation" (in and of itself a controversial term) of the West Bank.
There are aspects of J Street that I am not in full agreement with:
I don't know enough about the history and relationship between Israel and Syria to know if I agree with the J Street platform's call for a 'land-for-peace' deal with Syria.
And I know that I felt saddened by the fact that the organization seemed to put more emphasis on its Pro Peace (i.e. Pro-Palestinian) message than its Pro-Israel one. More specifically, J Street's Zionism is left largely undefined. It never seemed to be rooted in anything particularly Jewish...no reminder to me of the Jewish reasons for the continued existence of a secure Jewish homeland. This - to me - is the essence of Zionism, and could have been more prominently discussed.
But all of that aside: for me, personally, it was unbelievable to be in a room with more than 2000 progressive Jewish activists who had the courage to say that the Palestinians deserve to be treated with respect. That they deserve a state of their own. That settlement-building, in the context of the Palestinians and their right to a state, is immoral. That treating Palestinians as second class citizens is immoral.
To be sure, there is a trade off of values that is at play here.
Most of the Pro-Israel activists who disagree with J Street do so on the grounds that J Street is putting Israel's security at risk, by so aggressively pushing for Palestinian statehood. Many say: what's the hurry? Let's wait until relations with the Palestinians improve...when things on the ground become more stable....then we can work towards their state.
J Street's answer is that that magical moment will never come. So long as settlement building continues, and the occupation continues, it will never be that the Palestinians suddenly wake up one morning and want to be friends. Instead, J Street reasons: we Jews must take the initiative, and give them their land, and withdraw. That, in turn, will make for a more secure Israel.
My own response to that line of reasoning is conflicted. Israel courageously withdrew from Gaza several years ago, and Hamas filled that vacuum. It's hard to argue that Israel is more secure now because Hamas is there. What if the same thing were to happen in the West Bank?
But, for me, there are equally pressing questions: what do we make of the fact that the occupation compels Israel and the IDF to violate Jewish values in their interaction with the Palestinians?
That is a huge problem for me. And according to Peter Beinart in his widely-publicized article in June: it's a problem for lots of my peers as well. I (many of us?) wrestle with what it means to support a State of Israel whose government and army lose sight of basic Jewish moral values from time to time, at least when it comes to how Palestinians are treated.
I know that many disagree with me strongly on these issues. There are some in our community who don't think it's appropriate to criticize Israel under any circumstances. And there are others who struggle with being sympathetic to the Palestinians.
Nonetheless, I bring all of this up because what I have walked away from...after leaving the conference this week...is a newfound desire to re-open this conversation. It was one that I broached, in passing, in my 2009 Rosh HaShanah sermon. And it is one that I hope we can begin having again - together - starting now.
One of the things that J Street passionately believes in is a Big Tent: the notion that our Jewish and Zionist communities become stronger when there is room for a diversity of ideas to be presented and discussed.
Perhaps, you will be moved to respond to this posting by commenting publicly here on the blog. Just click on the "_ comments" link immediately below. (You can already see Dr. Rob Weisgrau's response - below - to an earlier draft of this posting. I encouraged him to share his thoughts, as a way of helping to move our conversation forward.)
Of course, you can always email me privately as well.
Or perhaps you'd prefer to have a conversation in person or over the phone. That would be fantastic too.
Whether you want to tell me how completely and totally wrong I am, or how much you applaud my way of looking at this situation....or maybe that you've never seriously considered how you feel about Israel (especially vis a vis the Palestinians)...and you just have some questions.
For all of those reasons and more: I'd like to hear from you.
The story about John Galliano is enough of a reminder to us that horrific anti-Semitism still flourishes in the world...and that fighting for Israel's continued existence is the only response to that.
The nature of Israel's existence...that's what this debate is really about. And now is as good a time as ever to enter that conversation once again.
Thanks for reading - and Shabbat Shalom,