Friday, March 4, 2011

Giving Voice to Your Values

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,

Rabbi Brown

4 comments:

  1. Dr. Robert WeisgrauMarch 4, 2011 at 12:55 PM

    PART 1 OF COMMENTS:

    An issue with your article starts with the following paragraph:

    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.

    My comments:
    1) A fundamental misunderstanding of AIPAC is that AIPAC doesn't "advocate" a position. AIPAC's purpose is to support America's relationship with whichever current government that the Israeli people themselves freely and democratically choose to represent them. That has been Labor, that has been Kadima and that has been Likud during the time of my involvement with the organization.

    From AIPAC's web site:

    For more than half a century, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has worked to help make Israel more secure by ensuring that American support remains strong.
    As America's leading pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC works with both Democratic and Republican political leaders to enact public policy that strengthens the vital U.S.-Israel relationship. With the support of its members nationwide, AIPAC has worked with Congress and the Executive Branch on numerous critical initiatives -- from securing vital foreign aid for Israel to passing legislation aimed at stopping Iran's illicit nuclear program.

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  2. Dr. Robert WeisgrauMarch 4, 2011 at 12:56 PM

    PART 2 OF COMMENTS:

    2) Your statement implies that only J-Street " 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." I believe this too, as do the vast majority of my AIPAC colleagues. It is however, not in the AIPAC "mission statement" for the reason stated in #1.

    2) My experience is that J-Street's call for "pressure " is exclusively directed at Israel. This is easy, politically popular amongst their constituency and adds to their liberal "bona fides" as Israel and the Jews have lost their place as "underdog" in the court of public opinion. What "pressure" have they advocated be placed on the "other side"?

    3) I fail to believe that the SETTLEMENTS are the core of the problem. There have been settlement freezes at different times over the course of years resulting in no measurable progress as the result of the freeze. Consider Netanyahu's recent 9 month settlement freeze. What evidence is there that a longer/permanent settlement freeze will lead to progress? It may have the opposite effect as a freeze gives no incentive to the Palestinian's to negotiate in good faith in a timely manner. The best solution to the "settlement" issue is to agree upon negotiated permanent borders between two legitimate States. The "charged" term "settlement" will then have no meaning.

    4) The vast majority of the Palestinian people are good, hard working people deserving dignity and justice, like everyone else in the world. Their (so-called) leadership has always been a failure. It would be political suicide (and likely real suicide), for a Palestinian leader (ie Abbas) to negotiate and agree to what would be considered by most a fair and legitimate agreement (see Sadat). The problem is fanaticism. Divine intervention is needed to combat that. On the Israeli side, no agreement will be deemed politically viable without strong and significant security guarantees. For the vast majority of the Israelis (again not the fanatics on OUR side), security is not negotiable. Everything else is.

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  3. From J-Street's web site:

    My comments in caps:

    We support:
    Consistent and concerted diplomatic engagement by the United States to achieve Israeli-Arab peace. A negotiated end to the Israeli-Arab
    and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts serves both U.S. and Israeli strategic and security interests. Achieving it must be a priority for the current U.S.
    administration; An enduring relationship between the US and Israel that promotes their common interests. I AGREE

    We recognize and support Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, a democratic country that promises equal rights for all its citizens and
    that has the right to defend itself against external threats; I AGREE

    The creation of a viable Palestinian state as part of a negotiated two-state solution, based on the 1967 borders with agreed reciprocal land swaps.
    The future Palestinian state will require unprecedented levels of international economic and political support to succeed, including a resolution of the
    refugee issue within the new Palestinian state and in current host countries; I AGREE WITH THE CREATION OF A VIABLE PALESTINIAN STATE. HOWEVER, A NEGOTIATED SOLUTION SHOULDN'T BE BASED ON ANYTHING. IT SHOULD BE NEGOTIATED BETWEEN THE INTERESTED PARTIES.

    An Israeli-Syrian peace agreement based on the land-for-peace formula, security guarantees, and details outlined in previous negotiations; SAME COMMENT AS ABOVE, FOLLOWING "BASED......."

    A comprehensive regional peace that builds on the Arab Initiative, leading to recognition of Israel by all its neighbors in the Middle East and the creation
    of a new regional approach to cooperation and security; I AGREE BUT TAKE ISSUE WITH "LEADING TO". AN IMMEDIATE CALL FOR THE RECOGNITION OF THE LEGITIMACY OF THE STATE OF ISRAEL BY ALL PARTIES IN THE REGION WOULD BEGIN TO FOCUS EVERYONE ON REALITY. IF THERE IS NO GUARANTEE TO ISRAEL OF "RECOGNITION", WHAT GOOD IS AN AGREEMENT? PERHAPS THE NEGOTIATIONS CALLED FOR ABOVE SHOULD BE "BASED" ON ISRAEL'S RIGHT TO EXIST AS A HOMELAND FOR THE JEWISH PEOPLE.

    An American policy in the Middle East more broadly based on diplomacy, multilateralism and real partnership with the European Union, the Quartet and
    others. We support dialogue with a broad range of countries and actors, including Iran, over confrontation in order to find solutions to the region’s conflicts. I AGREE BUT IT IS NAIVE. YOU CAN'T "DIALOGUE" IF YOUR PARTNER ("ie IRAN") IS NOT AN HONEST BROKER.

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  4. I believe that Rabbi Saperstein and Rabbi Brown have good intentions to create a peaceful Jewish homeland. WE ALL DO! The Palestinian and other Islamic countries do not agree to this concept. It was stated that most Muslims are good and peaceful people. Maybe it is true but the poles that I read do not support this. They may not all be terrorists but I believe that you cannot find warm feelings for Jews among most Muslims. The arguements about who has a basic right to the land in Israel is so controversial. The definition of "settlement" is also controversial. So what is the real issue that no one so far has been willing to acknowledge?
    The problem is with the Illam's interpretation of the Quran. Friendship (i.e., peace) with any non muslim is essentially forbidden. They train children to become suicide bombers. They preach hatered of the Jews. They worship death as we worship life. Iran openly boasts about wiping them (Israel) off the map. To pressue Israel to make concessions with the Palestinians is like droping a group of people into the middle of the ocean and telling them to swim to shore.
    JUST HOW IN THE WORLD DO WE NEGOIATE A TWO-STATE ARRANGEMENT WITH MUSLIM LEADERS WHO JUST WANT US OUT OF THERE.
    No one wants peace more than I. I have a personal family, including 5 grandchildren living in Israel. Some of them have served or are serving in the army. My daughter counsel victims of terror in the Gaza area. She has dodged kasom rockets. Believe me we all want a peaceful arrangement. JUST TELL ME HOW THAT CAN HAPPEN! J Street's idea of forcing Israel to negotiate is as worthless as telling those people in the ocean to swim to the nearest port.

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