The Netanyahu government’s refusal to meet with the leadership of J Street during its visit this week reflects a deep and truly worrying process, in which Israel’s government and the Knesset are progressively locked into a deep bunker with no communication with the outside world. The assumption is that J Street creates a problem for Israel, and that if Israel delegitimizes J Street, the problem will go away.
But Israel’s problem is not J Street. The problem is that an ever greater proportion of U.S. Jews feel that they are forced to choose between their values and their involvement with Israel. Their identities are defined by the idea of universal human rights and the equality of all human beings beyond race, religion and gender.
Since Israel violates these ideals, and demands unconditional support for its policies, these Jews basically have two choices: Either they adhere to their ideals or support Israel. The result, as Peter Beinart has argued in a much quoted essay, is that many Jews of the younger generation simply disengage from Israel.
J Street tries to solve this problem by giving America’s liberal Jews another option: you can be engaged with Israel, and it can be central to your Jewish identity even as you criticize Israel’s actions. It doesn’t take rocket science to see the logic behind this; true friendship often involves voicing frank and direct criticism. Nobody would have said that those who criticized U.S. policy during the McCarthy era or human rights violations of the G.W. Bush administration delegitimize or hate the U.S.
But like McCarthy, the Netanyahu government and many right-wing Knesset members throw sand in the eyes of Israel’s citizens by selling them an outright lie: that there is no connection between Israel’s policies and its isolation; that all criticism of Israel is equal to delegitimizing its existence. While it is true that there are anti-Semites who hate Israel no matter what, this is simply not the position of Europe’s mainstream, nor that of the many liberal-leaning Jews who criticize Israel.
The primal sin of the Netanyahu government is that it links Israel’s security concerns with settlement policy, with the expropriation of Palestinian property and the ‘Judaization’ of Jerusalem, a tactic that the world perceives as nothing less than ethnic cleansing. What the world sees is a country that tramples human rights and seeks territorial expansion. And it doesn’t see any logical connection between Israel’s security concerns and the current government’s racist rhetoric and actions, because there is no such connection. The Netanyahu government has a vested interest in maintaining this confusion, because many of its members do not want the two-state solution.
This systematic conflation of Israel’s security concerns with indefensible policies creates an unbridgeable communication chasm between Israel and the rest of the world. Israel’s citizens feel that the world doesn’t understand them, because they don’t realize that the Netanyahu government is delegitimizing Israel’s security concerns by the linkage to colonial expansion.
Hence it is up to Jewish liberals, in Israel and abroad, to create clarity. Mainstream Israelis are primarily worried about security. Since the second intifada and the shelling of southern Israel from Gaza, they ask the simple question, can anybody guarantee that there will never be any terror attacks on Israel from a future Palestinian state along the 1967 borders?
If J Street wants to reach the hearts and minds of Israel’s citizens, it needs to tell Israel’s citizens that its security concerns are legitimate. It also needs to tell the truth - that there are indeed no iron clad guarantees that there will never be any terror attacks after a final status agreement.
Moving towards peace means taking a calculated risk: Leaving the occupation behind opens the possibility of safety and peace in the long run, but also entails the risk of terror attacks. Yet horrible as these may be, they do not endanger Israel’s existence.
As opposed to that, continuing the occupation dooms Israel’s long-term future, because it will drive Israel into ever deeper isolation. It will lose its friends in the free world, and will live in everlasting conflict with the Arab world. And this does endanger Israel’s long term survival.
It needs to be made clear that the choice is not between a safe Israel that occupies the territories and an unsafe Israel alongside a Palestinian state. It is between an Israel that takes a limited security risk for long-term peace, and an Israel that threatens its own long-term existence.
It is this kind of straight talk that has been missing in Israel’s discourse. Israel’s left has disappeared because it never squarely addressed the risks involved in peace-making. If J Street commits to clarity of thought and an honest approach, it may create the model for a new Israeli left with a viable message.
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