We live at a time when serious decisions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are under discussion, the resolution of which will have implications not just for the future of Israel but for Jews living all over the world. It's not surprising that these discussions are accompanied by deep tensions, as they raise questions of life and death, and about the success or failure of the State of Israel and the heart and the soul of the Jewish people.

How we engage in our disagreements over these questions and what rules govern our communal conversation on these vital issues is of the utmost importance. I'd like to suggest, as a starting point, that we reject out of hand the notion that criticizing the policies of the government of Israel in some way exhibits disloyalty to the State of Israel or to the Jewish people. Are we not, after all, being loyal to our family members when we urge them to change their behavior? Don't loyal friends give advice about tough decisions - even knowing that that advice may not be heeded? I would argue that friendship and loyalty are demonstrated by caring enough to engage. At a time when Israel finds itself increasingly isolated internationally, it should welcome its friends rather than imposing on them litmus tests based on loyalty or the substance of our views.

A national policy built on the concept that loyalty means refraining from criticism runs counter to the tradition of open debate that is a hallmark of Jewish history and Israeli democracy, and one of the strengths of the Jewish people. According to a recent poll commissioned by B'nai B'rith, 71 percent of Israelis share this view and believe that the government should be ready to engage with Jewish organizations that are critical of its policies.

The intense focus on loyalty and, by extension, on the size of what is called the "pro-Israel tent," is distracting the Jewish people from engaging seriously with the significant issues facing the State of Israel and the Jewish people today.

Just a week ago, Haaretz reported that President Shimon Peres had expressed deep concern to friends over the continued freeze in peace negotiations with the Palestinians. According to Yossi Verter's report, the president has told friends: "I'm concerned that Israel will become a binational state. What is happening now is total foot-dragging. We're about to crash into the wall. We're galloping at full speed toward a situation where Israel will cease to exist as a Jewish state."

In effect, the captain of our ship has expressed his belief that there's an iceberg dead ahead. Yet just when we should be gathering as a community in an emergency session to discuss how to change the direction of the ship, we seem to be spending inordinate amounts of time debating the right of the passengers to question the ship's course and to raise the alarm about the impending disaster.

Throughout the global Jewish community, opponents of the two-state solution - those who oppose reaching peace based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps - are more than happy to divert communal discourse away from the looming existential crisis facing Israel and toward questions of loyalty. We need to call this strategy what it is: a deliberate effort to distract attention from a conversation about the sustainability of the path that Israel is on today and its implications for Israel's democracy, its security and the values of the Jewish people.

Unfortunately, the focus on loyalty and on the right to criticize and dissent has created an atmosphere of fear, and this in turn has made too many of our community leaders reluctant to place these critical issues squarely before the communities they lead. Attacks on their "pro-Israel" credentials have prompted many to tone down their criticism, to divert discussions to safer topics or in some cases to silence their voices altogether.

Sadly, the effort to quiet critics is the more respectable public face of a far less respectable campaign of smears and lies being waged against those who dissent, in an effort to delegitimize them and to push them to the fringes of the communal discussion.

The words of President Peres about the dangers ahead precisely echo the central call being issued across the global Jewish community by so many of us who fear the demise of the Zionist dream that we and our families have worked for over a century to realize. We, too, see the iceberg dead ahead. We who do not live here may not be on board the ship, but the disaster - should it happen - will have an impact on us all.

It is time for both Israeli and Jewish leaders to step forward and to encourage a meaningful conversation about how we change course before it is too late, so as to preserve the very existence of this most precious country. If we do not, I fear that, in a couple of decades, we'll be called to provide an answer as to how it came to pass that with the iceberg dead ahead and the captain sounding the alarm, we were too busy administering loyalty oaths and litmus tests to save the ship.

Jeremy Ben-Ami is the president and founder of J Street, the political home of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement.