What Does pro-Israel Mean?

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J Street supporters holding a rally in Boston for a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine.Credit: Bob Nesson

This isn’t the first column to dissect the decision of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations to reject J Street’s membership bid, and no doubt it won’t be the last. But small moments like these are important touchstones. There are bigger implications worth considering, implications spanning questions around Jewish community pluralism to whether the terms “pro-Israel” and “anti-Israel” are unhelpful if not meaningless, to why traditional religious commitment should track with hawkishness, to whether it’s time to consider abandoning the two-state solution in favor of a new paradigm altogether.

Many of us tout pluralism as a value to be upheld within our communities. But is it just lip service? And more troubling, is it something we all genuinely want? While we frequently speak in “big tent” metaphors and about the importance of communal diversity, the rejection of J Street gives us an opportunity to look in the mirror. Do we really desire pluralism, enough to prize it over the embrace of ideas we find repugnant? My personal political assessments are such that I happen to think J Street’s two-state approach (coupled with a push for a negotiated agreement with Iran), are sound, ethical and prudent. But if I did not — if I believed that J Street’s policy bent was pure folly — would I be bothering to write about the importance of pluralism within the Jewish organizational tent? It’s a question we should each ask ourselves.

It has also been widely reported that of the religious organizational members of J Street, the more liberal wings (namely the Reform and Conservative movements) supported J Street’s bid, while the Orthodox groups tended to oppose it. Again I am struck by what I see as an unnecessary and unfortunate correlation between Orthodox Judaism and hawkishness on Israeli policy. Years ago, groups like Tikkun sought to harness religious messaging for the purpose of rethinking issues around social justice and mending the painful relationship between Israel and the Palestinians. Perhaps it is utopian, and a function of my own political bias, to think that more traditional Jews might one day embrace more far-reaching peace-making opportunities. After all, in an ideal sense, should spirituality not entail both careful introspection and creative worldly solutions?

Next, the decision around J Street also forces us to reconsider, yet again, what it means to be pro-Israel. J Street’s founding slogan included a savvy attempt at recasting the pro-Israel discourse. “The political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans,” goes the group’s tag line. J Street has made very clear that pushing for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement should not be seen to be in policy conflict with being “pro-Israel.”

I spoke to Kenneth Bob, president of Ameinu, the progressive Zionist organization which holds a seat at the Conference of Presidents. Though he is also on J Street’s board of directors, he made clear that he was speaking to me as Ameinu’s president. (And to complete the disclosure circle: I happen to be on Ameinu’s board, but this blog represents my own analysis and opinions.) In the hour-long discussion preceding the vote, Ken was deeply troubled by the attempt by J Street’s critics to discredit the organization by using terms like “anti-Israel.” That particular critic accused J Street of what Ken sees to be “untruths,” namely accusing J Street of “holding the most anti-Israel programs on university campuses.”

But I still have to ask. Beyond being a useful way to legitimate policies entailing pressuring the Israeli government to change the status quo, is the “pro-Israel” term even meaningful anymore? Anyone who cares about the Middle East region — whether they live there or not — has opinions on what is good for the people who live there, including Israelis. One could say that anyone who desires to keep Israel a “Jewish and democratic state” is pro-Israel. But is there a point at which someone might think that what is good for Israel (and perhaps for others) is actually to recast its identity?

Which brings me to my final point.

In the wake of the frozen peace process coupled with J Street’s failed bid, we must ask again whether the two-state solution is still viable. Writing in these pages recently, Dov Waxman posed that very question to liberal Zionists specifically. I have refrained responding until now, because like every important question, it’s been nagging at me, unanswered. I still don’t have an answer today. But I do know that bringing J Street into the official organizational address of the American Jewish community might have helped keep the marketplace of ideas — where new and unexpected answers can most easily appear — as open and robust as it needs to be.

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