My dad called me last week, as I was driving north out of Boston to my small, liberal arts college in Maine. That morning, two other J Street U students and I had a meeting with Yehuda Yaakov, Israel’s Consul General to New England, and members of his staff.
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I relayed the highlights to my dad. We had all agreed that it was important for us to be working together, and that the Consulate would vouch for and support J Street U chapters on campuses across New England. And we requested that the Consul connect J Street U with Ron Dermer, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States.
This was not the first time J Street U had asked to meet with Ambassador Dermer. In June, we invited Ambassador Dermer to engage with us at our annual Summer Leadership Institute, because as the largest pro-Israel, pro-peace student movement in the country, we think it’s important to be in conversation with representatives of the Israeli government. Unfortunately, he did not respond then, and he has yet to respond this time around.
Upon hearing this, my dad grew quite angry. You’re telling me, he yelled, that the Israeli Ambassador won’t meet with J Street U students, but he will accept an award from the Center for Security Policy? He was referring to the fact that on December 13th, Ron Dermer accepted the 2016 Freedom Flame Award from an organization whose founder and president, Frank Gaffney, has, according to the ADL, “promulgated a number of anti-Muslim conspiracy theories over the years.” The Southern Poverty Law Center categorizes the CSP as a “conspiracy-oriented mouthpiece for the growing anti-Muslim movement in the United States.”
The fact that Ambassador Dermer would rather engage with an Islamophobic think-tank than with pro-Israel, pro-peace students is one of many indicators that, for the current Israeli government, “pro-Israel” means unconditional support for all of its policies - not critical engagement with the challenges facing Israel, or commitment to the Jewish and democratic values that lie at the core of the US-Israel relationship. That’s made obvious when Israel’s ambassador won’t meet with J Street U, but goes out of his way to say that he looks forward to working with Trump adviser Steve Bannon - a notorious white nationalist whose website traffics in hatred, including anti-Semitism.
This dynamic accounts for the Israeli government losing ground among American Jews and progressive Americans more broadly. The same values of tolerance and equality that drive our support for a two-state solution fuel our opposition to bigotry and Islamophobia. Courting white nationalists isn’t just morally wrong -- it’s a losing strategy for engaging with your core constituency.
Moreover, Dermer’s definition of what it means to be pro-Israel is damaging because it’s not representative of where the vast majority of the Jewish community actually stands on Israel. The majority of American Jews support a two-state solution, and think settlement expansion is an obstacle to peace. Most of our communal leaders publicly or privately agree.
Yet you would never know this if you looked at the many Jewish, pro-Israel organizations that stay silent when, for example, Israel moves to retroactively legitimize settlement outposts built on private Palestinian land, while threatening to demolish the West Bank village of Susya - both steps that would severely undermine the prospects for a two-state solution.
Fortunately, there are many leaders in our community who have found the courage to speak out about the threats posed by endless settlement expansion and home demolitions, and who have challenged the outrageous Islamophobia and bigotry of people like Steve Bannon and Frank Gaffney. Thanks in part to the leadership of organizations like J Street, the Union for Reform Judaism, the New Israel Fund, Rabbis for Human Rights, and others, Susya still stands. Tens of thousands of American Jews have contacted their Member of Congress to demand that they oppose Bannon’s appointment.
Now, more leaders in our community must join them. They should condemn the possible demolition of Susya, which could happen as early as December 15th, and they should listen to the voices in their community calling for a renewed commitment to the two-state solution and a renewed opposition to anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and all other forms of bigotry. To ignore these voices is to ignore the mainstream of the American Jewish community, especially its young people.
Finally, our communal leaders should tell Israel’s ambassador to the United States that instead of accepting awards from hateful Islamophobes, he should be listening to what pro-Israel Americans actually believe in - values of justice, equality, and tolerance, all of which define our relationship to Israel.
In this difficult political moment, when so much that we hold dear is at stake, I look forward to joining together - students, community members and leaders, and our partners in the Israeli government - to turn these values into action, both here in the US, and in Israel.
Ezra Oliff-Lieberman studies peace, conflict, and religion at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. He is the Vice President for the Northeast Region to J Street U's National Student Board. Follow him on Twitter: @ezraol