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Hate the Occupation? Back U.S. Military Aid for Israel

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To J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami: We need a thoughtful, good-faith, fact-based critique of the occupation. Not a flat-out demonization of Israel
To J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami: We need a thoughtful, good-faith, fact-based critique of the occupation. Not a flat-out demonization of IsraelCredit: J Street
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

I have a suggestion for the leaders of J Street.

Drop your support for Rep. Betty McCollum’s dangerous bill, which threatens U.S. military aid to Israel.

I offer this suggestion now because your organization is at a critical juncture.  Your 12th annual conference concluded last week, and, from all accounts, it was a rousing success. 

You virtually hosted almost 5000 activists at the conference, a superb turnout. You offered the participants an impressive array of speakers, including Israeli, American, and Palestinian politicians and leaders. You dealt with a range of important and sensitive issues that most other pro-Israel organizations, AIPAC included, would probably never discuss. 

And you did all of this at a time when the Democratic party, which occupies the White House and controls both houses of Congress, is likely to be receptive to the moderate, humane, two-state agenda that you have long advocated and that is at the very heart of classical Zionism. 

In other words, you have burnished your credentials as a major player on the Washington scene at precisely the moment when a pro-Israel, pro-peace message – those are the terms you use to describe your work – has great potential to influence lawmakers and make a real difference in the nation’s capital.

The willingness of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to address your convention was particularly noteworthy. 

On the one hand, there is, of course, a "payback" element at work here. Benjamin Netanyahu has spent the last dozen years courting Republicans and attacking or ignoring Democrats, undermining the bi-partisan Israel advocacy that American Jews have practiced for half a century and that has served Israel so well. It is hardly a surprise, therefore, that Pelosi and Schumer were prepared to speak to an organization that has been consistently critical of the prime minister.

But on the other hand, Pelosi and Schumer undoubtedly were there because they recognize that in the last decade, J Street has moved from the margins to the mainstream of the Israel discussion in America. And they know that if Israel is to maintain the strong support of the Democratic party and the American people, voices like J Street will be essential, calling as it does for an Israel devoted to democracy, human rights, and a two-state solution.

Are there anti-Israel voices in the Democratic party? There are indeed, but mostly on the fringes. Pelosi and Schumer, with their impeccable pro-Israel records, represent the heart of the party, as do President Biden and Vice President Harris. And the great majority of American Jews share the outlook of the Democratic leadership. 

If J Street is seen as identified with these views, it can rightly claim to speak for American Jewry on Israel and to hold positions that reflect the will of the Democratic majority in Congress.

So why then are you backing the bill proposed by Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota, entitled "Promoting Human Rights for Palestinian Children Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act"?

Even for those of us who desperately want better conditions for the Palestinians and hope to see the occupation come to an end, this is a terrible bill. 

In the first place, its sponsor, Rep. McCollum, a veteran BDS supporter, is perhaps the leading anti-Israel voice in the House.

Furthermore, the bill is 19 pages of pure demonization, presenting Israel as an unrelenting torturer of Palestinian children. It omits any reference to a two-state solution as a possible means to resolve the conflict. It calls on Israel to change its policies but asks nothing of the Palestinians. It suggests that Israel has misused American aid, without any evidence that such misuse has occurred.

And its real purpose is to prepare the way for reducing U.S. military aid to Israel, without ever saying so explicitly. Instead, it calls for various certifications and reports by the State Department that are clearly intended to serve as the basis for cutting that aid.

In response to the bill, AIPAC promptly organized a letter opposing conditions on military aid to Israel and backing a two-state solution. The letter was signed by 331 House members, Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. 

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard conducts a missile drill earlier this yearCredit: Iranian Revolutionary Guard / AP

Some have expressed reservations about the occupation, but none were prepared to jeopardize the military aid that is self-evidently necessary for Israel to defend itself against Iranian threats, Hezbollah rockets, and turmoil and terror in Syria and Iraq.

The result? Instead of taking a victory lap following its impressive convention, J Street was embarrassed and marginalized, with 75 percent of the House backing a position in opposition to its support of the McCollum bill. It is pure sophistry to claim that there was no contradiction between the House letter and the McCollum bill; the letter was a direct answer to what McCollum was proposing.

The conclusion to be drawn here is not that J Street should refrain from promoting legitimate and necessary criticism of the occupation. Exactly the opposite is true. A thoughtful, good-faith, fact-based critique of the ongoing occupation is essential right now, as younger Jews and many Americans question Israel’s policies and drift away from support of the Jewish state.

J Street is the best, and in fact probably the only, pro-Israel organization that has the clout and the visibility to make the case for a two-state solution that will end the occupation, recognize Palestinian rights, and assure Israel’s security.

J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami on a tour of the separation wall.Credit: Courtesy of J Street

AIPAC, it should be said, has done an admirable job in securing the military aid that Israel needs for its survival. But when was the last time that AIPAC raised urgent questions about the excesses of the occupation — or the reappearance of Kahanism on the Israeli political scene or the absence of religious rights in Israel? When was the last time that it raised the alarm about Israel’s gradual transformation into a single, bi-national state, threatening the end of the Zionist vision?

You came into being to do what AIPAC cannot and will not do. 

But you will not succeed by hitching your wagon to the likes of Betty McCollum. You will not succeed by lending your support, directly or indirectly, to reducing the military aid that Israel receives and that most Americans, and most members of Congress, believe to be necessary and in America’s national interest. 

You will not succeed by heeding the voices of non-Zionist leftists who are pushing your organization far beyond the consensus, center-left positions that you have usually embraced.

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken listens as President Joe Biden delivers remarks to State Department staff in Washington DC earlier this yearCredit: Evan Vucci,AP

Your best course at this moment is to focus your influence — and you do have influence — on the executive branch.  The Biden administration is distracted, but generally sympathetic to J Street’s core message.  With the critical negotiations on Iran underway, Israel’s dependence on America is greater than ever, despite the blustering of its ever-more-desperate prime minister. 

Now could be exactly the right time for the U.S. to assert itself on fundamentals and to make specific demands of Israel, such as a recommitment to two states, an end to settlement expansion, and protection of human rights in the territories. 

And there are a hundred ways that President Biden could enforce such demands without touching the military aid that is essential for Israel’s survival. 

This, I suggest, is a worthy direction for J Street to take. You can help make this happen.

J Street, get your act together. We need you.

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie

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