Dear American Jewry, and Congregation Beth Avodah in particular:
I am your model child. I grew up in a warm and nurturing Conservative synagogue in Brooklyn. I was raised on deep democratic values and a strong Jewish identity. I read the Torah and the Haftara on my bat mitzvah. I went to Hebrew school and Jewish summer camps; and after developing a crush on Israel at 14 while reading Exodus, to a Zionist youth movement. At age 25, I made Aliyah.
I respect the powerful connection many of you feel toward Israel, even without living here. Your concern for the well-being of the state feels personal – like you have entrusted us olim to build the country we somehow share. You sacrificed our proximity; we sacrificed comfortable lives in prosperous North America, for a land of hot weather and high taxes, far from our families. Whenever I come back to visit, you all seem so proud of me.
So your decision to exile J Street’s voice from your community comes as a stinging blow. They too are my partners.
We don’t have to agree on Israeli policy. From my up-close view, I believe Israel’s survival hinges on reaching a negotiated, two-state settlement, now. I see a conflict that is destroying Israeli and Palestinian society and alienating large swaths of young Jews – and other communities – in Israel and abroad. It corrodes our democracy and our Judaism.
Actually, you and I aren’t very different – the large majority of you want a negotiated two-state solution too. But I see that for years, the government of Israel has not done its part in reaching that goal. This critique is legitimate. You protested for your government to strike Jim Crow and leave Vietnam; or to stay out of Iraq. Criticism isn’t just my democratic right – it’s also my emotional birthright. I inherited it from you, and now you tell us not to speak.
Sometimes when you pepper me with questions about Israel, I’ve sensed that you don’t always want the full answers. This is how I take the resistance to hearing J Street.
So please hear this instead: In the Israel you love, ours is a lonely struggle. I lived here during the second Intifada when hopelessness raged. I shook for days after a terrorist blew herself up near my bus in Jerusalem, and saw ghosts in the blackened coffee shops of Tel Aviv; I had nightmares about what might have happened in Jenin in that awful spring of 2002. Each new development led back to the conviction that only a negotiated two-state solution will help, with all its obstacles and flaws.
People like me have suffered enough isolation and defeatism here in Israel. Tzipi Shohat’s excellent article in today’s Haaretz (not yet in English) recalls the fate of many cultural figures who have protested government policy. Chava Alberstein was subject to vitriolic attacks in 1989 for signing a petition regarding Palestinians. That same year, her haunting protest rendition of “Had Gadya” (“I once was the sheep and the gentle kid/today I’m the tiger and the predator wolf/I have been the dove and I’ve been the deer; now I don’t even know who I am”) was banned from the airwaves by the government-controlled Israel Broadcast Authority. “ ‘Alberstein said she was in shock,’ ” writes Shohat, quoting Dan Almagor, another cultural icon:
“ ‘She …preferred to perform abroad for about two decades…it was a self-imposed exile, but it was also forced exile.’ ”
Almagor himself wrote a poem critiquing the first Intifada, for which he received death threats. Yitzhak Rabin had him removed from reserve duty. In the Haaretz article, he describes how his house and car were torched – on the day of his father’s funeral.
You’ve seen intimidation in America too. Tony Judt, z”l, was barred from a planned talk at the Polish embassy – not even a Jewish venue – by ADL’s unapologetic blackmail. Like or dislike his ideas, how can stifling free expression ever be justified?
All this time, American Jewish organizations supporting the Israeli government have had their say. It’s their right. I would never try to silence them, nor the groups who take out huge ads against continuing the settlement freeze in my morning paper. Everyone should condemn attempts to silence others. That’s not Jewish and it’s not American.
Finally, there is a Jewish American organization that speaks for me and with me. The emergence of J Street has been very emotional, because the vibrant Israeli Jews actively pursuing a negotiated two-state settlement need partners. We’re not shouting at Israeli society, we’re shouting for it: Pro-negotiation, pro-two-state Israelis are a clear majority in Israel. Most Israelis are understandably scared and justifiably jaded. So a few of us are doing the work, like those of you who fought for civil rights and against Vietnam, and changed America.
Can you tell me I’m against Israel? I pay taxes. I work, write, study, teach and breathe public issues in Israel. Be my partners in America; or at least listen to them.
In Israel, things often change. At the signing of the Oslo accords, says Dan Almagor, Yitzhak Rabin read from the poem that caused Rabin to expel him from the IDF five years earlier. Today, Israel’s Prime Minister officially supports negotiations and a two-state solution, just like J Street.
But you, Congregation Beth Avodah, have chosen to silence J Street. It feels like you have rejected me, your model child. Why?