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Letter to Congregation Beth Avodah

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.

J Street is making the case for a two-state solution, which is supported by 76% of American Jews and by over two-thirds of Israeli Jews.

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?

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    1. Beautiful. A wonderful article that captures the frustration not just felt by you but by those of us here in the United States who are active in J Street.

      Reply to Comment
    2. esthermiriam

      Kol HaKavod!

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    3. Sabra

      As an Israel born woman who spent several years in the States, I was always frustrated by the narrow notion of what it means to support Israel among American Jewish communities.
      Not that I don’t understand their rightful sensitivity to damage Israel by seeming supportive of the most critical stances in the already antagonist international atmosphere against Israel — but I truly believe that being all accepting and ever supportive of anything the government does – including endless investment in settlements and all the human rights violations they cause – is actually damaging Israel.

      This is a great piece. Thank you!

      Reply to Comment
    4. Mark Zivin

      Thank you Dahlia. All of us involved with J Street appreciate hearing from those of you who have made aliyah. One of the toughest (and I believe unfair in many ways) criticisms we hear is “you have no right to criticism Israeli policy because you don’t face the fear of rockets and suicide bombers every day”. So it is important to get support from folks like you.
      Thank you.

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    5. Mark, i wonder if those people saying such things are Israeli themselves. It sounds like they’re not facing rockets either. Perhaps they’ll accuse me of not being ‘authentic’ enough, because i live in Tel Aviv. But I don’t think personal victimhood is the only route to political legitimacy. We’re all in trouble if we only make policy while staring at barrel end of a gun.

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    6. Sabra – i do sympathize with the hostile environment abroad, which makes it very hard to cut through the nonsense and have legitimate debate. The antagonism can make anyone defensive. It’s very hard, but i feel like the best we can do is work hard to put things into perspective.

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    7. rbmeritt

      Beth Avodah,in worshiping the state of Israel makes their children walk through the fire. When that smoke of their burning reaches up beyond the high place of Israel to the nostrils of G-d how then will they defend Israel? Where are the Sons of Israel who find that act so offensive? Are they now willing to participate thinking the dirt they walk on shows them to be righteous and the voices of the children of Abraham burning is not heard ?

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    8. What turned me off to J Street was a letter to the editor in the New York Times that stated that Jews should not live in the “Palestinian” parts of Jerusalem because their presence was a bone in the throat. If the leaders of J Street hate Jews and Israel that much what is their point? What is their Zionist bonifides?

      Reply to Comment
    9. Bala, this is a very emotional issue. I personally believe that if Israel doesn’t find a compromise in Jerusalem, we’ll lose more, and suffer more, than we bargained on and avoiding such loss is completely in Israel’s interest. You should decide for yourself – maybe you can come visit East Jerusalem when you’re next here (or if you live in Israel, it’s very easy). My point here is that you have every right to disagree with J Street positions on Jerusalem – but it is not right to silence them.

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    10. Y.

      Ahem. No one is being “silenced”. The synagogue decided its not in their best interests to invite J street, and therefor canceled its invitation as is their right. And J street can still speak out on all the normal venues, as is their right too.

      What is shot here, is the claim that J street speaks for the mainstream part of American Jewry. Clearly if a synagogue near-Boston is uncomfortable, so are many others. Maybe if they were a little more truthful about themselves and their funders they’ve gotten more support. Then again, with founders which believe that Israel’s creation was “an act which was wrong” or that “there is a double standard here regarding the Israeli nuclear issue”, they probably wouldn’t have had a snowflake’s chance in hell anyway.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Marty

      Y. you’re correct about Beth Avodah having the *right* to cancel [even if they were as insensitive as to do it at almost the last minute]and J Street did, indeed, meet at another venue which was packed to the rafters. You miss, however, a couple of points.

      I live in Boston and am deeply involved in these issues and I know something about the Beth Avodah situation. It was a small number of Beth Avodah’s members who led to the cancellation, even the congregation’s Rabbi apparently regretted the cancellation. I don’t offer this as a defense of the synagogue, but rather to point out something more insidious. Despite the fact that a [growing] majority of American Jews support a two-state resolution, dismantling most of the settlements and an end to the oppression of Palestinians, a small core of rejectionists is still able to force its views onto the majority.

      I am both a member of J Street and involved with other groups seeking a just resolution to the Israel/Palestine conflict. Some groups have been declared treif by the institutional Jewish community because they are accused [totally incorrectly] “delegitimizing” Israel or working for her destruction. It is understandable [even if unacceptable] for the official Jewish community to exclude any of its members. To demonize a group as parve as J Street however speaks to the extremism of those who would silence it.

      Thank you, Dahlia. This Brooklyn boy [and also something of a “model child” values such a thoughtful “letter,” especially when it comes from a Brooklyn Israeli!

      Reply to Comment
    12. David Epstein

      Send me your email and I’ll introduce you to my two sisters, both of who made Aliya 35+ years ago. Ruth lives on Kibbutz En Shemer; Deborah lives in Katzrin. The three of us know Isa, Cindy, and Debby Goldfarb and their parents.

      Debbie’s politics are much more hawkish, but Ruthie is gradually moving in that direction.

      Reply to Comment
    13. […] Letter to Congregation Beth Avodah – “I am your model child”   0 Comments Leave A […]

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    14. Martin Sandberger

      I am curious about so called progressive zionists. Is your goal to return the theft of 1967 while holding on to the theft of 1948? If so, you are worse than Baruch Gooldstein. If your goal is to retun the theft of 1948, then you ahve my full support

      Reply to Comment

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