Monday, February 28, 2011

J Street--A Breath of Fresh Air

 I am in my third day of the J Street annual conference here in Washington. What I have seen in person on the ground here is an energized and committed group of people--almost all Jews--who care deeply about Israel and the Jewish people and who are very concerned that the policies of the current Israeli government and religious leadership are doing a great deal of harm. I have always been taught and believe that acting and speaking out on those kinds of concerns are the highest form of patriotism and Jewish responsibility. 

The sessions have featured amazing speakers, including former AIPAC execs Tom Dine and Doug Bloomfield, Dennis Ross, Rabbi David Saperstein, Imam Faisal Rauf of the Cordoba Initiative, Peter Beinart, Steven Cohen, Daniel Levy, many members of Congress, and five members of the Knesset representing different parties who are here to both express their views and to show their support for J Street and what it represents. 

Although J Street is barely two years old, the conference has attracted more than 2,000 attendees including 500 students. More than 11,000 people have attended J Street events during the last year and the are now 38 local chapters in 26 states and J Street U chapters on 182 campuses. 

The conference has featured a number of plenaries and dozens of breakout sessions. I haven't heard a single comment from anyone who doesn't care deeply about Israel's future as a Jewish state.  As with all healthy organizations, I have heard a lot of introspection and self-criticism. 

In Rabbi Saperstein's keynote address, he broadly praised J Street for filling a huge void that existed in the pro-Israel pro-peace conversation but went on to criticize J Street for it's politically questionable decision to urge the U..S. to refrain from vetoing the resolution condemning Israel's settlement policy.  It is refreshing to be part a pro-Israel group at a conference where people are encouraged to express their personal opinions, criticisms,  and concerns out loud. 
I am saddened that so many of my Jewish friends have resorted to the Fox News-like tactics of using lies, partial truths, and distortions in an effort to demonize J Street and smear its donors and professionals. Virtually every viral email I have received was written and/or forwarded by people who are not here at the conference nor have they ever had any first-hand contact with anyone from J Street 

What we have now in the Jewish and pro-Israel movement is a healthy alternative. For Jews who believe our top priority--not the only priority but our top priority--is to protect and defend the State of Israel, then AIPAC  (I support AIPAC financially and have served on it's local board) provides a great way to leverage that feeling.
For those who believe our top priority is to live out their Jewish values and who are focused on the commandments to work for peace, to improve the world, and to love the stranger then J Street provides a vehicle to leverage that approach.  As a serious Jew who cares deeply about both Israel and Jewish values, I am thrilled that both organizations are part of our political and Jewish landscape. 
I attended a J Street leadership meeting here a few months ago where Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren congratulated J Street for having "made it" and expressed his desire to work closely with J Street in the future. 
I have not heard AIPAC negatively mentioned once here at the conference and yet I read articles and receive frequent emails from my AIPAC friends trying to delegitimize and destroy J Street. It is as though they believe if they say enough bad things, J Street will just go away.  They remind me of the Wizard of Oz frantically scurrying around telling Dorothy and her friends to "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."
As the Wizard found out, that is not an approach that works well or for long. 

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The American Jewish Narrative 2.0--Israel Version

We have all been shocked and amazed in recent weeks as we have watched the instant unraveling of many Arab empires of the Middle East. On one level, we knew that the oppression and harsh authoritarian tactics that the leaders in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere have used for decades to enrich themselves and exploit their people would come home to roost.

But no one foresaw the sweeping changes and revolts that are changing the landscapes of those countries overnight and, to be honest, no one knows how this story will play out.

For some self-proclaimed and organizationally-designated American Jewish leaders (Thomas Friedman once told me he had never met an American Jewish follower) this is simply the most recent and dramatic episode in a serious of changes that have rocked their world and marginalized The Jewish Narrative 1.0 that has served us so well for decades.

This latest tarnished truth is that all Arab Muslims in the Middle East are motivated by one emotion--their hatred of Jews and all-consuming desire for the destruction of the State of Israel. Those of us who have suggested that just maybe most Palestinians and others also have a desire to feed their families and secure a more promising future have been accused of being hopelessly naive and endangering the future of the Jewish people.

Despite the best efforts of self-described "pro-Israel" Jews and their media to find the anti-Semitic needle in the haystack, we have neither seen nor heard much mention of hatred of Israel or Jews on the part of the protesters.

It is certainly possible that the Muslim Brotherhood or Hamas-like groups will fill the voids that will are being created as dictators fall, but that is by no means certain at this point. Meanwhile, my Jewish friends keep sending me articles warning that these so-called revolts are really a way of turning on Israel and hastening its demise. The Jewish Narrative 1.0 predicts with certainty that it will be bad for Israel and the Jews.

Take for example that Israel is our Jewish homeland. Let's be honest.  Do we really believe that?  Can we call it our homeland in any real sense if it is a place where very of us were born and where, now that we have been free to move there for decades, few of us want to live?

As obvious as the answer might seem, it actually came as a huge shock and disappointment to most of my My Israeli friends have know this for 30 years now. They had assumed that once things in Israel settled down a little that all Jews would want to live there because anti-Semitism in the diaspora was so pervasive and rampant and that the quality of Jewish life in Israel was so unique and wonderful that we would all flock there.

They were shocked and unprepared for the fact that anti-Semitism in the U.S. would disappear pretty much completely and be replaced by an environment where Jews were considered very desirable marriage partners by gentiles and Judaism would become the most admired religion in America according to polls.

For those of us who live elsewhere, Israel has actually become a place of refuge for Jews who are not us (and others pretending to be Jews) who live in horrible places where everybody wants to get out and move to the U.S. Since the U.S. won't accept most of them, more than a million Jews have fled to Israel--not making aliyah but going to the only place that would take them. That is an important and wonderful outlet and Jews who live in horrible places are very lucky to have it as a choice. But it doesn't make Israel a Jewish homeland anymore than a battered women's shelter can be considered a homeland for women.

In addition, AIPAC and other groups that claim to be pro-Israel are no longer completely Jewish.  In fact, non-Jews comprise the fastest growing segment of AIPAC in recent years and passionate and compelling Christian speakers are regularly featured at the organizations events.  In addition, groups like Christians United for Israel (CUFI) have exploded in popularity, boasting more than half a million members in just five years of existence. 

CUFI is headed by Reverend John Hagee, a charismatic evangelical minister who was given a keynote speaking position at the AIPAC National Policy Conference and received multiple standing ovations.  When he is not out supporting Israel, Hagee has championed a number of positions on gender and abortion rights issues that are anathema to most Jews.  His statement that Hurricane Katrina was God's punishment to New Orleans for having a gay pride parade was among those that caused John McCain to reject his endorsement during the last presidential campaign. 

At the same time, groups like J Street are growing in popularlity inside the Jewish community.  A growing number of Jews who care deeply about Israel have grown uncomfortable with the notion that one is not allowed to be in the booster club if he ever criticizes the coach or players on the team.  Many Jewish leaders believe and have stated that once you criticize the Israeli government in public, you are automatically thrown out of the booster club.

I'm not saying whether this is a good or a bad phenomenon.  But what we no for sure is that times have changed a great deal and are continuing to morph every day.  Israel is increasingly viewed as an American ally and vibrant democracy by the growing numbers of non-Jews who are supportive and the pro-Israel movement is no longer the exclusively Jewish club that it once was.  Like most aspect of Jewish life in our country, it is becoming more American.

Another bug in the 1.0  program is that the Judaism that most of us practice is far more attractive and meaningful to us than what passes for religious Jewish life in Israel.  

The sad (actually tragic) fact is that many of us are repelled and ashamed by the statements and actions of Jewish rabbinic leaders in Israel and the fact that the worst of them seem to have so much control over Israeli government policy.

Occasionally, as with the "Who is a Jew" issue years ago or the outrage over a proposed change in conversion laws last year, the rigid and often insensitive actions by Israeli rabbinic leaders and members of the Knesset strike such an emotional nerve and are so offensive that American Jews rise up in protest.  When that happens, the Israeli government leaders and the rabbis say and do enough to humor us and defuse the issue--but no more than that.

Who among us didn't cringe at the recent statements by the chief rabbinate and heads of Shas when they determined that the horrific Carmel fires where dozens were killed and tens of thousands of people suffered horrible losses were the result of inadequate Shabbat observance in the region? Or that it should be illegal for a Jew to sell land to an Arab.

And that according to investigations and reliable accounts, it was a group of influential rabbis that encouraged young Israeli soldiers to commit vicious war crimes against innocent Gazans during Operation Cast Lead several years ago--crimes for which soldiers were convicted and went to jail.

When the Shas (the ultra-Orthodox political party that is part of Israel's governing coalition) Interior minister deliberately and successfully embarrassed Vice-President Biden and insulted the United States by announcing the growth of new Jewish neighborhoods in Palestinian parts of Jerusalem during Biden's visit last year, Prime Minister Netanyahu apologized for the timing. But at the end of the day, he supported the actions and is now committed to expanding settlements and neighborhoods in Palestinian-occupied areas. And, despite his obvious attempt to embarrass and insult Israel's most important ally, the Shas minister kept his job in Netanyahu's cabinet.

This is an issue that should have moved to the forefront 15 years ago when Israeli and U.S. Jewish religious leaders put a death sentence on Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and actually encouraged and motivated his still-unrepentant murder to shoot him in cold blood to save Israel and the Jewish people.

While American Jews were shocked by Rabin's murder, there was and still is virtually no conversation in the U.S. about about the role of major Jewish religious leaders in bringing it about. Even today, a majority of Orthodox Israeli Jews consider the murderer Yigal Amir a hero and hold rallies demanding his release and pardon. While in prison for murdering the prime minister, he has given media interviews and has been allowed to marry and father children.

The Israel that many of us fell in love with and made us feel so proud was a place where we believed that when non-observant secular kibbutzniks reached their teens, they suddenly morphed into crack soldiers and paratroopers who could prevail against insurmountable odds as they repeatedly defeated and outsmarted the armies of their evil Arab neighbors who outnumbered them and were determined to destroy all Jews and Israel.

There was some truth in that narrative. But there was a lot of pathology as well.

Fifteen years ago I participated in the Prime Minister's Mission where six-figure givers to the Federation went first to the Soviet Union and then flew to Tel Aviv on a plane loaded with olim (immigrants) who were making aliyah (immigrating to Israel). The immigrants on our flight all spoke English and told us in dozens of one-on-one conversations that thanks to our help (money and political clout), their families had been rescued from a horrible situation and would have a new start in Israel.

Once in Israel, we visited military installations and religious sites and met with the highest government leaders. The climax of the trip was a dinner with Prime Minister Rabin at the Israel Museum where each of us stepped to a microphone so we could personally tell him of the six and seven figure commitments that each of us was making to Israel and how proud we were to do it.

Rabin then told us that we were true heroes and saviors of the Jewish people. He and I conversed a little in Hebrew and I felt like a superstar. Everyone went home feeling amazing. We Jews who were on the verge of extinction and the most powerless group in the world just a generation before now had our own country and were in a position to support it with vast fortunes. It was a great story and it was all true.

But, as with most real stories in our dynamic world, some things began to change. Israel's economy began to grow and our money became less essential--still important, but not as much as it had been.  Israel became a nuclear power as well and is now in its 44th year of occupation of the West Bank of the Jordan River--an area that was almost exclusively occupied by Palestinians and still would be if not for the many Jewish settlements that have been built by the government from scratch in recent decades solely to change the demographic facts on the ground.

In fairness, Israeli Prime Ministers Barak and Olmert did make very attractive offers to create a Palestinian state and cede control of most of the West Bank.  But the recently released Palestinian Papers have shown that their current leaders have been far more willing to make concessions for peace than The Jewish Narrative 1.0 would indicate. 

But now, two generations later, the Israelis not only still control those Palestinian areas--it continues its decades-long policy of building Jewish settlements there which sends a troubling message to the world.  Why would Israel build Jewish settlements in the West Bank unless they plan to stay forever and never give the area back to the Palestinians?

It cannot be denied Israel is still unfairly held to a double standard and is wrongly singled out for criticism in the United Nations. It is still surrounded by Arab neighbors--most of whom would prefer that the country did not exist. It has been the victim of terrorist attacks for decades. But the facts on the ground, the demographics, and a broad range of factors have changed anywhere from a little to a lot there over the last 20 years.

At the same time, as Peter Beinart pointed out in his brilliant and troubling article last year, fewer liberal and less ritually observant Jews consider themselves Zionists at all. The term Zionist itself is a vestige of a time just a couple of generations ago when Jews claimed they longed to return to Israel but were prevented from doing so. Now that any of us can get on a plane from anywhere in the world and be in Israel in a few hours and become citizens a few hours later (if the rabbis there say we are really Jews and let us), one has to wonder why that term Zionist is still used to describe people who choose to live elsewhere.

Many long time lovers and residents of Israel such as Jeffrey Goldberg, Thomas Friedman, and Rabbi Daniel Gordis have become sharply critical of both the morality and wisdom of the decisions and statements of Israel's government and religious leaders--voicing the kind of public criticism that is still considered heresy by many American Jewish leaders and their organizations.

After Israel's disastrous attack on the Turkish blockade-busting flotilla bound for Gaza, Goldberg--who once moved to Israel and served in the army as a prison guard in the West Bank--wrote the following:

"What I know already makes me worried for the future of Israel, a worry I feel in a deeper way than I think I have ever felt before. The Jewish people have survived this long in part because of the vision of their leaders, men and women who were able to intuit what was possible and what was impossible. Where is this vision today?"

Gordis, an American-born rabbi who moved to Israel with his family and is a favorite speaker of many pro-Israel groups, recently wrote what appears to be a lament in his blog saying the following:

"Anyone who imagines that (just because there is no fighting on any of our borders at the moment) the status quo is tenable is sorely mistaken. The writing on the proverbial international wall requires no deciphering. Without some serious attempt at making progress – even if Palestinian recalcitrance ultimately renders it wholly unsuccessful – Israel effectively contributes to its own marginalization."

After reading this, one might conclude that I might just be a self-hating Jew who just wants to take potshots at Israel and our community institutions.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I am a lifelong proud and grateful Jew who feels a special relationship with the land and people of Israel.

I believe there is cause for concern but also reason for great hope. I have been asked to chair the Tucson Federation campaign next year--a job I held in Milwaukee 15 years ago. I was on the national board of Israel Bonds and a campaign chairman for more than a decade.  I remain on the boards of two Jewish day schools which I once chaired. I currently chair the board of CLAL--a great organization which focuses on bringing Jewish wisdom to the public square in an accessible and pluralistic way. I am planning my 21st trip to Israel with our community next fall. I continue to support both AIPAC and J Street, and look forward eagerly to my weekly Torah study class.

I have been told by a friend who is a very generous and influential Jewish leader that the issues I raise should not be discussed in public.  He tells me that friends don't criticize friends in public.  He has nothing to but disdain for J Street because it is publicly critical of certain Israeli policies.  By the way, that is a feeling that is apparently shared by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren who has declined to address the upcoming J Street Conference in Washington--just months after Oren spoke to a gathering of J Street leaders and congratulated them on their amazing growth and expressed a desire to work more closely in the future.

I have great respect for my generous friend (and for Oren as well) but couldn't disagree with him more.  All meaningful relationships are based on honesty and the ability to be dynamic in an ever changing world.  It is that ability that has enable Judaism and the Jewish people to survive and grow against all odds for centuries and it is precisely that paradigm that will lead to the new and improved American Jewish Narrative 2.0--a version that retains all the strengths of the existing model and implements changes essential to be relevant and strong in the future.

As with all upgrades, we need to retain the unique and meaningful aspects of 1.0 but we need to be creative, open, and pluralistic as we try to make it better and more resilient.  As always, pluralism and Jewish wisdom will be the keys to moving forward.  Finding the partial truth in the opinions of those with whom we disagree instead of doing our best to demonize them as so many are doing today.