Saturday, March 24, 2012

Live from the J Street Conference

Kristen and I will be here in Washinton for the next three days for our second J Street National Conference I would encourage all Jews and others who care deeply about the future of Israel and the American Jewish community to follow live at www, or to check out the videos on line.

The conference hasn't even started yet and I've already had a chance to connect and reconnect with a number of Jewish journalist friends from the U.S. and Israel and to have meaningful conversations with Amos Oz, Jeremy Ben Ami and others

I have been to many Federation General Assemblies, AIPAC local and national events, and other Jewish gatherings and haved really enjoyed and learned from then all. But right now today, J Street is tapping into a void that we desperately need to fill.

We have to have a venue where Jews who care about Israel to come and vigorously debate the challenges that face us. Not just to stand and applaud every five seconds and hear speech after speech designed to pander to the wealthiest and politically significant Jews and others who have already made up their minds what policies regarding Israel should be. We don't need another booster club where the kinds of serious debates about morality and values are banned instead of encouraged.

We need a venue where the implications of the actions of American political leaders and the Israeli government and religious leaders are discussed by people who care about Israel's chances for survival as a Jewish democracy and on what it the actions of the Jewish state has on the practical meaning of Jewish values, wisdom, and ethics.

Where the external threats are acknowledged and discussed along with--not instead of--the moral implications of actions taken in the name of all Jews everywhere.

So far more than 2500 people have shown up for the opening plenary. Thousands of caring rabbis, students, and Jews like me. I am really looking forward to the next couple days and will be sharing my thoughts here.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

J Street and AIPAC--"Eilu v' Eilu"--These and These are the Words of Being Pro Israel

Many centuries ago, contentiousness among the followers of two great Jewish rabbinic leaders became so toxic and destructive to the community that God felt the need to personally intervene.

Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai were great sages who disagreed constantly and had very different views regarding how Jews should behave in almost every situation. Then, according to Rabbi Michelle Missagheih:

"So the students of Hillel and Shammai, two schools of thought concerning Jewish law, continue debating for three years and then the Talmud says, “A bat kol – a voice from God – came forth and said "eilu v’eilu divray elohim chaim hen,” meaning “both these and these are the words of the living God.” This is amazing. God is the one who gets fed up with the fight! God can’t take it any more and says “enough is enough. Both of you are right. You both have legitimate approaches to law and life.”

Another implication is that if we take what the Talmud says seriously, and I do, then there is no “truth” with a capital “T.” Being “right” is not the goal. Rather the goal is remaining engaged in the discussion."

I watched the opening session of the AIPAC Conference in Washington this morning--a conference I have attended in person in the past. It reminded me of why that organization is so compelling to so many Americans who care about Israel.

The AIPAC conference has sufficient political clout and gravitas to attract government leaders such as Shimon Peres and Barack Obama to appear at its opening session. And no booster club in the world does a better job than AIPAC of producing multi-media introductions and choreographing events to elicit the maximum positive effect.  I cried during the video introduction to Shimon Peres.  It made me feel proud to be a Jew.

In a couple of weeks, Kristen and I will again attend the J Street Conference in Washington (in the same room in which Peres and Obama spoke today) to hear former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert talk about the critical bonds that connect the U.S. and Israel and to praise J Street for the important role it plays in furthering that process.

As an American Jew who cares deeply about Israel and our Jewish community here at home, It seems both logical and obvious that fellow Jews who share those feelings should rejoice that we have two powerful organizations supporting Israel and trying to secure and promote its future.

And yet, none of my many Jewish friends who support AIPAC can understand how in the world I can be involved in a leadership position at J Street. Most of them read and .forward emails (and, in Tucson, have listened to Yom Kippur sermons) which demonize J Street as being anti-Israel and committed to a Palestinian triumph over the critical interests Jewish people and our homeland. Although those friends have strong negative feelings about J Street, I have yet to meet one that has ever visited the J Street website or attended a J Street event.

Conversely, many of my J Street friends are surprised to learn that I am chairing my second Federation annual campaign and believe that AIPAC is an important and valuable part of the Jewish mosaic in our country. They believe that AIPAC is a tool of the Right wing government leaders in Israel and the U.S. who are committed to an Israeli triumph over legitimate interests of the Palestinians, Jewish values, and the need for a two-state solution to the problems in Israel and the West Bank.

I respect the concerns of all those friends--each of whom I sincerely believe cares deeply about the future of Judaism and our community. But they have apparently bought into the mantra of American politics that if we disagree about anything, then for me to be right, you have to be wrong. To them I recommend Rabbi Brad Hirschfield's important book which clearly states the opposite--"You Don't Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right."  It provides a different and much needed perspective.

But the truth of the matter is that J Street and AIPAC are not competitors.  They are separate organizations with the common agenda of supporting Israel in very different ways.

AIPAC is a pro-Israel booster club--an advocacy and marketing organization. Its stated mission is to lobby U.S. citizens and our political representatives to support whatever actions the Israeli government chooses to take. It is an important job and they do it with passion. Its leaders and followers tend to be Americans (more and more of whom are not Jewish) who view Israel and Jews as the perpetual victims and underdogs facing constant existential threats from hostile neighbors who was determined to destroy Israel and the Jewish people.

Although the AIPAC Conference is just underway, I am confident that all of the conversation and presentations will focus--accurately--on Israel's many accomplishments against overwhelming odds and on the threats to that country's very existence that it faces on a daily basis from hostile neighbors.  There will be no mention of Operation Price Tag or illegal confiscation of Palestinian land to build settlements or the occupation of the Palestinians that is now in its 45th year.  That's not what a booster club does.

J Street is a pro-Israel group whose core belief is that a peaceful two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian situation is the only way that Israel can continue to exist as both a democracy and a Jewish state. Its leaders and followers tend to be American Jews (including a majority of our county's young Conservative and Reform rabbis and cantors) who view the 45-year occupation of West Bank Palestinians by Israeli Jews as a demographic time bomb and a test of whether the Jewish values, ethics, and wisdom that have guided us through centuries of powerless exile can survive in an unprecedented environment where Jews actually have power.

What an amazing testimonial to the power and wisdom of our Jewish community that we have two such organizations--each with thousands of donors and tens of thousands of supporters and followers here and Israel co-existing in a country where just a few decades ago Jews suffered from widespread discrimination and few were willing to raise their voices in support of Israel in a public setting.

Sadly, politics and passion have prevailed and I seem to be among the very few who are actually celebrating this victory for Jewish community and pluralism. Instead, the voices of angry demonizers seem to be the only background music.

As he was introducing Barack Obama this morning, AIPAC president Lee Rosenberg emphasized that Obama was speaking at AIPAC, "THE central address of the pro-Israel community." In my opinion, Rosy didn't need to say that, but I would have really been upset if he said AIPAC is the ONLY address of the pro-Israel community which I regret to report than many of my friends believe.

On the flip side, I have J Street friends who can't believe that I still find AIPAC to be an important and positive piece of the pro-Israel mosaic and not just a tool of the pro-Israel and Republican Right.
According to the Jewish wisdom and values that have sustained us for millenia, they are missing the whole point. What matters is that we recognized what God felt compelled to remind us during a similar time--that these and these are both acting out God's will and it is the acknowledgement and rejoicing in that facts that makes us truly holy.

J Street and AIPAC--these and these--are what being pro-Israel is all about.

Those who don't get and understand that are desecrating God's words and our glorious pluralistic tradition in a fruitless effort to achieve short term political gain.

May the same God who blessed us with the insight of "eihu v'eilu" give those well-meaning people the insight to understand the error of their ways and the great harm they are doing to the Jewish community, Israel, and the United States.  For the sake of us all.