At our National Assembly in April, J Street U students met with several prominent leaders in the American Jewish community – the head of the Reform movement, the CEO of the ADL, and the former head of the UJA-Federation of New York, among others. We invited these leaders to the assembly because we care about Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, and we believe that they have a crucial role to play in securing its future. As such, we asked them to use their considerable power to demonstrate leadership with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the occupation – in particular around the issue of settlements.
Last week, one of our guests, JCPA director David Bernstein, wrote an Opinion piece for The Jewish Week website entitled “Why I Don’t Call Out Israel On The Occupation.” Though he acknowledged that the situation on the ground “ain’t pretty,” he also said that it’s far too complex for cut-and-dry solutions. He claims that Israel is limited in its ability to move the ball forward on a peace deal because of the lack of Palestinian leadership. And because ending the occupation may not solve all of Israel’s problems, in his estimation, there is no reason for American Jewish communal leaders to say anything about the occupation at all. In fact, it’s presumptuous that young people would even ask them to.
But it’s exactly this kind of reticence from the American Jewish community, the equivocating refrain of “we would show leadership if only…” that is the problem. We have heard these excuses far too often. While it’s true that we can’t solve everything, we can – and must – do something.
We agree that an end to the occupation is not the end of the story. We understand that such an action is rather part of a larger agreement that must, in our view, fulfill the vision of two sovereign states – a secure and democratic Israel, and a viable Palestine – living side-by-side in peace and security. Mr. Bernstein is correct; there are no easy answers. Securing Israel’s future and achieving a Palestinian state will take the leadership of many actors; we in the American Jewish community are only one part of a much larger, much more complicated puzzle.
Still, we are a key piece in that puzzle. When
American Jewish leaders speak, Israel listens. The current battle over the egalitarian prayer section at the Kotel stands as just one recent example of a battle for positive social change in Israel that is being led by American Jewish communal institutions.
What could leaders do to prevent Israel’s further drift toward a one-state nightmare of isolation and violence?
We have some thoughts. Last week, the Israeli government announced its plans to construct 42 new homes in Kiryat Arba, following the tragic and devastating murder of a 13-year-old girl there. In the same week, a new funding package for settlements, intended especially to bolster tourism, was announced. Most in our community – including Mr. Bernstein – agree that settlement announcements like this will never bring an end to the violence and will only further entrench the conflict. The JCPA – or the AJC, ADL, or any other institution – could have taken this opportunity to express concern and alarm over such counterproductive moves by the government. Doing so wouldn’t solve the conflict. It also wouldn’t preclude speaking out against terror and counterproductive actions taken by Palestinians. But it would demonstrate our values by making clear that we will not support Israeli government policies that harm the very state that they, and we, seek to protect.
Negotiations toward a peace deal may seem far away at the moment. Still, there are Jewish community leaders who see how, in the interim, settlement expansion is making the prospects for an eventual agreement more difficult. And they are beginning to speak out about this. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of Union of Reform Judaism, publicly declared his movement’s opposition to settlements at its biennial,
citing that “the occupation threatens the very Zionism we hold dear.” Jeremy Burton, Executive Director of the Boston JCRC,
wrote earlier this year that despite Jewish communal discomfort around the word “occupation,” we must acknowledge the reality of occupation in order to commit to a secure, Jewish and democratic Israel. Others should follow their lead.
This kind of leadership is necessary not only for the sake of Israel’s future but also for the sake of the future of the American Jewish community. If our leaders don’t begin to speak out about the reality that we all see, many American Jews — and young people in particular — will walk away from their institutions. We don’t expect our leaders to have all the answers, or to make change all on their own. But when they resign themselves to doing nothing, and to telling us that there’s nothing to be done, the message they send is: the situation is hopeless and we are impotent. For a community built on a commitment to making the world a better place and to safeguarding and helping Israel, that thinking should be unacceptable.
Young American Jews will continue to speak out about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank because if we don’t, nothing will change. Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state will become more and more imperiled. More lives on both sides will be lost. So we move forward to do what we can, despite our knowledge that taking action is messy and complicated.
Though we know that pursuing peace and ending the occupation are not simple tasks, we also know that the rapidly deteriorating situation on the ground is untenable. Pirkei Avot teaches us that we do not have complete the work. But we are also not free to desist from it.
Marissa Rosenberg-Carlson is a rising junior at Princeton University and the outgoing president of J Street U Princeton.