Thursday, March 1, 2012

JFNM Conversation on Israel Advocacy

Challenges Assumptions:  This article, JFNM Conversation on Israel Advocacy Challenges Assumptions, appears in the March 2012 issue of The New Mexico Jewish Link, available now on newsstands throughout New Mexico.

Click here for a list of locations where you can pick up your copy of The Link.

Sam Sokolove, Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of New Mexico and Publisher of The Link, has graciously shared this article with Abq Jew and his readers.


FNM Conversation on Israel Advocacy
Challenges Assumptions

On February 2nd, the Jewish Federation of New Mexico convened a conversation at the Albuquerque JCC featuring three American Jewish leaders – two of whom are known on the international stage, and one who is a product the New Mexico Jewish community – on the topic

What is the American Jewish Community’s
Connection and Responsibility to Israel, circa 2012?

During the ninety minute program in front of a full auditorium, Jeremy Ben-Ami, the founder and President of J Street, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, President of CLAL and Robert Efroymson, Chair of the New Mexico-Israel Business Exchange, worked through layers of disagreement and rebuttal around the increasingly difficult .

In his opening remarks, moderator and JFNM Executive Director Sam Sokolove expressed his intention that rather than a debate, the program would, “feel more like a Shabbat conversation around the table after the plates have been cleared and maybe more than a few glasses have been consumed – in other words, an exchange within the family, the family being of course the Jewish People.”

Sokolove began by posing the question, “what does it mean to be Pro-Israel?”

Jeremy Ben-Ami
Ben-Ami, who’s J Street (“the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans”) has become one of the most discussed – and controversial – Jewish organizations in recent memory, responded, “This is the central question in the Israel advocacy community and I’m thrilled it’s being asked, because for quite some time it was presumed that there was really only one way to be Pro-Israel, or that there was only one voice that could speak for the entirety of the Jewish community.”

To be in the Pro-Israel tent, Ben-Ami explained, requires, “to acknowledge and agree on the right and justice of the Jewish people to a national home of their own (and) to (acknowledge) the right of the State of Israel to exist the right of the State of Israel to defend itself against threats and enemies; these are the baseline principles to be pro-Israel, and those who citizens Israel and are unwilling to acknowledge that, they are not pro-Israel.”

On the converse, Ben-Ami expressed his belief that, “you shouldn’t be excluded from the tent for disagreeing with the policies of the State of Israel.”

“I think that the current trajectory of where the state of Israel is headed is towards a real disaster for the Jewish People,” Ben–Ami continued. “Towards the loss of the Jewish and democratic nature of the State of Israel, and I feel so strongly about that, and I feel so passionately about the need to step forward and to argue and to advocate and to question and to talk about this to me that’s the ultimate of being pro-Israel because I care so deeply.”

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield
Hirschfield responded, “I think that anyone can qualify as ‘pro-Israel’ as long as they are committed to and animated by a desire to see a strong, secure State of Israel in which its citizens -- all of its citizens-- thrive and flourish. There are a lot of ways to get to that dream and there are a lot of competing understandings of that dream. For me, the definition of being Pro-Israel is not about agreement, but the contours of safety, security, thinking and flourishing, as well as the willingness to do two simple things: not simply claim to be committed to those things, but to demonstratively live that commitment, and secondly to do so in a way that leaves room for others who disagree with you to do the same thing.”

Robert Efroymson
Efroymson, while accepting Ben-Ami’s definition of “pro-Israel,” was critical of J Street tactics. “I want to suggest that it’s a lack of modesty, taking one’s opinions so seriously when one should perhaps be careful whether one understands the nature of the situation, as well as the people who live in the situation,” Efroymson stated. “What I’m suggesting is that we consider that the decisions have been made by the elected government of the State of Israel and we should understand that the government was elected by people who live with the consequences of those decisions.” 

“To sit here in this room and say, “I have an opinion” which I’m entitled to, and say, I think Israel is doing this or that, that’s fine,” said Efroymson. “But to then take the next step, which is not talk about it, but to ask our government to apply pressure to the Israeli government -- to do things the Israeli people have not indicated a willingness to do -- to me that’s a step too far.”

Ben Ami countered that “the current government will only (broker a peace agreement) if they feel they have the political support of the American Jewish Community.”

“We (American Jews) have a role to play in saying to the President, “we do support you doing what you can do to broker and mediate this conflict because it’s an American foreign policy interest, it’s in the existential interest of the State of Israel, it’s good for the Palestinians, it’s good for the region, so we want you to do this.”

Without disagreeing with Ben-Ami’s assertion, Hirschfield stressed, “the more voices that are engaged around the question, even if we do not always agree, is what assures that attention is paid to the future of the Middle East in general and the State of Israel in particular.”

“The moment that it appears that it’s no longer a central issue of concern to the American Jewish Community -- on the right, on the left, center, it doesn’t matter --   it will not be a concern to the United States of America,” he cautioned.

Hirschfield further suggested that Israel avail itself to “the collective wisdom of American Jewish experience to contribute to the culture of Israel” in shaping Israeli democracy and governance.

Efroymson, however objected to the “nudge” that he sees J Street and the current administration applying to Israel, pressure that he identifies as unhelpful. “When the Obama administration put the Settlement freeze in and Israel -- as a sovereign nation has a right to do said, ‘no, this is something that we are not willing to do at the moment’ -- it revealed a lack of alignment between the administration and the Israelis, and the worse problem is that as soon as the U.S. applied pressure on Israel, the Palestinians said, “why should we be less pro-Palestinian that the President of the United States?’ And if he’s saying that the Israelis should do x, y, and z, then we’ll just sit on our hands.  And months and months went by without any talks of any kind.”

Ben Ami maintained that “it’s extremely healthy” for the American Jewish community to urgently protest current policies of the Israeli government. “We’re about to lose everything that we’re expressing our commitment and passion to,” he warned.

As the conversation progressed, the panelists addressed questions related to the Law of Return, conflicting narratives related to Israel and Zionism and Peoplehood in concept and practice.  

The public conversation at the JCC was preceded by a private conversation in Santa Fe at the Efroymson residence for Santa Fe clergy and community leaders. During his remarks at the JCC, Ben-Ami praised the Jewish Federation for convening a conversation that he wishes, “would happen in more Federations and more communities.”

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