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Silencing Debate

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Today is Yom haAtzma’ut, Independence Day in Israel, the Middle East’s only thriving democracy. Unfortunately, American Jewish leaders don't share Israel's commitment to dissent.

Last week, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations voted to deny membership in the influential national coalition to the dovish lobbying group, J Street. The reason: J Street’s occasional criticisms of the current Israeli government.

J Street’s supporters correctly argue that the group’s differences with Israeli policy on Gaza and the West Bank, a Palestinian State, and Iran reflect differing views within the American Jewish community. Those differences can be found in Israel as well.

The Washington-based J Street was organized six years ago to counter the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a lobbying group that advocates unquestioning American support of Israel. J Street is less hawkish on Middle East policy than AIPAC, and it consistently supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

J Street describes itself as “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans fighting for the future of Israel as the democratic homeland of the Jewish people. We believe that Israel’s Jewish and democratic character depend on a two-state solution, resulting in a Palestinian state living alongside Israel in peace and security.”

J Street recognizes that Israel cannot occupy all of Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, and remain a democratic nation and a Jewish state. Israel can be two of the three, but not all three. If it decides to be Jewish and in all of the Land of Israel, it will cease to be democratic because the Arabs in Israel and the West Bank will be too large a voting bloc to be tolerated democratically. It can be democratic and occupy all of the Land of Israel, but then Israel will cease to be Jewish because Jews will be out-numbered and out-voted by the Arabs of the West Bank and Israel. It can be Jewish and democratic, but then it must give up claims to Eretz Yisrael.

Those views apparently are not welcome within the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which rejected J Street’s membership by a vote of 17 in favor to 22 against, far short of the 34 votes needed for inclusion. According to The New York Times, the vote broke down along ideological and religious lines, with more hawkish and Orthodox organizations voting against J Street, and Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative groups, as well as the Anti-Defamation League, voting in favor.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s president, expressed disappointment in the outcome. “We would have liked to be a part of this communal tent,” he said. “People whose views don’t fit with those running longtime organizations are not welcome, and this is sad proof of that. It sends the worst possible signal to young Jews who want to be connected to the Jewish community, but also want to have freedom of thought and expression.”

The decision of “traditional” American Jewish organizations to stigmatize J Street reflects generational and religious differences within the American Jewish community. A Pew Research Center poll conducted late last year found that Jews with no religious affiliations are more optimistic than religious Jews about the possibility of Israel and an independent Palestinian state coexisting peacefully. Similarly, among the religious, a majority of Reform and Conservative Jews believe a two-state solution would work, while 61 percent of Orthodox Jews, including the ultra-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox, are skeptical about peaceful coexistence.

Pew found similar breakdowns along generational lines (younger Jews are more optimistic about peace than their elders) and political differences (Jews who vote Democratic favor a two-state solution while a majority of Jewish Republicans oppose).

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, a leader among Conservative rabbis, called last week’s vote “a mistake.” Rabbi Schonfeld added, “It is of crucial importance to the future of the Jewish community that a full range of views is represented, and that we be part of a robust dialogue to achieve what we are all committed to, which is a safe, secure and thriving Israel.”

A vigorous debate about Middle East peace, both the terms of a settlement and the path to reach one, strengthens both Israel and the American Jewish community. Though such a debate is frowned upon by the American Jewish establishment, it exists in Israel’s raucous democracy. As one columnist in Haaretz, a leading Israeli newspaper, wrote after the vote, “In rejecting J Street, the conference chose exclusion over inclusion, intolerance over understanding, division over agreement, a bunker mentality over open mindedness.”

Progressive Israelis know that no one wins when debate is silenced. Too bad some American Jews don’t agree.

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