J Street’s Rachel Lerner’s Remarks at RS 6/2/11

Rachel Lerner’s Remarks: These have been some very eventful weeks when it comes to the Israeli Palestinian conflict, the future of a peace agreement and the U.S.-Israel relationship.  I’d like to talk a bit about J Street – who we are, what we do and why we do it, and then I want to spend some time talking about some of the things that transpired over the past few weeks, what the challenges and opportunities are and where J Street comes into the mix. But first I want to spend a little time introducing myself, and my own involvement in J Street. I grew up in the Jewish community. In the Modern Orthodox community in Brooklyn, to be specific. I attended a Zionist Modern Orthodox day school through high school, and, like many of my classmates I spent my freshman year of college in Israel – not in a seminary like most of my friends, but at Bar Ilan University, where I was able to spend half my day studying torah and half my day earning college credits. It was in my foundational upbringing that I developed my love of Israel, but it was living in Israel that sealed the deal for me. It was not just the hummus and the lower drinking age that appealed to me as a college freshman. It was spending a year in a Jewish state. It was the odd sensation of being in a foreign country and feeling very much at home. It was hearing Hebrew spoken in the streets. It was the overwhelming smell of challah on the city bus on Friday. It was biblical references in Israeli pop songs; it was the entire country celebrating Jewish holidays – as national holidays. It was Ethiopian and Moroccan and Russian Jews in my classes. These things might seem small and insignificant to you, but they were not to me. They and so many other small things made me appreciate the Jewish homeland. My time in Israel was not without its struggles. I observed an ugly anti-Arab sentiment amongst some of my Israeli friends that to me felt much like racism, which did not sit well with me, there was tremendous pushback on the premise of Oslo, and the concept of a two state solution which I believed was vital to Israel’s democracy – I went to Israel shortly after the famous handshake on the White House lawn, and there was the constant fear of getting on a bus, as terror attacks became more and more frequent. But none of these things – none of my questions or concerns or even my own criticism ever challenged my fundamental love for Israel or my belief that the Jewish people and the world – needs Israel to be a democratic home. It’s this deep ingrained belief along with my commitment to my Jewish values – values like tzedek – justice , rachamim – compassion, love of the stranger, and love of the Jewish people, that prompted me to work on strengthening Israel and the Jewish community – first at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, then at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, then at the Jewish Federation of Greater Toronto and now at J Street. So, what is J Street? Who are we and what do we stand for? J Street is the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans who, informed by their Jewish values, believe that a two-state solution is essential to Israel’s Jewish, democratic future. We have a two-part mission – one: as Americans, we advocate for bold American leadership to urgently achieve two states – that is, an Israel that is a safe and secure democratic home for the Jewish people beside a secure, independent Palestinian state, and two: we aim to broaden the conversation on Israel in the U.S., but specifically in the American Jewish community about how best to secure Israel’s Jewish, democratic future. First let me talk about the first part of our mission, why we believe a two state solution is necessary and why we feel that it’s urgent. As you all know every Prime Minister since Oslo, from Rabin to Sharon to Netanyahu has acknowledged the need for a two-state solution. It is the blueprint from which we operate when we talk about the optimal outcome for the region. It is widely accepted in Israel and in the U.S Jewish community that two states would allow Israel to be secure, Jewish and democratic and allow for Palestinian self-determination. The outline for that solution has also been pretty well known since the Clinton parameters – a border based on 1967 lines with reciprocal land swaps to allow for the growth and placement of Israeli populations and the contiguity of a Palestinian state, Jerusalem as the capital or both states, based on demographic realities, with Jewish neighborhoods remaining part of Israel and Palestinian neighborhoods becoming part of a Palestinian state, with access to holy sights guaranteed for all, U.S. backed guarantee for Israel’s security, and a resolution of the refugee issue outside the borders of Israel with compensation. But why is a two state solution urgent? Why can’t it wait until some future point down the line – when there’s more amenable Palestinian leadership, or better leadership in the world, or when things have “quieted down”? I don’t know that there will ever be an “optimal” time for a two-state solution, or for a peace process. I don’t believe that there will ever be a time when a peace process and an agreement don’t pose some risk to Israel, but I do know that we can’t afford to wait much longer and that Israel can’t afford to wait much longer to resolve this issue through a two-state solution. The longer the conflict continues and no solution is achieved the more increasingly isolated Israel becomes on the international stage, the greater the danger that its Palestinian population will become more radicalized, and the more likely that even Americans – in particular young Americans – will feel increasingly alienated by what they see in Israel. The risks of not acting are too great. Israel faces a very serious and imminent choice of existential proportions. Put simply, there are three items on the table for Israel – presiding on all of the land from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, its Jewish majority, and its democracy – and it can only have two of the three. If it chooses to hold on to the land and remain a democracy, then the majority of non-Jews living in that land will eventually, through democratic means, assert control and Israel will lose its Jewish character. If it hangs onto the land and chooses to remain Jewish in character, it will have to limit the democratic rights of the non-Jewish majority. It will lose its democratic nature. Only if it gives up the land on which a Palestinian state can be built, can it remain both Jewish and democratic. This demographic reality is not off in some distant future. It is upon us. According to many reputable demographers, just within the next few years, Jews will cease to be a majority in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. One by one, each of Israel’s recent Prime Ministers has come to grips with this reality. Over a year ago, former Prime Minister Olmert said: “If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights, then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished.” Israel’s current Defense Minister, Ehud Barak said recently that the lack of a solution to the problem of border demarcation within the historic Land of Israel — and not an Iranian bomb — is the most serious threat to Israel’s future. The reason I work at J Street and the reason J Street mobilizes volunteers and activists and 170 online supporters is to ensure Israel’s Jewish and democratic future – which is the best way to ensure its long-term security and integrity. What would happen to US support if Israel ceased to be a democracy? Furthermore, what would happen to Jewish community support? One of my jobs at J Street is overseeing J Street U, our student arm. We recently encountered – for the second time since we launched – “Israel Apartheid Week.” An entire week devoted to a campaign around convincing college students that Israel is an apartheid state and questioning Israel’s legitimacy. We, like other pro-Israel organizations came out strongly countering this assertion and making it clear that Israel has our support. We like many other pro-Israel organizations, helped our students with talking points countering the “apartheid” slur. Here’s my fear. That one-day we don’t have a counter. One day without a two-state solution, just as former Prime Minister Olmert ominously warned, Israel does become a place where a minority rules a majority. What do we tell our young people then? What do we tell our students then? How will they – young men and women who believe in democracy, believe in church-state separation, believe in pluralism, believe in social justice – and believe these things because we taught them these values – How will they relate to Israel then? How will they respond to Israel Apartheid Week then? As Israel looks less and less like a democracy for all who live in Israel it will be harder for Americans –but particularly for young American Jews – to identify with. And if young Americans Jews lose their connection to and lose interest in and support for Israel, what will happen to American support? Now, I don’t want to downplay the next obvious question – Yes, Israel might need a two state solution but whom can they negotiate with? It is a fair question – a question we all must grapple with. And certainly the recent reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas has opened up even more questions and some serious concerns. I would say of Abbas and Fayaad that they have demonstrated to be moderates who have worked with Israelis and Americans on security issues, and have also done a great deal to stabilize the Palestinian economy and the Palestinian population. But maybe even more importantly, we need to remember that Israel does not need to make peace with its friends. It must make peace with its enemies. That’s the hard truth about conflict. Friends don’t need peace deals. Looking at the “Arab Spring” and the possibility of new or less stable leadership in the region, it behooves Israel to seize this moment rather than risk a more radical leadership down the line. In terms of the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation J Street believes – as do many leading Israeli politicians, former security officials, and commentators – that the best approach to the reconciliation agreement is to wait and see how the new government acts, what it says and who is actually a part of it. We didn’t agree with those who leaped in to either condemn or embrace reconciliation because we believe that the division among the Palestinian people before reconciliation itself posed a serious obstacle to ending the conflict. But certainly, a new Palestinian government will have to – in word and deed – make it clear that it renounces violence, will abide by existing agreements and will end the conflict based on two states for two peoples, including a full acceptance of each state as the legitimate home of the other people. But if it can do this, it is in Israel’s interest to deal with that entity. Furthermore, polls in Israel continue to show that there is still support amongst Palestinians as well as Israelis for a two state solution, even though neither side believes this of the other. How will Palestinians and Israelis ever breach the divide between them? How can they come to a negotiated outcome that is in both their interests? This is where the US can and should play a role. As a solid friend to Israel, as a country that also has credibility with the Palestinians and as a superpower that can guarantee Israel’s security better than anyone else in the world, the United States is in a position to play a critical role in bringing the parties to a negotiated two state solution. And this is why we at J Street advocate for vigorous political engagement from the U.S. – Israel’s closest friend. Advocating for U.S. engagement and a two-state solution is just part of our mission at J Street. As I said earlier, we also aim to broaden the conversation on Israel in the Jewish community and allow for a multiplicity of viewpoints on this issue. This is important first and foremost because – very simply – there are a multiplicity of viewpoints in the Jewish community and limiting the voices in support of Israel – limiting the voices that support Israel as a democratic home for the Jewish people threatens to alienate community members and shrink the community as well as shrink the base of support for Israel. But broadening the conversation, and building a big “pro-Israel tent,” so to speak, broadens the base of Israel supporters and engages them meaningfully. It allows space for a diverse group of people to connect with Israel in a way that is consonant with their values. It sharpens our critical thinking in evaluating how we as a community can best support Israel in its quest for peace and security. In other words, a broad conversation is good for Jewish community and good for Israel. I see this in particular when it comes to our students. One of the great parts of my job is getting to know our students. These are extraordinary young men and women who are passionate about Israel and also passionate about redefining what it means to be pro-Israel on their campuses. The truth is that the Israel conversation can be polarized throughout the American Jewish community, but the issue has become even more polarizing on college campuses where there are very loud voices on one side asserting that Israel can do no wrong while another community shouts that Israel can do no right. For many students this shouting match is completely alienating. They can’t identify with either camp. These students support Israel and they are disturbed by Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. They support Israel and they also identify with Palestinian suffering. They want to see a Jewish democratic homeland, and they also want to see a future state of Palestine. For these students there has been no home. No place to express their love of Israel with their questions and concerns about Israel’s future. There has been no place to be pro-Israel without being anti-Palestinian. No place to marry Israel activism with their Jewish values. J Street U was founded to fill this void and harness the potential capacity of students to change the conversation on their campuses, in the Jewish community and in American politics. We aim to connect students to Israel through a dynamic and engaging conversation on behalf of its democratic future. For the many young Jews for whom Judaism carries with it a commitment to social justice and tikkun olam, issues like democracy and equality in Israel provide strong chords of connection. These are students who find inspiration in the words of Israel’s declaration of independence that lay out a vision of Israel that is “based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel;” that ensures “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex” By inviting students into a struggle with Israel’s future – by inviting their questions, their concerns, and even their criticism, J Street U provides a vigorous, sustained and ongoing relationship with Israel. Countless studies about young Jews have come back with the same conclusion: That young Jews are increasingly less engaged with Israel. Last year Peter Beinart wrote his now famous article about the failure of the American Jewish Establishment. His thesis is that it’s the organized Jewish community’s failure to provide a nuanced approach to Israel, one that welcomes difficult questions and addresses them instead of furiously trying to burry them with pithy talking points, that causes this disengagement. His article has sparred a lot of controversy in the organized Jewish community but Peter has also been invited to speak in countless federations and Jewish conferences. I believe this is because instinctively so many of us who have worked in the Jewish community know that he’s right, and we know that we’re failing our young people – and our community as a whole – when we try to mask hard truths. But we can invigorate our community when we confront some of those truths. And we can make a powerful statement about our love and support for Israel when we present a robust and diverse community of Israel advocates. I want to spend my last few minutes talking about recent developments and the coming critical months leading up to September. Two weeks ago, in his policy speech on the Middle East the President talked about the urgent need for a two-state solution to Israel’s security and integrity. He underscored the importance of the deep and unshakeable U.S.-Israel relationship. He also spoke about a future border between Israel and a Palestinian state based on pre-1967 borders with mutually agreed land swaps. The ADL commended his speech. The AJC commended his speech. The Jewish Council for Public affairs commended this speech. Now, for some reason the President’s words were distorted by some commentators along the way, but he could not have been more clear. If you haven’t read or watched President Obama’s speech at AIPAC, I suggest you do. He laid out – as only a friend could – a compelling case for action now and a basis on which both sides should be asked publicly to come back to the table for a final effort at diplomatically resolving the conflict before the United Nations meets in September and considers recognition of Palestinian statehood. In case you’re not aware, the UN General Assembly is expected to consider a resolution recognizing a Palestinian State this September. The U.S. cannot veto a General Assembly resolution, and it is likely that such a resolution would pass. This could have some very serious consequences for Israel, including further international isolation, not to mention strengthening current campaigns to undermine Israel’s legitimacy in the U.S. and in Europe. “We can’t afford to wait another decade to achieve peace.” Obama said in his speech, “The world is moving too fast… The extraordinary challenges facing Israel will only grow. Delay will undermine Israel’s security, and the peace that the Israeli people deserve.” An Israeli ad recently appeared in a number of Israeli papers – we reprinted it in English in the New York Times – that called on Israeli public to support Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state on the basis of 1967 borders. “This is the only policy that leaves Israel’s fate and security in its own hands. Any other policy contradicts the promise of Zionism and the welfare of the Jewish people,” the ad states. It was signed by 18 retired Israeli generals, 27 winners of the prestigious Israel Prize and others. The President, and the Israeli leadership who signed that ad are right that NOW is the time to achieve two states – with UN action looming, Israel’s isolation growing, and patience wearing thin in a region rapidly undergoing transformation. I can’t think of a time more critical than this summer to support a two state vision before time runs out. That’s why, next week, J Street is launching our “Two-state Summer” campaign, to educate the Jewish community and our elected officials about the vital need for two states now. We hope that you will join us in this effort. Thank you