Opening conference remarks from J-Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami

Gather the Jews is posting this as an interesting Jewish-DC news item, not as an institutional stance. :)  This speech is reprinted with the permission of J Street.


Remarks by J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami
February 26, 2011
Opening Session, J Street National Conference 2011

Thank you, David, for those inspiring words.  What a great way to kick off an incredible three days.

On behalf of the Board, staff and leadership of J Street and the 30 organizations participating in this conference, I join Rachel in welcoming you warmly to J Street’s second National Conference.

Before we begin, I want to acknowledge the tremendous work and the endless hours that Rachel and the entire J Street staff have put into this amazing event.  This has been a true team effort and I’d like to ask the J Street staff to stand for a brief thank you from all of us.

How amazing is it to be in this huge and crowded room filled with passionate activists for Israel and for peace?

I love that I see in this room both veterans of decades of hard work in such stalwart organizations of our movement as the New Israel Fund and Americans for Peace Now sitting next to newer faces getting engaged in this work for the very first time.

What a statement it makes about the emergence of a liberal political voice on Israel in the American Jewish community that over 2000 people are joining us over the next three days.

What a statement that our movement today numbers over 170,000 supporters.

What a statement that we now have a vibrant grassroots presence in nearly 40 communities through J Street Local and thousands of students engaged in J Street U on over 50 campuses and universities.

What a statement that over 600 rabbis have joined our rabbinic cabinet, and that JStreetPAC is today the largest pro-Israel political action committee in the United States.

Believe me, the statement we’re making is being heard.  Our voices are being heard.  And I salute all of you who’ve been a part of this amazing accomplishment.

When we set the date for this conference over a year ago, who knew what an historic moment it would be to come together.

Who knew we would be living through history, exhilarated at the sight of people claiming freedom and dignity from oppression and tyranny yet wary of the danger and uncertainty of the moment.

Our thoughts are with those people all across the Middle East who are putting their lives on the line in search of a better future for themselves and their families.

And our thoughts of course are with the people of Israel, as we worry over what the future holds for them as well.

We came to J Street because we felt such urgency over the need for a two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

We know in our hearts that it’s not just the status quo in the Arab world that is bound to change, it is the status quo between Israel and the Palestinian people that has to change as well.

And the events of recent weeks only convince us more deeply that the time is now for a serious and sustained effort to secure an agreement that provides for a democratic homeland for the Jewish people living side by side in peace and security with a democratic homeland for the Palestinian people.

What is happening in the region, the politics in Israel, the politics here, the growing international pressure on Israel – all this is enough to make us dizzy.

Doctors tell us the best thing to do to get your bearings when you’re dizzy is to pick a fixed spot on the horizon on which to focus.

That’s not bad political advice for the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement either.  We too need to keep our eyes fixed on the fundamental principles that guide and shape our work.

So as we head into three busy days and some critical months ahead, allow me to reiterate the core principles that guide the course we follow.

First, we reaffirm our commitment to and support for the people and the state of Israel.

We believe that the Jewish people – like all other people in the world – have the right to a national home of their own, and we celebrate its re-birth after thousands of years.

We marvel at Israel’s accomplishments and its position at the forefront of global innovation, technology, medicine, and so many other fields.

We value and share the democratic principles on which Israel was founded and that have guided the country for six decades – even as we acknowledge the threats to that democracy that seem to grow almost daily.

We understand that Israel has real enemies, and we defend its right to live in security and peace, within recognized boundaries and with international acceptance.

In times of true need, against those who mean it harm or aim for its destruction, make no mistake where those in this movement stand.

We are passionately and unapologetically pro-Israel.

That is our first principle: We stand proudly with and for the people and the state of Israel.

Second, we believe that the future of Israel depends on achieving a two-state resolution to the conflict with the Palestinian people.

We believe that the Palestinians too must have a national home of their own, living side by side with Israel in peace and security.  This is in Israel’s interests.  It is in America’s interests.  It is right and it is just.

The time has come for Israel to choose among three things: being a Jewish homeland, remaining democratic and maintaining control over all the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.

Israel can have only two of the three.  It can only be both Jewish and democratic by giving up the land on which a Palestinian state can be built in exchange for peace.

As we see it, the cause of the Palestinian people – the creation of an independent state of their own – is essential to our cause as well.

For too long, pro-Israel advocacy has defined this conflict in zero-sum terms, as “us versus them,” a conflict in which there can be only one winner.

Our second principle is that being pro-Israel doesn’t require an “anti.” Israel’s long-term security actually depends on fulfilling the aspirations of the Palestinian people through a two-state solution.

Third, Israel’s supporters have not only the right but the obligation to speak out when we think the policies or actions of the Israeli government are hurting Israel or harming the long-term interests of the Jewish people.

We do not revel in criticizing Israel.  We do it with a heavy heart.

However, we believe it is possible – even easy – to distinguish between criticizing the policies of the government of Israel and questioning the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own.

Those seek to silence criticism of Israeli policy in the name of fighting de-legitimization of Israel are making an enormous mistake.

Of course, we will be there to fight anti-Semitism and to oppose those who deny Israel’s right to exist.

But do not ask us to stand by quietly as the present Israeli government charts a course that erodes its Jewish character, undermines its democratic principles and leads to international isolation.

It is not criticism of Israeli policy that threatens the health of the state of Israel, but the policies being implemented by this particular government and the silence or indulgence that too many in the American Jewish establishment choose when vigorous protest of those policies is called for.

As a fourth core principle, we believe that vibrant but respectful debate over Israel benefits the American Jewish community.

The debate over Israel in our community stirs deep emotions and passionate argument.  But this is nothing we cannot handle.

Strong and vibrant debate have characterized the Jewish people for millennia.

That’s why, at this conference, we have invited those with whom we disagree from the left and the right to engage with us in a free, open and spirited discussion.

Those who believe there is only one acceptable view on Israel – theirs – should not be allowed to impose constraints on what constitutes acceptable speech in the Jewish community.

To the extent that the doors of the Jewish community are barred – be they synagogues, Hillels or Birthright trips – to those who question conventional wisdom on Israel, the Jewish establishment is putting the future of the community at risk.

The attacks on those who hold non-conforming views partially explain why the younger generation is distancing itself not simply from Israel but from traditional institutions in the community.

And it is one reason nearly 500 students are here finding a home at J Street’s second national conference.

There is a comparably dangerous effort to shut down debate and dissent taking place today in Israel.  That’s why we are especially appreciative of the 5 Members of Knesset who have joined us here tonight, demonstrating true political courage by standing up for our shared principles and our common interest in a two-state solution.

Please join me in thanking Members of Knesset Daniel Ben Simon, Yoel Hasson, Shlomo Molla, Nachman Shai and Orit Zuaretz for standing up for their values and for their leadership and courage in joining us at this historic event.

Our community values open discussion and hearing perspectives that challenge conventional wisdom in a civil and respectful manner.  It is part of our Jewish identity.

That’s why it makes no sense that for three years, the leadership of such institutions as AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League have almost uniformly refused to take the stage with me or with representatives of J Street.

Their policy is not in the best interests of Israel, and it’s not in the best interest of the American Jewish community.

I urge the leaders of these and other organizations to change this counterproductive approach to our emerging movement.  The only way to contest ideas that you do not like is with better ideas, not by refusing to debate.

The fifth principle underlying our movement is to ground our work in the values on which we were raised.

In just a few minutes, we will be honoring Peter Beinart for provoking a communal conversation over whether young Jews in particular have been forced to check their liberal values at the door of Zionism.

Peter has challenged American Jews to decide whether it is possible both to engage in a warm relationship with Israel and to remain true to the values we hold most dear as Jews and as Americans.

This movement exists because so many of us believe that not only is this possible, it is essential.

The values on which we were raised are central to who we are as a people: the principle that you don’t treat someone the way you wouldn’t want to be treated yourself, basic notions of justice and freedom, the pursuit of peace, and tikkun olam – seeking to make the world a better place.

These values are central to our identity.  They make us proud of our heritage and faith.  And we will, as a movement, give voice to them when it comes to Israel.

That’s why we’re so pleased to open this year’s conference by honoring some of those who have shown the courage to give voice to their values.

Peter Beinart has done it in his challenge to the American Jewish establishment over the way it relates to Israel.

Sara Benninga and the Sheikh Jarrah activists are doing it by challenging Israelis to face up to the morality of their treatment of Palestinians in East Jerusalem.

And Dr. Izzeldein Abuelaish has done it in turning unimaginable pain and loss into a quest for peace.

The truth is that this room is filled with heroes who give voice to their values day in and day out.

Each of you is a profile in courage and we don’t honor only three people tonight – we honor all of you for the courage you show in fighting for a two-state solution and for a more open debate in national politics and the Jewish community.

Even as world events spin at a dizzying pace, it is our values and our principles that ensure that our feet stay firmly planted in the center of the Jewish community.

And from that center we will lead.

As students on campus, as rabbis from the pulpit, as voters and citizens in our communities – we will lead.

We will lead toward a two-state solution because we care deeply about Israel and about the Palestinian people.

We will lead toward greater freedom in American politics to talk about Israel and the Middle East because we care about the interests of the United States.

We will lead toward a more open conversation and vigorous debate about Israel because we care about the long-term health of the Jewish community.

This is our mission.  This is our calling.  And it is the reason for the tremendous growth of our movement.

I welcome you again to an exciting three days and I thank you for joining us in our work at such a critical time.