The mission of TSTI’s Israel Involvement Committee states:
The Israel Involvement Committee of TSTI will promote the importance of a pluralistic, democratic State of Israel as a vital component to our identity as American Reform Jews. Our goal is to foster a lifelong commitment to Israel by providing ongoing educational experiences that enrich our knowledge of the history, people, politics and culture of the Jewish state. Furthermore, we strive to inspire our multigenerational membership to form personal connections to Israel by participating in travel, advocacy and cultural programs and activities that promote, build and strengthen relationships between Israel and our community at large.
In one of my sermons during the Holy Days two years ago I stated, “I would like to see 100% of this congregation become members of an organization that supports Israel. I am a member of AIPAC, but I care less about which organization one chooses and more about having as many of us involved as possible. I believe it is one of our responsibilities as members of the Jewish community.”
Along those lines I asked TSTI President Jay Rice and long-time TSTI member Martin J. Levine to share some thoughts about why they have taken the path of Israel involvement they have each chosen. Here’s what they had to say.
Why I Joined J Street: TSTI Member Martin J. Levine
I am a proud member and supporter of J Street, an organization established to be the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans. Rabbi Cohen has invited me to write this essay to explain why.
I was born only four years after the State of Israel. When I was growing up, Israel seemed so new, so fresh, so exciting, so filled with inventions like kibbutzim and deserts that were made to bloom, so vibrant in its culture and its music, and, of course, as I learned in Hebrew school, it was the fulfillment of an ancient Jewish dream, in the words of HaTikvah, “the hope of two thousand years to be a free people in our land.”
In 1967, I was fifteen years old and, like many American Jews, I was scared. It seemed that Israel’s enemies were closing in on her and were on the verge of crushing her like a grape. Then came the miracle. In six days, Israel triumphed over its enemies, even seizing parts of their territory. At last, no one would be able to bully the still young state and Israel would be in a good position to negotiate a secure arrangement with its neighbors.
However, the triumph also contained the seeds of problems that bedevil Israel to this day. I think that many American Jews shared my expectation that Israel would not hold the territories it had seized indefinitely, but would use them as bargaining chips. That has happened in the case of the Sinai, for which Israel gained a peace treaty that, for all its imperfections, lasts to this day. Israel was also able to negotiate a peace treaty with Jordan, in this case without any territory exchange. The West Bank, on the other hand, remains under Israeli occupation decades later and Gaza, relinquished unilaterally by the Ariel Sharon government, remains a basket case.
This situation has resulted in great suffering on the part of both Israelis who live with the threat of terrorist attacks and those innocent Palestinians who have nothing to do with terrorism or aggression against Israel, but merely want to go about their lives in peace. It has also resulted in an Israel that finds itself in the position of an occupying power, a position at odds with Jewish scripture (“You shall not oppress a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”) and the Israeli Declaration of Independence (“[The State of Israel] will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race, or sex”).
Why has this situation continued so long? The Palestinians have certainly stymied attempts to resolve it, but so has the Israeli government. We Americans have not always been as helpful as we could have been. Nor has the world community.
I have always felt free to criticize the Palestinians when I thought they were acting badly, and I certainly have criticized them, but if I ever had a harsh word for Israeli actions, it seemed that the voices of the organized Jewish community were always ready to shout me down. It seemed that it was my job as an American Jew to defend every Israeli policy or practice, to blame every problem on the Palestinians, and at all cost, never to air dirty laundry in public. And that’s where J Street comes in.
J Street was founded to give a voice to that majority of American Jews and of pro-Israel Americans in general, who think that the most important thing we can do for Israel is to work hard for a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem, even when that means criticizing Israeli government actions. (By the way, J Street doesn’t reserve its criticism for Israel. It doesn’t hesitate to criticize Palestinians or anyone else when they seem to be standing in the way of a peaceful resolution.)
J Street’s view is that the only viable solution is a negotiated two-state solution, that is an agreement resulting in a Palestinian state living alongside Israel, with both states enjoying peace, security, and the opportunity for prosperity. The Palestinian population is growing faster than the Jewish population and before too long, the majority of people living between the Mediterranean and the Jordan will be Palestinians. When that happens, if a two-state solution has not been achieved, Israel will have to choose between being a democratic state that grants full voting rights to the Palestinians or a Jewish state that denies Palestinian rights and can no longer claim to be a democracy. Without a two-state solution, an Israel that is both Jewish and democratic will not be possible.
Of course, achieving a two-state solution is an uphill climb. The obstacles are many and challenging, from the presence of a Hamas government in Gaza, to the aging and political weakening of Palestinian moderates, to the Israeli settlements that threaten to make a viable Palestinian state untenable, to the absence of strong voices in favor of the two-state solution among leading Israeli politicians, to the political pressures brought to bear by some American groups that seek to convince elected officials that Jewish voters will destroy their careers if they do anything the Israeli government doesn’t like. In fact, the great majority of American Jews supports the two-state solution, along with the majority of Americans in general, the majority of Israelis, and the majority of Palestinians. And while the many obstacles make the job difficult, they also make it urgent. Time will not improve the situation, but will only aggravate the difficulties.
Secretary of State Kerry is working hard to revive the move toward a two-state solution,
but if he is to succeed, he will need perseverance, luck, skill, and importantly, our backing and the backing of our representatives in Congress. J Street is doing everything it can to support that effort and to make it clear to our elected officials that American Jews and other supporters of Israel want this effort to succeed.
I believe that many of my fellow congregants are also J Street supporters, although some of them may not yet know it. I think many people who share J Street’s positions either haven’t heard of J Street, have only a vague impression of it, or have heard things about it that are just plain wrong. I hope I have been able to shed some light here.
From September 28 to October 1, J Street will be holding a conference in Washington, D.C. I’ll be there and I’d like to invite you to join me. Last year’s conference had a great turnout and J Street is hoping to do even better this year. It should be a fascinating and inspiring event and will give attendees the opportunity to show their support to members of Congress directly.
I’d also like to see if we can form a group of J Street supporters within TSTI. It would give us the opportunity to share ideas, organize programs, and take action.
If you are interested in doing either or both of these, or if you just want more information, please feel free to contact me at (973)378-9274 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn more information about J Street.
Why I Joined AIPAC: TSTI President Jay Rice
I consider myself a Progressive Reform Jew who believes that the only long term solution for Israel and the middle east is a two state solution: A Jewish Democratic Israel co- existing with an independent Palestine. But this can only happen if Israel continues to exist and it foolish not to recognize that Israel is surrounded by certain neighbors ( Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas) who make no apologies and mince no words in their goal to see Israel wiped off the face of the earth.
Israel can continue to exist only if it maintains military superiority over these neighbors ( an increasingly difficult task) That superiority has existed because of the friendship between Israel and the United States and America’s willingness to provide annually over $ 3 billion in military assistance.
Preserving a strong Israeli- US relationship is the goal of AIPAC and no organization comes close to being as effective as AIPAC. AIPAC reaches out to all 435 United States legislators and helps educate them on each and every issue impacting the Israeli- US relationship. How does a Congressman from North Dakota, where there is no Jewish population to speak of, come to understand the vital issues of the middle east and how the issues impact America. It is because of AIPAC. What organization takes these legislators regularly to Israel to see first hand the issues facing Israel. It is AIPAC. And at what conference does over 2/3 of the Congress come every year to participate and learn. It is AIPAC
AIPAC does not play favorites between political parties. Democrats and Republicans alike are treated with respect and appreciation at every Policy Conference. AIPAC’s mission does not change if Labor or Likud is in power in Israel or whether there is a Democratic or Republican administration in the White House.
Some think AIPAC should be more critical of Israel, but it is not the role of AIPAC to be critical of either Israel or the United States. No one is more critical of Israel than Israelis themselves. That is the nature of a Democracy. And I do not believe we need another organization focused on pointing out perceived flaws in the way Israel reacts to the difficult issues Israel faces every day. The fact is there are plenty of countries, groups and media who are always focused of what they perceive Israel has done wrong… hence the very clear attempt in Europe and elsewhere to delegitimize Israel. What Israel needs is a friend, and a focus on all the many great things Israel is giving to the world, and yes to their Palestinian neighbors. Israel has no better friend than the Unites States and it is AIPAC’s goal to preserve and foster that friendship.
And that is why I am a proud AIPAC member.