Today’s J Street Chicago Luncheon

October 16, 2015 1 comment

At a time when all of us are so concerned and worried about what is logo-jstreethappening in Israel and what it may mean for J Street and its mission, I would like to provide you with some positive news.

Chicago’s annual J Street Lunch was held today.  Over 325 people packed the ballroom of one of Chicago’s oldest historically-Jewish institutions, The Standard Club, to support J Street.  The political guests included Senator Durbin, about half of the Illinois Democratic Congressional delegation, and numerous state and local politicians.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the event was the content of the program (not to mention the quality of the food – which was excellent).  Normally, luncheon speakers provide perfunctory praise for the host organization and stock language. But not so today.

Senator Dick Durbin led off.  He is the Minority Whip and talked about the Iran Vote process.  He described it as the most difficult vote he has every worked on.  He described the tremendous personal effort the President put in – including individually calling 21 Congresspersons to answer their questions about the deal and to offer to get them any information or arrange for meetings with any experts they felt they needed to.   The Senator then described what he felt was the pivotal meeting where several of the P5+1 ambassadors addressed on-the-fence Senators.  At that meeting, the ambassadors told the Senators in no uncertain terms that the idea that there was a “better deal” to be had was nothing but a fantasy.  The Senator went on to emphasize the important work J Street did in supporting the deal.

Rep.  Jan Schakowsky followed and expressed how important J Street has been in opening up space in Congress for people to take positions they could never have before.  She also mentioned the support that she has personally received from J Street.  Jan was one of the first people to strongly come out to support the deal and took a lot of heat for it.  She has been with J Street from the beginning and has become one of our staunchest supporters.  Of course, I’m biased.  She is my Congresswoman and a personal friend.

Jeremy Ben-Ami got up and as usual gave a measured, yet forceful, speech condemning Palestinian incitement – but then going on to talk about the necessity of putting the current violence in the context of the Occupation and the lack of progress in the peace process since PM Rabin was assassinated  20 years ago.  Of course, he tied that into the importance of what J Street has been doing and what it needs to continue to do to fight for the two state solution despite the current situation.

Although it would be unheard of at events sponsored by most other organizations, the featured speaker, Jonathan Alter, didn’t necessarily agree with Ben-Ami’s framing of the situation.  Alter emphasized the irresponsibility of the Palestinian leadership but didn’t bring up the context.  And while he called the Iran deal an historic victory – he then went on to argue that clamping down on Iranian “bad actions” was the most important thing to do now.  While J Street agrees with forceful enforcement of remaining restrictions –  it feels that it is equally important to be cognizant not to derail the deal before it has a chance to even start.

To me, having Jonathan Alter express divergent opinions is an illustration of one of J Street’s greatest strengths: the principle that open, civil debate based on facts over emotion is part and parcel of our mission.  J Streeters can handle listening to someone who doesn’t agree with them.  As a matter of fact, it really encourages honing, strengthening and fine tuning J Street’s positions.

When the event finished, the positive buzz in the room was palpable.  I spoke with several of the most long-standing and venerable leaders of the Chicago Jewish community who expressed how important it was that J Street is here, and that it is strong.  They went on to specifically praise Jeremy for his leadership:  informed, intelligent, steadfast and calm.

The take away is this: J Street’s work remains even more critical today than ever – even as the challenges are greater.  J Street should take heart that, contrary to what many of its critics say, it has strong and growing support within the Jewish community.

Categories: Israel

Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan speaks his mind to 25,000 at Tel Aviv rally

March 8, 2015 Comments off

An Israeli.  A former security chief. Not a self-hating Jew. Not an Israel hater. Meir Dagan is worried about Israel’s future.

Tel Aviv Rally - Via Jack Guez - Getty Images

Tel Aviv Rally – Via Jack Guez – Getty Images

Dagan spoke at a “Israel Wants Change” anti-Netanyahu rally in Tel Aviv last night.  As quoted by Haaretz (here):

Dagan also criticized Netanyahu. “As someone who has served the country for 45 years in security posts, including during some of its hardest hours, I feel we are at a critical period for our future and security,” he said. “I have no personal interest in the prime minister, his wife, his expenses and his way of life. I am talking about the policy he leads. It is a destructive policy for the future and security of Israel. And as someone who raised children here and is now raising grandchildren here, and who believes with all his heart in the Zionist dream, I feel there is a danger to the continued existence of this dream, and that is why I will come to speak.”

Categories: Israel

Will #Bibi mention this in Congress? Khamenei agrees with Congress: No deal better than a bad deal via @AlMonitor

February 13, 2015 Comments off

from Twitter

February 12, 2015 at 08:42PM

Categories: Israel Tags: ,

Meetings Last Week with Members of the Knesset About the Current Situation in Israel and Operation Protective Edge

August 5, 2014 Comments off

The KnessetLast Wednesday, our group of J Street leaders from the United States and J Street U students spending the summer in Israel, met with four members of the Knesset to get their perspective on the war – or “Operation” as it’s referred to here. One was from Hatnua (which is Tzipi Livni’s party and part of the government), one from Meretz, and two from Labor.

From Labor and Hatnua, we heard a message of support for the war. That it was necessary and needed to be fought. While the fighting is going on, this type of position is not surprising even given the brutal way that Israel has been conducting the war. I think that they all perceive the tunnels as a very real strategic threat that needs to be destroyed and they have no illusions about the nature of Hamas as a terrorist group actively planning to attack Israel.

Because all of those we spoke with are on the center left, it is not surprising that they emphasized the importance of strengthening President Abbas so that he could be in a position to gain enough political power to execute a deal with the Israelis. They felt that one of the not so obvious benefits of this war is that it opened the eyes of many, not only in the government, but in the general population as well, to the fact that they have someone that they can deal with on the other side. All of a sudden, Abu Mazen has gone from being the “Partner we can’t Trust” to being ‘not so bad’ compared to the alternative. Amram Mitzna, former General and Mayor of Haifa and Yeruham, feels that the Operation will help more people understand that there is no better option than the two state solution. There is no military solution to the conflict because Hamas is more than a military organization – it is a state of mind. Israel can destroy all of the rocket caches, blow up the tunnels and kill all of Hamas leaders, but Hamas’ “death to Israel” message will simply be adopted by new leadership.

But the most surprising and most upsetting thing we heard about is what has been going on in Israeli society. Over the past several years, there has been a steady and significant increase in overt racism in the country. This extreme hatred is now being projected against those who oppose the war. Whether it is at physical protests where marchers have been beaten up and forced to disperse – or online bullying which has gone to the extreme of calling out death threats to those posting pieces against the war – we heard about an ugly atmosphere of hate that is getting stronger and stronger. These MKs were concerned that the Cabinet Ministers have remained silent on denouncing these racist attacks. Rather, said one, Ministers are often actually the ones inciting this conduct. Virtually everyone we spoke with was extremely concerned about the increase in societal hatred – even the American Consul General in a separate meeting. Although the tragedy of the death and destruction from the war is heart wrenching, what hits me the strongest is the changing nature of Israeli society. There is something going on here that is abhorrent and rotten. No one drew any links directly to the Occupation, but it is clear that in order to enforce the Occupation, there is a need to dehumanize the Palestinians as “the other”. And once a society labels one group that way, it is a short hop to applying the same attitude to any other group. This trend is taking Israel further and further away from what most of us consider to be our Jewish values.

Along these lines, we also heard about the deterioration of conduct within the Knesset. Of course, it reminded us of home, seeing that Congress continues to set new lows in obstructionism and lack of decorum. One characterization of the way bills are pushed through the Knesset was “violent”. Not a term that one expects to hear describing legislative functioning. Just as in the U.S., we got the sense that there is a general breakdown in decorum and long-standing unspoken rules of how to relate to your political opponents. Whether this reflects the trends of more explicit and blatant religious, ethnic and, now, political hatred, or leads those trends, isn’t clear. But what was being communicated to us by the MK’s was that this was a serious, serious problem.

Finally, all of the MK’s expressed their appreciation for J Street leaders – particularly the J Street U students – for being in Israel at this time of war, and caring enough to reach out to see and hear what was going on so that we could bring what we saw back to those in the U.S.

Landed in Tel Aviv

July 30, 2014 Comments off

An uneventful day.  Thank god.

Arrived at Ben Gurion Airport about 5PM.  The flight from Newark was 60% full.  Not much English being spoken.  There is always something magical to me when I first spot the green fields – a product of modern irrigation technology – poking through the clouds that always seem to be hanging over the coast line.  I am not sure what it is – but there is some energy in the air that is special.  It makes people want to be in this land. And to possess it. 

This time, we approached from the North.  To avoid any potential rockets from Gaza of course.  The lines for Foreign Passport Control were non-existent.  The cabby complained that “there are no tourists.  Now, I have to wait three hours at the airport for a fare.” 

I look for signs of the war – but frankly, here, there aren’t many.  The beach is still filled with bathers, folks are jogging along the Tayelet, and the matkot players are still smacking the balls back and forth. But there is a noticeable quiet.  Traffic is light.  The hotel lobby is empty.  The people are still.

I am here with a group of J Street leaders to show our support for Israel in this time of war.  To try to support all of those suffering during the latest chapter in this long conflict.  We also want to connect with those Israelis who we really are working for and with – those who see that there is no military solution to this conflict.  That the only way to break the cycle is with a negotiated agreement ending in two states for two peoples.  Then, perhaps, there will be a chance for real security. 

We heard over dinner from Gadi Baltinski, Director of the Geneva Initiative, that 85% of Israelis support this operation.  They support the military and the government (for the time being – nothing like a war to increase an incumbent’s popularity), BUT they also don’t think that this will solve the ultimate problem.   Never the less, they back the government because they see this war as being the fault of Hamas.  And, now, all of a sudden, people are seeing Abu Mazen as the “good” guy.  Where were they when he really needed support during the negotiations?  “No partner for peace…”

Akiva Eldar, writer for Haaretz and Al-Monitor and, ironically, head of the first annual Haaretz Peace Conference held July 9 just as the rockets began firing, told us that the only solution is a regional one.  King Faisal of Saudi Arabia actually wrote a piece in Haaretz a few weeks ago reiterating that the Arab Peace Initiative is still on the table.  He implored us to go back to the US and talk with politicians and tell that nothing is more bi-partisan than ending this conflict.  After all he said, the idea that ending this conflict was in America’s best interest really took root when George H.W. and James Baker challenged Yitzhak Shamir on building settlements.  That was hundreds of thousands of settlers ago.

Tomorrow we head to Jerusalem to hear the take of several MK’s, meet with the US Consul General, and visit some victims of the violence in Hadassah hospital.

So far, no sirens.  But last night, I was told, they came about 2 AM.

Categories: Israel

Why J Street Is NOT “Not pro-Israel”

July 23, 2014 1 comment
IDF Soldier looks into Hamas Tunnel - Time Inc

IDF Soldier looks into Hamas Tunnel – Time Inc

A good friend (whose views skew quite a bit – OK, a lot – to the right of mine) sent me an email this morning:



The article he references describes how the Boston J Street chapter was originally a co-sponsor of a Pro-Israel rally, but then pulled out “because its officials did not feel that issues they wanted addressed were sufficiently represented, including grieving for victims on all sides, an emphasis on a diplomatic solution and especially the role of the US Jewish community in advancing such a solution.”  The article goes on to say that Jeremy Burton, executive director of Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council , “told JTA [a Jewish news agency] that speakers at the rally did address suffering on both sides and noted that its immediate emphasis was on Israel’s right to defend itself and Hamas’ responsibility for the current violence.”

Here is my response:
  • As noted in the article, “J Street has co-sponsored other pro-Israel rallies across the United States during the current conflict.”  That implies – correctly – that this was not a position of J Street national, but rather a local issue based on inter-Boston issues. There has been tension within the Jewish community there with J Street for years.  It is a good thing, but amazing, that Boston JCRC has J Street as a member but there remains unease with other organizations that belong.
  • Recognizing the suffering of innocent civilians on all sides is important (and it sounds like, as it turns out, that this was done at this rally). Noting the very real suffering of innocent civilians in Gaza does not make a person pro-Hamas.  Nor does criticizing the government of Israel make one anti-Israel.  I would dare say that you are not pro-the current U.S. administration, but that does not make one anti-American.
  • The run up to this war began with the very tragic, heart-wrenching, senseless murder of three innocent Yeshiva students, z’’’l.  But from what I have read, this event was then used quite cynically by the Israeli government to take down the Hamas infrastructure in the West Bank.  On one level this was a good thing – but on another level, it fanned the flames for the current incursion.  It also fanned some very dangerous flames of racism and hatred among a group of right-wingers in a horrific way with the revenge killing of an equally innocent Israeli Arab (i.e., also an Israeli citizen) teenager.  One of the reasons that it is so important to make sure that pro-Israel rallies not paint every Arab as seeking to wipe Israel off the map is that once the genie of racial hate is let out of the bottle, it is very hard to get back in.
  • While it was the rockets that instigated the Israeli air retaliation, thanks in large part to the Iron Dome system, the rockets do not present a strategic threat to Israel.  I am not condoning rocket fire by any means nor saying that Israel doesn’t have a right to retaliate – only that a war like this is not a strategic solution for Israel.   Because previous operations failed to deter the threat from Hamas, I originally opposed the escalation.   However, as the sophistication and extent of Hamas’ tunnel system came to light once the ground operation began, I have totally changed my mind and I personally believe that this war is extremely necessary and the current land operation totally justified.  The Hamas’ tunnel system represents a very, very real threat to the security of Israel.
  • One of the most important things that this war re-emphasizes however is that the Israeli government has no strategy for dealing with the Palestinians.  As much as we all might like it, the 4 million Palestinians are not just going away.  One of J Street’s key points is that we must address the long term solution to these issues: a negotiated two state solution. There is no better time than these rallies to focus the American Jewish community on this fact, instead of simply supporting war.  I believe that the lesson from prior military actions (Lebanon, previous Gaza wars) is that when you “mow the lawn”, it just grows back higher and longer  The Israeli government, and American Jews, should do everything it can to support moderates – including Mahmoud Abbas.
  • Finally, you can read J Street’s official reaction to similar criticisms here:

A Moving Response from Jeremy Ben-Ami on the Tragic Murder of 3 Innocent Kids

July 2, 2014 Comments off

Any murder of innocents is clearly tragic.  No less so for the three Israeli Yeshiva students.  It has captured the hearts of people throughout the world.Picasso's The Tragedy

Yet, I have been thinking about why every Jewish organization out there is bending over backwards to see who can mourn “more” over these three young kids.  By doing so, they are elevating a tragic incident into a political snowball which is rapidly moving towards a violent ending.

Bibi and his government are leading Israel, the American Jewish community and anyone else that can be hoodwinked, down a path of violence and destruction.  Violence begets violence – until one side decides to act rationally (rather than with a knee-jerk), or until both sides finally beat themselves into oblivion (viz. WWI 100 years ago).  It doesn’t take a psychic to predict that there will be many more innocent Israeli (and Palestinian) victims to come – making a mockery of using all of this mourning for three to justify the killing of scores or hundreds more.

And, it is just sad to see how the American Jewish community has generally taken the bait.

That is why I find Jeremy’s statement, Enough of Tears and Bloodshed, to be honest, poignant and intelligent.  Here it is:

Enough of Tears and Bloodshed

July 1st, 2014

By Jeremy Ben-Ami

Over the past two and a half weeks, all of us who care deeply about Israel and seek peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been profoundly moved by the tragedy of the three teenage boys kidnapped and, we now know, murdered in cold blood on the West Bank.

As a father of young children, my heart simply breaks whenever violence snatches young lives, and families and communities are senselessly plunged into mourning.

While the grieving and sorrow have barely begun for the families, the debate over how to respond is in full swing as is, of course, an emotional argument over how the Israeli government should and should not react.

Fear and anger drive part of the debate, with calls for retribution dominating the public discourse. Seemingly easy, emotionally satisfying, answers flow freely: Tear down the houses of the alleged kidnappers’ families. Attack Gaza to root out Hamas’ infrastructure. Build new settlements. Take revenge.

Less free to flow are efforts to place this tragedy in a broader context or to recognize the real and legitimate pain felt on the Palestinian side as well. There is no way out of this spiral of violence and conflict if we can’t start to hear and understand the pain on the other side too.

The New York Times this week ran a moving, but difficult, article about two mothers, Rachel Fraenkel and Aida Abdel Aziz Dudeen. It was written before the discovery of the body of Rachel’s 16-year-old son, Naftali, one of the three murdered teenagers. “I was praying maybe he did something stupid and irresponsible,” Ms. Fraenkel recalled thinking when police came to her door at 4 a.m., “but I know my boy isn’t stupid, and he isn’t irresponsible.”

A few miles away in the West Bank town of Dura, Aida also tried to stop her 15-year-old Mohammed from doing something stupid and irresponsible. She locked the door of the family home to stop him from going out to confront Israeli soldiers after days or house searches and arrests. He got out anyway by jumping out the window and was shot dead, with the key still under Aida’s pillow, when soldiers opened fire on a group of young Palestinians hurling stones at them.

Times correspondent Jodi Rudoren succinctly summed up the gulf between the sides in the way they look at these twin tragedies. “Most Israelis see the missing teenagers as innocent civilians captured on their way home from school, and the Palestinians who were killed as having provoked soldiers. Palestinians, though, see the very act of attending yeshiva in a West Bank settlement as provocation, and complain that the crackdown is collective punishment against a people under illegal occupation.”

As President Obama memorably said in his speech to young Israelis in Jerusalem last year, we must try to see the world through the eyes of the other side. That does not mean accepting their narrative and abandoning our own. But it does mean abandoning the “we’re always right and they are always wrong” view of the conflict and trying to find a solution that begins with mutual compassion.

“Put yourself in their shoes – look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day … Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land,” Obama said.

The most important sentence is the last. Until there is a two-state solution, this awful conflict will grind on and on and on, and there will be more tragedies – more Naftalis, more Mohammeds. It’s now two decades since the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin memorably said on the White House lawn that we have had enough of tears, enough of bloodshed. It was his guiding principle to fight terror as if there were no effort to reach peace and to seek peace as if there were no terror.

We at J Street too have had enough of tears and bloodshed.

That’s why we will never stop working for peace, for justice, for reconciliation, for compassion and for an end to this conflict.

May the memories of all our young people be for a blessing.




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