LOS ANGELES – How far should American Jews go in their criticism of Israeli policies they disagree with?
According to the core principles listed on the website of J Street, the self-labeled “political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans,” 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’s and the Jewish people’s long-term interests.”
J Street’s emphasis on the “obligation” aspect in the above statement was at the center of a debate Monday night between the organization’s executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, and Roz Rothstein, CEO of the pro-Israel education group StandWithUs.
“You feel you know better than the Israelis when to make peace with [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas or Hamas,” Rothstein told Ben-Ami. “I feel that position is presumptuous and I’m sorry to say, it’s insulting to the Israeli people.”
At Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, Ben-Ami and Rothstein didn’t find much common ground—at least according to Ben-Ami, who said as much in his concluding remarks.
Rothstein noted that J Street specifically opposed a 2011 congressional letter asking President Barack Obama to urge Abbas to return to peace negotiations and to end anti-Israel incitement following the “horrific, inhuman, and brutal attack in Itamar against the Fogel family,” in which two Palestinian men murdered Israeli parents and their three children ages 11, 4, and three months in Itamar. She criticized J Street for putting pressure only on Israel to take steps to resolve its conflict with the Palestinians, and for having a mission that falls short of calling for criticism of Abbas’s “promotion of hate, incitement, and terrorism.”
But Ben-Ami said of J Street’s mission, “It is not our mission to criticize the government of Israel or to oppose Israeli government policies. It is simply our right.”
J Street’s core principles further state, “Criticism of Israeli policy does not threaten the health of the state of Israel—but certain Israeli policies (and the silence that too many in the American Jewish establishment choose when vigorous protest of those policies is necessary) do threaten Israel’s future.”
Ben-Ami said he didn’t know where the quote Rothstein read from J Street’s website came from, adding that analyzing the website was not the type of debate he was seeking to have. He said taking an “us versus them, good versus evil, black versus white” approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is what “will make us all end up with zero.” Trying to win the “blame game” with the Palestinians “is not a strategy,” he said, because it doesn’t help American leaders “chart a course out of the mess” that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Rothstein said that for J Street to criticize Israel “and heap it on when we’re watching the world criticize Israel… I don’t believe that J Street should add to that chorus.”
“I would like to see more evenhanded criticism at the hatemongering that goes on in the [Palestinian] territories,” she said.
“To place the lion’s share of the blame on Israel, as J Street does, in their mission statement, this does not encourage reconciliation,” Rothstein added, explaining that peace “will only come from education and accountability.”
While “any and all criticism is fair game” when it comes to Israel, that criticism should be channeled through debating, writing, and other exercises other than the lobbying J Street does, Rothstein said.
“Feel free to criticize… but to lobby, because you want to get your way over there [in Israel] really does not put a lot of trust in the Israeli people,” she said.
J Street, on the other hand, believes “in the need for outside help” to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Ben-Ami said.
Ben-Ami repeatedly stressed J Street’s stated mission of “mobilizing broad support for a two-state solution because it’s in Israel’s and America’s interest.” J Street believes “the lack of a two-state resolution poses an existential threat to the state of Israel” due to demographic realities, Ben-Ami said. Furthermore, he said that experts who have studied conflict resolution say that in a conflict such as that between the Israelis and Palestinians, a third party such as the U.S. is needed because the last thing that works is to tell the parties to reach a resolution themselves.
To solve the conflict, Ben-Ami laid out a two-state proposal with the negotiation of borders starting at Israel’s pre-1967 lines (with some adjustments), a Palestinian capital in eastern Jerusalem, a Jewish capital in western Jerusalem, the Temple Mount and its surrounding holy sites as an international zone, Palestinians earning the right of return to “Palestine” but not to Israel, and a demilitarized Palestinian state with an international presence on its border to ensure the security of both parties.
“I find it fascinating that you have a plan like that,” Rothstein reacted, asking if Israelis on the ground who “actually matter” would agree with Ben-Ami’s plan.
“My solution is that people need to come to the table,” Rothstein said. “Why do I need to provide a solution when the Israelis and the Palestinians need to sit and talk?”
Ben-Ami acknowledged that while “the world’s pressure does need to be on both parties,” J Street recognizes that “at the end of the day, we live here, and the Israelis live there, and the decisions need to be made there.”
Rothstein and Ben-Ami disagreed sharply on Abbas’s current suitability as a peace partner for Israel. When asked if a two-state solution is possible and worth advocating for, Rothstein said what needs to be asked first is, “Is now the moment?” for that solution, and of Abbas, “Is this the man? Is this the time?”
“This is the man and this is the time,” Ben-Ami said.
The Palestinians under Abbas, Ben-Ami said, have limited terror in the West Bank, have “built the institutions of statehood,” and have “done everything that the critics have asked them to do.”
But Rothstein detailed a visit she made to the Dheisheh Palestinian refugee camp, whose cultural center featured pictures such as a Palestinian child throwing a Molotov cocktail and of a suicide bomber depicted as a hero.
“That’s incredible to me, and that’s a moderate town,” she said. “That’s scary.”
Ben-Ami countered that because Jews and Palestinian are longtime enemies, hate speech and incitement should come as no surprise.
“You make peace with your enemy, not with a friend,” he said.
Asked if Jewish communities beyond the 1967 Green Line pose an obstacle to peace, Rothstein said they do not because they comprise only 1.7 percent of the West Bank’s territory. Displaying the wide gap between the J Street and StandWithUs leaders, Ben-Ami said Jewish communities beyond the Green Line actually comprise 60 percent of the West Bank’s territory when sidewalks, gardens and other factors beyond the housing structures themselves are taken into account. Rothstein maintained the 1.7 percent figure, but acknowledged that the percentage does increase to 5.7 percent when Israel’s security fence is included.
“It is impossible believe, that 5 percent, when you know there are going to be [land] swaps [in an agreement], is the obstacle to peace,” she said.
The West Bank Jewish communities, Ben-Ami said, are a symptom of the underlying problem that is the lack of a border for Israeli and Palestinian states. He asked Rothstein where she would draw a border at the start of negotiations, particularly if she would draw that border at Israel’s pre-1967 lines. Rothstein answered that she would let Israelis and Palestinians determine the starting point for their own talks, typifying the philosophical differences between J Street and StandWithUs that were apparent throughout the evening.
“I am not going to be negotiating this,” she said.