American foreign policy American Jews Arab-Israeli conflict Israel J Street Palestinians

The pro-Israel peace camp cares about America, too

As it prepares for its first national conference this weekend, J Street, the political arm of pro-peace, pro-Israel American Jews, is being assailed by those who don’t want it to take positions independent of the Israeli government.

Chuck Freilich, a former Israeli National Security advisor, castigates the J Streeters’ “presumptuousness” and claims they think they “know better what is right for Israel” than the Israelis. Haaretz columnist Anshell Pffefer sums up the attitude of Israeli government officials towards J Street: “What do these limp-wristed shtetl Jews who have never held an M-16 know about running a country?”

These complaints are a variation of the message American Jews have been hearing from Israelis and some American supporters for decades: unless we serve in the Israeli army or vote in its elections, we have no right to criticize Israel in public. But those who bring out that old chestnut now are discounting or ignoring an inconvenient truth: J Street’s supporters –myself included- are American citizens who back American policies that we believe are in our own country’s interests, as well as the interests of Israelis, Palestinians and the rest of the world.

Like other J Streeters, I think the Obama administration is helping America and Israel when it tries to stop actions that, if left unchecked, will preclude a two-state solution, including Israeli settlement expansion and Palestinian violence and incitement.

As long as Israel and America are seen in much of the Muslim world as steadfast allies in a war between civilizations, what Israel does in the occupied territories is my problem, too. The Israel-Palestinian conflict fuels global instability and extremism and provides a valuable mobilizing tool for terrorist groups that would just as soon attack the New York City subway system as Sderot.

Yet Israelis and others who want J Streeters to shut up choose not to remember that Middle East peace is an urgent American prority. In June, I published a column expressing the pain many people in my camp will feel if there is a confrontation between Israel and the U.S. It also affirmed the need to give Obama the political leeway to lean on both sides of the conflict rather than just one side. In response, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach chastized people like me in Huffington Post by calling us, astonishingly, “sunshine Jewish patriots,” as if we were traitorous Palmach soldiers in 1948, instead of modern American citizens. Father Coughlin and Henry Ford would have appreciated that image.

Rabbi, I weigh in on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict not just because I have a life-long concern for Israel, but also because I am concerned about America’s security and well-being. There is no contradiction between the two priorities.

I am stepping into tricky rhetorical territory here, dredging up the sensitive question of where American Jews put their loyalties. That is a subject which Jews in the U.S. tend to be afraid of broaching in public. They shouldn’t be. American Jews’ relationship with Israel and the role of U.S. interests in that relationship are easy to explain and justify, although the truth is often obscured by the scurrilous accusation from white supremacists and paleoconservatives that we are a bunch of fifth columnists.

Jews in America want to protect America, and care about the safety of our families and neighbors and fellow citizens. Many of us also worry about Israel’s safety. The fact that we have multiple affinities and identities does not mean we put the interests of a foreign power above the interests of our own country. We do not. Of course there are occasional, isolated and deplorable exceptions like Jonathan Pollard, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule.

The President’s stance against more settlements is well within the boundaries of mainstream Israeli thinking, even though the current, center right government doesn’t have much use for it. But even if it were a radical idea in Israel, no Israeli would have the right to rebuke me for advocating policies for my own government.

Israelis and their supporters should feel free to tell J Street that Obama’s approach is wrong. But they should stifle the impulse to tell us, American citizens, that we should never support a U.S. administration that disagrees with Israel.

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