AIPAC is both praised and criticized as the powerful Israel lobby. It hasn’t done a good job of promoting peace, however. There is a new kid on the block doing just that, promoting peace. It’s called J Street and it’s headed by Jeremy Ben-Ami. I recently had a chance to hear Ben-Ami speak to a tough audience of American Jews at Am Yisrael synagogue in Glencoe, Illinois.
His words inspired me because of the clarity of his dedication to principle and morality. It made me even wish there was a Palestinian version, maybe called AStreet . All we Arabs have are the extremist activists who dominate public discourse and the ineffective Arab League, which spends a fortune doing nothing. The closest equivalent of Ben-Ami in my community is probably the articulate intellectual Hussein Ibish.
But if we wait for the Palestinians to get their act together, we’ll probably wait forever. Is that a reason not to pursue peace?
J Street, founded in April 2008, is fast becoming the impetus for a revival of the peace process and reinforcement among many that peace is possible, including among many Arabs and Palestinians I know.
BEN-AMI is no Jewish quisling, nor a self-hating Jew, and not anti-Semitic. He’s not anti-Zionist and not some leftist activist looking to achieve the impossible, to turn the clock back to 1947 and achieve “one state.” He’s hard coreJewish, Zionist and very pro-Israel.
But Ben-Ami makes points I make all the time: Jews don’t have to abandon their diehard support for Israel (nor Palestinians for Palestine) to support a peace plan that brings peace and safety to both.
Ben-Ami’s grandparents were among the founders of Petah Tikva in 1882. His father served in the Irgun.
He candidly laid out Israel’s three choices: hang on to all of the land, hang on to Israel’s Jewish character and hang on to Israel’s democratic tradition. Israelis can only pick two of the three.
Ben-Ami argues convincingly that the majority of Jews, including in America, support two states and compromise. He said, “This conversation we are beginning is not about American foreign policy... but about who we are as a people... How Jews act and behave when we are not the minority. When we are not powerless, but the powerful.”
I could not have been more inspired as a Palestinian. He quickly won the support of the more than 250 Jews and others in the synagogue, with the exception of a small handful of sometimes disruptive foes of peace.
He answered the tough questions and dispelled false rumors, like the one put forth, he said, by Alan Dershowitz, that Norman Finkelstein, the extremist anti-Zionist Jew from Chicago, was a speaker at a recent JStreet event. (My support of two states, attacks against extremists and condemnation of Hamas as a terrorist organization have drawn Finkelstein’s ire.)
Ben-Ami warned the audience the clock is ticking on the two-state solution, something the fanatics recognize too. They’ll stop at nothing to block peace. “Time is not on the side of peace. Time is no longer on our side,” he said.
He reflected many of the views I embrace: The wall is needed, but not in Palestinian territory. It should have been built on “recognizable borders.” Israelis and Palestinians need a time separation, especially once peace is established, to help overcome natural animosity from a century- long conflict.
Jerusalem is already a divided city, but that division can continue in a peace accord with Israel controlling the Jewish areas and Palestine the Christian and Muslim areas.
Ben-Ami said Hamas is both a terrorist organization and a political voice that represents a sizable segment of the Palestinian population. But, he added, Israelis and Jews “must recognize that every movement will use violence, and I speak from my own family experience.” Two-states can be achieved through a swap of land on a one-to-one basis. As many as 75 percent of settlers could remain in the West Bank.
He was especially outraged at the hateful campaign against the renowned jurist and international legal scholar Judge Richard Goldstone who headed the UN inquiry into allegations of war crimes committed not just by Israel, but by Hamas as well during Operation Cast Lead. Ben-Ami stressed that many Israeli leaders believe the allegations should be investigated, but said “the vilification of Judge Goldstone is ludicrous and out of bounds.”
FINALLY, BEN-AMI was asked why he isn’t as critical of the Palestinians as he is of Israel (which isn’t true).
“We do a disservice if we refuse to look at the reality of the West Bank... to call the West Bank a terrorist breeding ground does a disservice to the reality and to people like Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad who are working for support peace,” Ben-Ami said. “There will be violence from both sides” as we get closer and closer to peace.
He stressed that he is Israeli and a Jew. His responsibility is not to tell the Palestinians how to forge their own society, but to help improve, strengthen and define Israel and theJewish people.
It’s a similar message I make when addressing Arab and Palestinian groups. As a Palestinian, it is not my place to tell Israelis what to do with their country. Is itJewish or not Jewish is up to them.
“My focus is on what my people and my country are doing,” Ben-Ami said.
In other words, Jews and Palestinians can help the process not by blaming the other side or telling the other side how to act. As a Palestinian, my responsibility is to do more to end the campaigns of violence against Israel and to speak out more forcefully against the voices of extremism in the Palestinian community.
Palestinians can’t keep pointing to what Israel does as an excuse to ignore what Palestinians are doing to Israelis. That goes the same for Israelis.
The battle is not between Palestinians and Israelis. It is, as Jeremy Ben-Ami so eloquently argued, “between those who support compromise and those who do not.”
Named Best Ethnic Columnist in America by New America Media, the writer is a Palestinian-American columnist and peace activist. He can be reached at www.YallaPeace.com
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