At 7:30 am on a recent Sunday, I spoke to more than 100 Presbyterians at their General Assembly in Pittsburgh. I was one of two Jewish voices opposing their divestment resolution. I had been urged to attend by colleagues in the organized Jewish community. My voice, I was told, would be particularly helpful because of my work at J Street, advocating for a two-state solution.
This was my second time around at a Presbyterian GA – the first was two years ago where I was the only Jew speaking to a larger audience of Presbyterians at an equally obscene hour on a Sunday morning about why divestment would bring the parties no closer to peace.
It struck me, as I was being warmly congratulated by a leader in the Pittsburgh Jewish community, that while I’ve been welcomed at two Presbyterian GAs, I’ve never been invited to speak at a Jewish GA.
Why the enthusiastic support among others in the pro-Israel community for my presence at the Presbyterian GA but not the Jewish one? It’s been understood for some time by many that the most effective way to combat initiatives like divestment is by unifying diverse communal voices, in particular reaching out to voices on the left. As noted in a recent paper by the Reut Institute, “the most effective voices against delegitimization often come from the 'left', … because of their ideological proximity to the (false) pretention of delegitimizers to serve peace, human rights and international law.”
In other words, Presbyterians (and others considering tactics like divestment as a means of taking action on behalf of a just and lasting solution to the conflict) are more likely to listen to me because I spend most of my time advocating for bold and pro-active leadership for a two-state solution. So when I say divestment is the wrong path to peace, my words are credible.
My words, though – and even J Street’s voice – can only go so far without being backed up by voices and action in the rest of the organized Jewish community – and by voices and action in Israel. .
Jewish community leaders must do more than simply say we believe in a two-state solution. There must be substance behind that language – and a major commitment by our community to make this work a critical priority. If we continue to fail to heed this call to action, the last and best chance to secure Israel’s democratic, Jewish future may well slip through our fingers, as movements like BDS will only grow stronger and more attractive to an increasing number of people.
If a “broad tent approach” is nothing more than a strategy to look as though we care about Jewish values like democracy, peace and social justice, then it will surely fail – and fail miserably. No one will be convinced for long.
The Jewish community cannot just look as though we are for a sensible, peaceful, and just solution to this conflict. And it cannot only include organizations like J Street and voices like mine on panels about combating delegitimization or in community statements condemning BDS -- and then dismiss us as out of the bounds of community or as “anti-Israel” when we talk about the delegitimizing effects that the continued occupation in the West Bank have on Israel’s democratic character. At some point it will have to take an active stand. That time is now.
One week after the Presbyterian vote came down – one week after I told that room that there are more effective ways of moving Israelis and American Jews than BDS -- the Levy committee’s recommendations became public in Israel, asserting that the settlements are legal. The report drove home the dire implications of an occupation that is killing Israel’s future. Few in the organized Jewish community said anything in response. This was not the first time the community has been nearly silent in the face of an Israeli move that threatened its own future as a Jewish democracy.
What our silence says to the outside world is not our biggest problem. Because it doesn’t just look bad when our community is silent on issues like the Levy report. It is bad. If we let Israel go down this dangerous path, if we let it spiral toward a one-state nightmare without doing something to stop it, the democratic Jewish Israel that we love so much will disappear. We will lose our precious homeland.
So I’ll continue to speak out against BDS initiatives, because I believe they are unhelpful to a democratic Jewish Israel, unhelpful to a two-state solution and unhelpful to peace. But unless our “broad tent” Jewish community demonstrates in word and deed that we are ready to do everything we can to advocate for Israel’s Jewish democratic future, we will not be convincing anyone.
Rachel Lerner is the vice president of the J Street Education Fund.
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