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Monday, December 15, 2014

Thoughts as I stand for re-election



The ballot for the J Street board position is now open. I feel very honored to be part of this organization and to stand for re-election. I’d like to wish Talia, Edward, Virginia, Phyllis, and Howard the best of luck. I know whoever among us sits on the board will serve J Street well.

I am incredibly proud of having served on the board at a time of tremendous growth and success. In the last three years, our influence in Congress has greatly increased, as has our strength in local chapters and on university campuses. We have also had impressive political victories, including winning robust American engagement in the peace process, which alas was unsuccessful, and beating back an effort to ratchet up Iran sanctions in the midst of negotiations. I point this out not to take credit - it surely isn’t mine - but to suggest a path forward.

There is somewhat of a paradox at play. Whenever someone asks me how J Street is doing I can tick off the number of endorsed candidates, 95, the number of J Street U chapters, 62, or the $2.4 million raised in the last election cycle. In just about every metric we are succeeding. Yet, when it comes to moving the dial on the two-state solution, things in Israel seem to be backsliding. And that’s the paradox. The more extreme the politics in Israel become, the more obvious it is here in our community that J Street is a voice of reason.

This past summer I was privileged to lead J Street's solidarity mission to Israel during the Gaza war. The horror and futility of the war was apparent from the outset. Yet, as dire as things were, being on the ground once again confirmed what I feel every time I'm in Israel. While I’m there, it's easy to see why many Israelis believe, or at least convince themselves, that the vibrancy of Israeli life can endure in the face of the occupation. Because for many, especially those in the position to influence opinion, life is that vibrant.
 
But continents away, we have the benefit of perspective that distance provides, and that Israelis either lack or choose to ignore. Israelis know the arguments about the moral decay of the occupation. Likewise, Israelis know the demographic and security arguments. These arguments are made by their fellow Israelis with greater credibility, at least in their eyes, than us. But what we have unique to offer is perspective.
 
Communicating that perspective may be J Street's greatest opportunity and challenge in the short term, certainly ahead of the Israeli elections in March. We need to find a way to express to our brothers and sisters in Israel that the situation will not hold and in a way that they will be open to. Doing so will not be easy. We must not shrink from expressing our concern over an increasingly intolerant society, growing extremism, and a deepening of the occupation that we can see everyday. We must state that the Palestinian people are entitled to self-determination, just as the Jewish people are, and that their non-violent resistance to the occupation is legitimate. Israelis are fond of a saying I heard first from Ariel Sharon explaining what some saw as his new found flexibility upon becoming prime minister: “You see things from here that you don’t see from there.” We now have an opportunity to explain what we see from New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and everywhere in between, that they aren’t seeing in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.
 
I know many people are despairing of the situation, especially with the breakdown of negotiations, the war this summer, and an intifada looking like it will explode at any moment. Pessimists have been cashing bets for a long time. But we have to be right just once and last. And we still have that chance.
 
I ask for your vote and your support for my re-election to the board.

Thank you,
Richard Goldwasser

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Not Everyone

I must have met Aziz Abu Sarah over a year ago. A few of us from J Street Chicago had dinner with him and Kobi Skolnik. At the time Kobi and Aziz were traveling around the United States making the case for Jewish-Arab co-existence. Their personal narratives made their presentation quite compelling. Kobi had come from a religious background and grew up on a settlement in the West Bank. Aziz grew up outside of Jerusalem; Israeli interrogators killed his brother. Usually, the way you see that phrased is "died in Israeli custody." I remember over 20 years ago in Israel reading in the Jerusalem Post that after having his hands  restrained with a belt a Palestinian was "subdued to death." Not a whole lot has changed since.

So back to Aziz. I came across a video of Aziz's presentation at +972 and posted it here. I showed it to my wife. I showed it to my two teenage daughters. I sent it to the Hebrew teacher at the public high school my girls attend. And I sent it to the woman in charge of post bar/bat mitzvah education at my synagogue. (The high school teacher, an Israeli, showed it to the Israel Interests Club. My synagogue has yet to show it.) The presentation made two compelling points for me. The first is that there is hope. That even after having your brother killed, you can still speak about co-existence. The second, and more personal, is that I wanted to be sure that my girls and my community were exposed to Palestinians in a way that doesn't caricature them as suicidal terrorists bent on Israel's destruction. I understood that I could not leave it to my community to teach co-existence, and that I would have to take a hand in it, however small.

Then a couple weeks ago at the J Street Conference, I ran into Aziz in the hallway at the DC convention center, and re-introduced myself to him. Clearly, he had left a greater impression on me at our first meeting than I on him. He smiled and feigned a hint of recognition. I told him that I had greatly appreciated his presentation and had sent the video around, and asked if he would be willing to come back to Chicago. He gladly said yes. In fact, one of his partners in Mejdi, a company that conducts dual narrative tours to Israel and Palestine, is from a Chicago suburb.

Later that night I saw Aziz at the gala dinner. Someone told him that I had won an election to fill an open seat on the J Street Board of Directors, and he congratulated me. When I half-teasingly asked him if he had voted for me, he half-teasingly said that being a Palestinian he didn't want to interfere in our internal elections. I laughed."Everyone could vote," I told him. "Not everyone," he reminded me. Of course. Not everyone. Could it be any plainer than that?

***

My community largely has no interaction with Palestinians and doesn't see their suffering, or if it does see it, it rationalizes it somehow. As a result, when making the case for the urgent need for a two state solution (as opposed to, oh yeah I support a two state solution, but right now we have to attack Iran, and then fight the delegitimization of Israel, and then whatever the next excuse will be), I focus on why it's in Israel's self- interest to do so.Which is absolutely true. I also think it's absolutely necessary to frame it this way, because sadly we're just not able yet to process Palestinian suffering. But it's not the only way to frame the matter, and we must do a better job getting those in the American Jewish community to see what is happening on the other side of the green line. Maybe then they too will be reminded that it ain't only about us.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Keeping the Eye on the Prize


Opening Night

J Street’s third annual conference just concluded and it was a huge success by any measure. It was attended by 2,500 supporters, including nearly 700 college students. President Obama sent two representatives, with his closest confidant, Valerie Jarrett, bringing a packed room to its feet several times. The Israeli government dispatched its number two diplomat to address the conference, the first time one of its representatives appeared at the annual gathering. Ehud Olmert, a former prime minister, presented his remarks at the gala dinner, which was emceed by the legendary Theodore Bikel. And perhaps the most memorable moment was delivered by one of Israel’s pre-eminent authors, Amos Oz, telling a raucous opening night audience: “J Street, I’ve been waiting for you my entire adult life.”

The press coverage was equally impressive. Articles appeared throughout the conference in Haaretz, Ynet, TheJerusalem Post, and the Forward. Notice of the conference was not limited to the Israeli and Jewish press. The New York Times covered J Street’s Lobby Day efforts on Capitol Hill, as 700 activists pressed the case for a two state solution and diplomatic efforts aimed at preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

While the plenary sessions and the panel discussions presented matters of great substance and varying perspectives, the impromtu meetings with Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians who are doing the hard work in the trenches provided the most insight on what is actually happening on the ground.

With all that was packed into the three day conference, reading some of the post conference wraps I can't help but notice some of the attention given to the tangential issue of where J Street and its supporters are found on the left-right political spectrum. First, let me say that I get it.Writers gotta write and bloggers gotta blog. And true, some of the analysis can be interesting to read. But this sort of discussion, like its sister debate in political campaigns, focuses too much on the horse race, obscuring the point that brought 2,500 people together – the urgent push for a two state solution in order to secure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic homeland. Viewed against the existential threat that the lack of a viable peace process presents, trying to place J Street and its supporters along a left-right political spectrum or gauging who earned the loudest, most polite or tepid applause serves only to diminish the dire moment in which we find ourselves.

Israeli Prime Minister and Likud Chair Benjamin Netanyahu has, himself, acknowledged the need for an independent Palestinian state living along side a safe and secure Israel. The former heads of Israel’s security branches overwhelmingly support a two state solution along the 1967 borders with land swaps. A two state solution is both the official policy of the United States government and the PLO. So what’s with the obsession with trying to place J Street, which was founded for the express purpose of advocating for a two state solution, on a left-right continuum? In 2012, a two state solution is simply no longer a left-right issue. It’s a matter that is necessary for Israel’s survival.

Supporters of a two state solution arrive from a variety of perspectives. Many, like former Brigadier General Amram Mitzna, view the matter as necessary from a military-security vantage. Some, like Rabbi Donniel Hartman, come to the conclusion from their understanding of what Judaism requires of us. Others advocate for this solution to vindicate the human rights of the Palestinians. Certainly some see a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians as serving American security interests. And I welcome anyone who is willing to work for a two state solution regardless from which camp he or she comes; although befitting the complexity of human thought many of us find ourselves as belonging to more than one of these camps, or perhaps all of them.

So as we push forward toward the same goal – a safe and secure Jewish and democratic Israel, it is time to move past the false left-right dichotomy. Instead of trying to pigeon hole each other, we should be talking about how to make a two state solution a reality, or at the very least, preserve its possibility. Because we may well discover that while we are taking the temperature of the room, the house has collapsed around us.

Make no mistake. This is what we face if we do not change the current dynamic. Every day that goes by without progress on a two state solution is one day closer to the end of the Zionist enterprise. It is therefore incumbent upon all who care about Israel to ask ourselves every morning what we will do that day to make it happen. The choice now before us is not which path to pursue, but whether we will actually pursue it.

Note: In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a member of the J Street Board of Directors and was privileged to open this year's conference alongside Hannah Fishman of the J Street U chapter at Reed College.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

When Hanin Met Danny



Ami Kaufman of +972 posted a 10 minute clip  of Israeli news anchor Danny Kushmaro interviewing Hanin Zoabi. (Ami's clip provides English subtitles.) For the uninitiated, Hanin is a woman, an Arab and a member of the Israeli Knesset. The clip includes Hanin's brief history in the Knesset as a lighting rod. But what caught me about Ami's post was its title: "WATCH Hanin Zoabi: Israel has no right to live in security."

And indeed during the ten minute segment, Hanin said: "You are not allowed to live in security. An occupying people has no right for a normal life. It has no right." But this brief exchange was not the theme of the interview nor even a major part of it; there was no real followup to this declaration. My point here is not to take issue with or to defend Hanin.What struck me was something altogether different.

I commented at Ami's blog that I found the interview fascinating, but thought the title didn't convey its tenor. When I read "Israel has no right to live in security," I expect conflict. Enmity. Outrage. Though truth be told, what's left to be outraged about? Everything's been said, all the arguments made. But there wasn't even faux outrage. Quite the opposite in fact. I thanked Ami for the post and he responded by asking me what would have been a better title. I replied without offering one. Until now.

The viewer of the aforesaid clip is introduced to Danny and Hanin as they meet cute on the street. The first words you hear from Hanin are playful - "you don't do a warm up talk? You don't want to get to know your interviewee?" The camera follows Danny and Hanin walking through traffic to sit down at an outdoor cafe. The sun is out; they are each wearing sunglasses. Looks like they are drinking mashehu cham (something hot, coffee or tea). They smile at each other and laugh comfortably. What struck me was how utterly Israeli the scene is. Especially Hanin. It's true chevrai. I don't know if she's the most hated person in Israel as the clip suggests, but she may be the most Israeli. Not sure I'm going to win too many friends on either side with that. Oh well, watch the interview and tell me who is supposed to be the "other"?

So Danny asks Hanin how she felt when she was jeered by right wingers in Hebron, who, surprise, surprise, took notice of the fact that she is single. Danny takes his cue and lets us know that Hanin is "almost" 43, has never been married, has no children. A red-blooded Israeli, he basically asks what's up with that? Hanin giggles and explains that she has no plans to marry and no plans not to marry. "I'm very spontaneous on these issues." Danny responds by voice over "this is more or less the most personal we could get to the Balad MK." Not for lack of trying, Danny. But really, this hardly seemed to be the case. Danny tells us that Hanin lives with her parents in Nazareth, has multiple degrees - philosophy, psychology, communications, comes from a well-known family, a former Supreme Court Justice, a former Deputy Health Minister, and former warrior in "God forbid" the Hagganah. (I know some yidlach stateside that would kill for a pedigree like that.)

For her part, Hanin distances herself from her "good Arab" uncles ("now is the time when that oppressed Palestinian lifts his head up and says to you 'Enough'"), sidesteps the oath of allegiance she took to the State of Israel upon becoming a Member of Knesset ("I didn't think about it"), and justified accepting a salary from the state ("a fraction compared to the lands you took from my family"). They go to Hanin's office where she makes Danny coffee. Danny playacts the role of embarrassed guest, concerned about stereotypes of gender and ethnicity, tries in vain to takeover, but ends up submitting to Hanin's "No, no, not yet." All in good fun as it should be. And if you've watched the clip, you know the chemistry is better than I've portrayed.

So what's my take? This looked more like a first date that didn't go all that badly. And I'd definitely tune in to a second. There is hope yet.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Update

As most of you have seen by now, my blogging has slowed down considerably. Aside from trying to navigate the line between my new role as a member of J Street's Board of Directors and blogger, probably the biggest factor is that at the moment I just haven't felt that I have had anything terribly unique to add to the current conversation.While I try to regain my voice, you can find interesting perspectives in the articles posted on the J Street Chicago Facebook page (click like). Talk soon.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Details emerge on Gurvitz investigation

Haaretz runs it down, but essentially Gurvitz wrote in a blog post that armed Israelis including settlers are legitimate targets of the Palestinian military operations:

According to the article:
Gurvitz wrote that there are situations, “In which violence is required and justified, such as resistance to invasion or occupation. However, it is necessary to limit violence to people in combat roles or those who carry weapons, whether they are in uniform or not.”
This paragraph, together with Gurvitz’s response to a reader “talkback” on another blog post he published a few days earlier, are what led the organization to make the official complaint against Gurvitz. The Legal Forum for the Land of Israel claimed that, in response to the talkback, Gurvitz wrote that thesettlers are, “A legitimate target for Palestinian military operations.”
If that's incitement, what the hell is this: