Opinion | Opinion

Op-Ed: The Israel conversation we should be having

NEW YORK (JTA) — The recent vote by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations rejecting J Street’s membership bid was not entirely surprising. J Street had been reaching out to conference members and community contacts for weeks. We knew that gaining the necessary two-thirds majority was a long shot.

Knowing this, why did we apply? The truth is we wanted membership because we believe that we belong at the communal table. We wanted to engage the community — and be engaged by it. We wanted to help open up discourse for a healthier, more vibrant Israel and for a healthier, more vibrant American Jewish community.

Our bid did not succeed, but our rejection has spurred a much-needed debate about who gets to speak for the Jewish community on Israel.

The strong reaction to the vote by the Reform and Conservative movements, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Anti-Defamation League and National Council of Jewish Women has little to do with J Street. And yet, it has everything to do with why J Street was created, which was partly to give voice to the many American Jews who feel the established community does not speak for them.

Clearly, the vote struck a nerve with many who want to see a more robust and pluralistic discussion in our community about Israel.

What would that discussion look like?

Rather than a conversation about the limits on acceptable speech, we need to start talking realistically about the real challenges Israel faces. For too long, the American Jewish community has limited its discourse on Israel to a series of talking points designed only to defend and justify Israeli actions.

We are so afraid of supplying more ammunition to Israel’s detractors that we have shut down our own, internal conversation. All criticism is seen as negative, even when delivered out of love with the aim of making Israel better and helping it come closer to its Zionist ideals.

Of course, anti-Israel sentiment is real. Israel’s detractors should be confronted, rebutted, debated and ultimately defeated. But handing out talking points alone does not make a compelling case to many Jews about why they should care about, engage and identify with Israel.

If all we do is play defense, we miss the chance to draw our young people into a conversation about the Israel they want to be a part of building — about the Israel they want for their children.

Just playing defense does nothing to help Israel fulfill the vision of its founders to become a secure, democratic, Jewish state that is a home for all its citizens. A defensive conversation is like treading water. It keeps your head above the waves, but you never get anywhere.

What we need instead is a conversation that is dynamic, constructive and forward thinking that asks the questions, “What kind of Israel do we want?” and “How can we make Israel better?” That would give our community, especially our young people, something to embrace instead of simply something to defend.

Many will say this kind of conversation is too risky. Israel has enough critics. Why pile on more criticism? Of course, we should defend Israel from its enemies. But we also have an obligation to build and shape an Israel we can all embrace and be proud of.

We constantly hear from J Street U students that they want to connect with Israel — but they also want a say. They don’t want to be told what to think or what to believe. They want to be able to ask hard questions and get thoughtful answers. They want their concerns to be listened to and taken seriously.

A dynamic conversation on Israel would allow us to engage a wider array of Jews from across the political spectrum. A conversation that asks, “What kind of Israel do you want?” would likely get a wide variety of answers.

From an advocacy perspective, this is very valuable. A diversity of viewpoints and a diverse group of supporters can speak effectively on Israel’s behalf to diverse audiences. I have twice been to Presbyterian General Assemblies where I have spoken out against efforts to divest from Israel. I have articulated my concern for Israel’s safety and security, my opposition to BDS and my continued support for Israel along with my shared concern with those who are troubled by the protracted conflict and its impact on Palestinians.

My standing as a peace advocate and supporter of a two-state solution gave me credibility with my Presbyterian audience. My opposition to settlement expansion coupled with my commitment to Israel as a Jewish, democratic state helped defeat BDS in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Beyond such advocacy, a dynamic conversation is also good for Israel. The intention isn’t to simply point out Israel’s shortcomings but to address its challenges and to be a partner in helping to develop solutions.

A dynamic conversation on Israel would serve us well. I look forward to that conversation.

(Rachel Lerner is the senior vice president for community relations at J Street.)