Not long ago I wrote to the Jewish Standard, sticking my neck out to urge support of the president and his nomination of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense. I tried to make the case that it was good for America and good for Israel, in the face of many voices to the contrary.
Now I do so again, urging support for the initiatives of the new secretary of state, John Kerry, in the face of many who would demur.
I stick my neck out because I am a dual American/Israeli citizen who loves both countries. And I passionately believe in informed debate (also the subject of a piece in the Jewish Standard during the presidential debate season, and at the heart of my new book, “Judaism’s Great Debates”).
As I see it, President Obama and Secretary Kerry are not willing to give up on peace, and neither should we. Their efforts are not merely wishful idealism, but born of a political urgency that is right there before our eyes, though we perhaps seek to avert our gaze.
Kerry shuttles to the Middle East on his fifth visit, hoping to jumpstart peace talks before the window for a two-state solution closes for good. He recognizes the fragility of the status quo, the growing isolation of Israel in the world, the spread of pessimism on both sides, and the genuine opportunities for peace that will not last much longer. So he’s giving this peace initiative everything he’s got, but with Israel’s survival as a democratic, Jewish homeland on the line, there is no room for failure.
Three weeks ago, in an address before the American Jewish Committee, Kerry summoned us to action. “No one has a stronger voice in this than the American Jewish community,” he said. “Let your leaders and your neighbors alike know that you understand this will be a tough process with tough decisions, but that you’re ready to back the leaders who make them.”
Kerry’s words were greeted with animated applause from his audience. And then … nothing. With the exception of the American Jewish Committee, the Union for Reform Judaism, J Street, and a handful of pro-peace groups, the organizational Jewish community has responded with an uncomfortable silence.
One Jewish leader called Kerry’s plea “inappropriate,” while others made passive statements about their commitment to peace. And still others placed responsibility squarely with the Palestinians. Anywhere but at our own feet.
Clearly, this aversion to engage with Israel on tough issues runs deep in our community’s organizational DNA. But ask the Israelis. In Israel, Kerry’s challenge to American Jews was welcomed heartily by MK Hilik Bar, chair of the new Knesset Caucus for Ending the Arab-Israeli conflict. “I join you in asking them to make their voices heard in Israel,” Bar wrote in a letter to Kerry.
And he is not alone. A new survey by the Ruderman Family Foundation found that nearly two-thirds of Israelis believe that the perspectives of American Jews should be considered when it comes to the peace process.
The majority of Israelis understand that Israel is a project of the entire Jewish people, and both of our communities will rise and fall together. It is time that we as American Jews recognize this historic responsibility to provide Israelis with the honest advice that they deserve that comes from a shared stake in the future of the Jewish homeland.
In his now-famous Jerusalem speech, President Obama promised Israelis that “political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do. You must create the change that you want to see.”
The Israeli in me heard him that day, and I will be doing everything that I can to make sure that Israel seizes this chance for peace. But I cannot stop there. I will also be rallying as an American Jew, because we have a stake in Kerry’s success. We owe it to our brothers and sisters in Israel to rise urgently to this challenge. They deserve nothing less. We deserve nothing less.
In this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas – and by extension, all of us – are given a brit shalom, a “covenant of peace,” perhaps to curb our tendency to resort to violence. It is a precious gift, if we use it.
If we become peacemakers.
If we give peace a chance.