In a little less than two weeks, Jews the world over will usher in the New Year 5771 with prayer, song and contemplation. It is the time of year when, we are told, God wipes both our individual and collective slates clean so that we may begin anew, armed with moral energy, spiritual strength and, perhaps most important of all, hope. A few days before Rosh Hashana, representatives of Israel and the Palestinians will begin face-to-face negotiations with Secretary of State Clinton in Washington, D.C.; negotiations which one can hope and pray might -- just might -- one day lead to the resolution of a conflict which has been both the bedevilment and the rallying cry of two implacable foes for more than three generations. The Obama Administration's goal is to reach a comprehensive deal within a single year. To be certain this is a tall, tall order.
But it is the beginning of a new year, in which, despite long odds, there is always hope.
Already, pundits, commentators and experts are streaming out of the woodwork, proclaiming that these negotiations -- like all negotiations past -- are doomed to failure; that the issues which have so long divided the two sides -- settlements, reparations, the status of Jerusalem, the right of return -- are so case-hardened as to be unbridgeable. In an August 20 article, the New York Times' Ethan Bronner characterized the upcoming talks as a " . . . pairing [of] the unwilling with the unable." Bonner quotes Zakaria al-Qaq, vice president of Al Quds University who, despite being a well-respected Palestinian moderate, views the upcoming negotiations as " . . . the option of the crippled and the helpless . . . an act of self-deception that will lead nowhere." And according Nahum Barnea, Israel's best-known, most respected political columnist: "Most Israelis have decided that nothing is going to come out of it, that it will have no bearing on their lives. So why should they care?"
Nonetheless, it is the beginning of a new year, in which, despite long odds, there is always hope.
Martin Indyk, President Clinton's Ambassador to Israel, believes that many of the issues dividing Jews and Palestinians have already been ironed out in previous negotiations. In a well-reasoned article in today's New York Times, Ambassador Indyk expresses why he feels cautiously optimistic about the upcoming negotiations. It is an article well worth reading.
To be certain, there are many who fail to find any comfort in Ambassador Indyk's telling of the story.
For many American Jews, peace between Israel and the Palestinians is something to be wished and prayed for, just so long as it conforms to the Zionist ideal. For many Jews, the very thought of sitting down and negotiating with representatives of a people who refuse to recognize the State of Israel is both pointless and absurd. For many, being a Zionist means never having to see the other side's point of view, because it lacks both truth and moral clarity. In certain circles those who publicly question or have even slight misgivings about Israel's actions are considered disloyal; as those who give "aid and comfort to the enemy."
For more than 50 years, A.I.P.A.C., the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has been the unflinching political voice of American Jewry when it comes to Israel. They have long been one of the most respected, most effective lobbying organizations on Capitol Hill, providing information, insight and a distinctly pro-Israel point of view. Their annual Washington dinner (which I have attended twice) is a "must" for the denizens of Capitol Hill; it seemingly brings out more political "stars" -- both Democrat and Republican -- than Hollywood's Academy Awards. To not show up is a political faux pas of the first order. Where once A.I.P.A.C. was a refreshing young upstart in the world of lobbying, today it has joined the Establishment. This is not to say anything bad or negative about it or its mission; rather merely to state a truism.
Today, however, just in time for the next stage in negotiations, there is an upstart on the block: "J. Street." Founded a mere two years ago, J Street has grown like Topsy. Today, it has a paid staff of more than three dozen, plus regional grassroots organizations throughout the country. J. Street describes its mission as "Giving political voice to mainstream American Jews and other supporters of Israel who, informed by their progressive and Jewish values, believe that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is essential to Israel's survival. . ." Like A.I.P.A.C., J Street provides members of the Administration and the folks on Capitol Hill with information, insight and tangible (read: financial) support. Unlike A.I.P.A.C. however, J Street contends that those who attempt to understand the Palestinian point of view; those who see the need for a two-state solution are still good Zionists; that there is nothing antithetical to being both pro-Israel and pro-peace.
For many, this last statement is far from a given. Just the other night, here in Broward County, we had our first organizational meeting for the South Florida chapter of J Street. About 60 people came, including at least 5 rabbis, several well-known political activists, a local judge, a gentleman who traveled all the way from Port St. Lucie, and a local Palestinian peace activist. As we pulled on to the campus of the Soref Jewish Community Center where the meeting was held, we were greeted by about a dozen protesters holding signs proclaiming "No Negotiations With Murderers!" "J Street Will Spell the Death of Israel!" and "Shame On You!"
Once our meeting began it became clear that several of the people in the auditorium weren't there because of their interest in the J Street agenda or lobbying for a two-state solution. Rather, they were there to disrupt the gathering by challenging virtually everything that was said, and repeatedly reminding us of things like, "It was the Arab leadership who told their brethren to leave Jerusalem in '48," "Prior to 1967 there was no such thing as the 'Palestinian people,'" and "Representative X is an anti-Semite who hates the State of Israel." (This latter assertion, made about a congressman currently running for the United States Senate, was particularly confusing, considering that the man has a near perfect voting record when it comes to Israel. Turns out, their enmity toward this gentleman stemmed from the fact that he had defeated a Jewish incumbent.)
The arguments raised by those intent on disrupting the meeting were nothing new. They are the sort of arguments -- many based on historic animosities and antipathies -- which have long doomed any hope for a peaceful resolution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. These arguments essentially tell the Palestinians "We won't give an inch until you give at least a mile-and-a-half and admit that you are wrong, wrong, wrong!"
Once the disruptors were convinced to act like ladies and gentlemen and our conversation was able to proceed, it became clear that all of us were ohavei tzion, namely, "lovers of Israel." It also became clear that a love of Israel can be coupled with a desire for real, tangible peace without the fear of being branded a traitor.
From where I sit and write, J Street has come into existence at precisely the right time.
For this is the beginning of a new year, in which, despite long odds there is always hope.
©Kurt F. Stone