I’ve spent a lot of my life in Washington — watching first-hand as “inside the Beltway” machers seek to effect change from the top down. I’ve watched- and learned from — activists and advocates who seek to effect change by focusing exclusively on elected officials, Washington-based staff and national media.
And I’ve learned one clear lesson — in our democracy, there can’t be real change unless the people in power really believe that the grassroots is behind them. We truly are a representative democracy, and our elected officials know that as fast as they are swept into office, they can be voted back out.
Therefore, I’ve come to see that the only way to achieve durable change is to mobilize grassroots support as an integral element of any advocacy campaign. For those of us looking to impact American policy in the Middle East and to hasten the achievement of a two-state solution, the time to mobilize the grassroots is now.
Over the last year or two, Washington has begun to feel a fresh wind blowing from the Jewish community and pro-Israel advocates. Organizations — new and old — have gotten more of a hearing than before and political leaders and policy makers seem more open to our views.
They’re hearing and appreciating our challenge to conventional thinking on what it means to be pro-Israel, and our commitment to advancing a pro-peace agenda. They have seen the raw numbers proving that most American Jews do hold pro-Israel, pro-peace positions, with three-quarters believing that an independent Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel is the best possible resolution of the conflict, and two-thirds of us supporting active American engagement in achieving a solution, including pushing all parties to make necessary compromises.
The paradox is that while the winds of change are beginning to blow at the national level, many pro-peace Jews are feeling alone and isolated and, in their communities, they haven’t yet been able to break through the conventional wisdom about American Jewish opinion shared by their local leaders.
Many Jewish leaders and politicians continue to act as though the Jewish community is content with status quo, with persistent conflict and a belief that military solutions exist to what are fundamentally political problems.
Demanding that there be no change in the status quo, they fail to see that there no longer is a “status quo” — there is only a steady deterioration. In so doing, they place Israel itself at the mercy of demographic shifts that mean the state may soon need to make the grim choice between being a democratic nation, or a Jewish one.
Frustration over the phenomenon of “leaders” who fail to represent the actual interests of the American Jewish public has led to a powerful sense of alienation and disenfranchisement, particularly among young people — with the result that they have removed themselves from a conversation in which they don’t feel themselves to be welcome.
But if we’re to achieve our goal, a true resolution of the conflict, this disconnect must be rectified, and soon. We have to broaden the conversations about Israel within our communities, and let people know that their contributions to the struggle for lasting peace are vital, empowering them to act.
For many, this will be a process of homecoming. Having feared that they were in the political wilderness, they will learn that in fact their views do represent the Jewish mainstream. There is little more pro-Israel than working to achieve a two-state solution, particularly as this is the best and perhaps only way to ensure Israel’s future as a democratic Jewish homeland.
But to be successful, we’ll have to work hard, and work fast. We’ll have to hold meetings in living rooms and JCCs, even as we meet with members of Congress and Senators.
And in mobilizing the grassroots, in networking and building bridges, we’ll create a powerful mechanism for political change.
There’s nothing easy about the task before us. The divisions between Israel and the Palestinians are real, and the American government is hesitant to push a return to talks. War isn’t overturned in a day, and entrenched attitudes aren’t shifted in a moment.
Those of us in the American Jewish community who understand that a two-state solution is vital to Israel’s security must now join together to take decisive action, to remind ourselves and the world: Supporting Israeli-Palestinian peace is mainstream, it’s pro-Israel – and it has never been more urgent.
(Jeremy Ben-Ami, the founder and executive director of J Street.)