This was a very difficult piece for me to write. My family has a long history of involvement with the Zionist Organization of America. My great-grandfather’s name adorned the front of the building of the Zionist Organization of America House on Forbes Avenue for many years, as he was one of its many Pittsburgh benefactors. I remember visiting the house often, including when I organized a Shabbat dinner there while running Hillel graduate student programs during my years at Carnegie Mellon University. I also led a ZOA/Masada teen tour to Israel after finishing college.
Because of this history, I can’t understand why the ZOA has created a false choice between being pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian. This is a false choice because being pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian are two sides of the same coin. Israelis and Palestinians overwhelmingly support the concept of a two state solution, meaning a state for each people. So do the majority of American Jews and Americans as a whole. Yet instead of helping to achieve this goal, the ZOA argument is intended to divide rather than unite, with the goal of undermining the efforts of those who support a constructive dialogue about promoting Israel’s security and America’s interests in the Middle East.
In particular, the language that the ZOA used in attacking my former organization — J Street — suggests that the ZOA believes that it has the right to define what it means to be pro-Israel. Apparently, the ZOA thinks that those who differ with its policy outlook and vision for Israel deserve to be labeled anti-Israel. Worse, the ZOA also seems to believe that Middle East policy advocates must fit into neat ethnic/cultural/religious boxes — Jews, Arabs, Muslims, Iranians, Christians, Palestinians — and that any crossover amongst these groups is dangerous.
The verbal intimidation tactics expressed by the ZOA are intended to undermine democratic dialogue, thereby preventing an essential and pragmatic way to debate how American policy in the Middle East can help to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict diplomatically.
For example, the ZOA expressed a specific concern about J Street’s invitation to prominent Muslim American Salam Al-Marayati, of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, to its first national conference in October. In response to the ZOA’s charges, here’s what Al-Marayati wrote in a piece in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on Sept. 16:
“The Muslim Public Affairs Council and J Street both engage progressive thinkers and activists in our respective communities to address tough issues, work on Middle East peace as a priority issue, and strive to develop mutual respect between Muslims and Jews. For the first time in American history, American Jews and American Muslims who don’t agree on the narrative of the Middle East conflict are working together to determine their future — not just in the Middle East, but in America.”
These are the words that we need to hear if we are going to achieve peace in the Middle East. When J Street invited Al-Marayati, someone who supports a two-state solution, it courageously chose to have a debate, not fearing differences of opinion. It is ironic that at the same time that the ZOA is seeking to stifle debate, President Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, and Palestinian President Abbas are all endorsing dialogue and are meeting together to demonstrate their desire to work for peace.
In addition, it was particularly troubling to see the ZOA criticize the fact that there are non-Jewish donors to J Street. All Americans should have the right to participate in our public, democratic debate about the future of American policy in the Middle East without fear of intimidation because of their ethnic/cultural/religious background. Those who support J Street know that they’re supporting a pro-Israel, pro-peace policy platform; such diverse and broad American support for these positions is both in Israel and America’s interest.
Instead of attacking these individuals, we should be applauding them for their willingness to engage the Jewish community in promoting peace in the Middle East.
Imagine if a similar litmus test to that of the ZOA were applied to Jews who support non-Jewish organizations? What would we say in the Jewish community if the Red Cross or YMCA were criticized because they had Jewish donors? Would we stand for the Jewish donors being publicly identified and criticized as well? And what would we think of the intentions of the authors of such statements? I know what I would think: that they were trying to prevent Jews from supporting non-Jewish causes and from helping those organizations to succeed. And I am sure that the Jewish community would be justifiably outraged.
Finally, it is worth reiterating that Israel’s future is inextricably linked to the future of the Palestinian people. The creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel will at long last fully delineate the internationally accepted borders of the State of Israel. The lack of a Palestinian state will prevent such a conclusion to the conflict and will keep Israel from gaining the security it deserves. We in the pro-Israel community owe our friends in the Middle East the best American policy possible. An open debate, free from intimidation, will foster such a policy.
(Joel Rubin, deputy director and chief operating officer of the National Security Network in Washington, D.C., and a Pittsburgh native, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His views are his own and not necessarily those of the National Security Network.)