President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., on April 20. Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters

Jewish organizations welcome Trump Yom HaShoah remarks

Jewish organizations representing a variety of viewpoints on Tuesday praised President Donald Trump for his Holocaust Remembrance Day remarks.

“We welcome President Trump’s clear pledge today to confront anti-Semitism and we look forward to working with the president and his administration to put his pledge into action,” Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), said in a statement, a departure from many recent ADL statements that have criticized the president for his failure to denounce the apparent rise of anti-Semitism in the United States.

“We deeply appreciate President Trump’s heartfelt remarks today commemorating the Holocaust and honoring the memory of the six million Jewish people mercilessly killed by the Nazi regime,” Orthodox Union (OU) President Mark Bane said in a statement.

“After several gross missteps related to Holocaust remembrance in the first 100 days of his administration, President Trump finally struck the right note in his speech at the Capitol today at a ceremony in honor of victims of the Shoah,” left-leaning pro-Israel group JStreet said in a statement.

JStreet added the president should fire Steve Bannon, chief strategist in the Trump administration and Sebastian Gorka, deputy assistant to the president, in order to demonstrate his words are more than empty promises.

“If he wants his words to carry conviction, the president should fire both men immediately,” the JStreet statement said.

Appearing at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Days of Remembrance ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda, Trump emphasized support for Israel, mourned the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust and said he would not tolerate acts of anti-Semitism.

“The state of Israel is an eternal monument to the undying strength of the Jewish people,” Trump said on Tuesday, hours after the conclusion of Yom HaShoah, which began Sunday evening, ended Monday evening and commemorates the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust between 1933-1945.

Trump’s words followed his omission of the word, “Jews,” from remarks in January commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Yom HaShoah was established by the Israeli government. International Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorates the liberation of Auschwitz and was established by the United Nations General Assembly.

Here are the president’s Yom HaShoah remarks in full:

THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you very much.  Thank you.  Friends, members of Congress, ambassadors, veterans, and, most especially, to the survivors here with us today, it’s an honor to join you on this very, very solemn occasion.  I am deeply moved to stand before those who survived history’s darkest hour.  Your cherished presence transforms this place into a sacred gathering.

Thank you, Tom Bernstein, Alan Holt, Sara Bloomfield, and everyone at the Holocaust Memorial Council and Museum for your vital work and tireless contributions.

We are privileged to be joined by Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, friend of mine — he’s done a great job and said some wonderful words — Ron Dermer.  The State of Israel is an eternal monument to the undying strength of the Jewish people.  The fervent dream that burned in the hearts of the oppressed is now filled with the breath of life, and the Star of David waves atop a great nation arisen from the desert.

To those in the audience who have served America in uniform, our country eternally thanks you.  We are proud and grateful to be joined today by veterans of the Second World War who liberated survivors from the camps.  Your sacrifice helped save freedom for the world — for the entire world.  (Applause.)

Sadly, this year marks the first Day of Remembrance since the passing of Elie Wiesel, a great person, a great man.  His absence leaves an empty space in our hearts, but his spirit fills this room.  It is the kind of gentle spirit of an angel who lived through hell, and whose courage still lights the path from darkness.  Though Elie’s story is well known by so many people, it’s always worth repeating.  He suffered the unthinkable horrors of the Holocaust.  His mother and sister perished in Auschwitz.  He watched his father slowly dying before his own young eyes in Buchenwald.  He lived through an endless nightmare of murder and death, and he inscribed on our collective conscience the duty we have to remember that long, dark night so as never to again repeat it.

The survivors in this hall, through their testimony, fulfill the righteous duty to never forget, and engrave into the world’s memory the Nazi genocide of the Jewish people.  You witnessed evil, and what you saw is beyond description, beyond any description.  Many of you lost your entire family, everything and everyone you loved, gone.  You saw mothers and children led to mass slaughter.  You saw the starvation and the torture.  You saw the organized attempt at the extermination of an entire people — and great people, I must add.  You survived the ghettos, the concentration camps and the death camps.  And you persevered to tell your stories.  You tell of these living nightmares because, despite your great pain, you believe in Elie’s famous plea, that “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”

That is why we are here today — to remember and to bear witness.  To make sure that humanity never, ever forgets.
The Nazis massacred 6 million Jews.  Two out of every three Jews in Europe were murdered in the genocide.  Millions more innocent people were imprisoned and executed by the Nazis without mercy, without even a sign of mercy.

Yet, even today, there are those who want to forget the past.  Worse still, there are even those filled with such hate, total hate, that they want to erase the Holocaust from history.  Those who deny the Holocaust are an accomplice to this horrible evil.  And we’ll never be silent — we just won’t — we will never, ever be silent in the face of evil again.  (Applause.)

Denying the Holocaust is only one of many forms of dangerous anti-Semitism that continues all around the world.  We’ve seen anti-Semitism on university campuses, in the public square, and in threats against Jewish citizens.  Even worse, it’s been on display in the most sinister manner when terrorists attack Jewish communities, or when aggressors threaten Israel with total and complete destruction.

This is my pledge to you:  We will confront anti-Semitism (Applause.)  We will stamp out prejudice.  We will condemn hatred.  We will bear witness.  And we will act.  As President of the United States, I will always stand with the Jewish people — and I will always stand with our great friend and partner, the State of Israel.

So today, we remember the 6 million Jewish men, women and children whose lives and dreams were stolen from this Earth.
We remember the millions of other innocent victims the Nazis so brutally targeted and so brutally killed.  We remember the survivors who bore more than we can imagine.  We remember the hatred and evil that sought to extinguish human life, dignity, and freedom.

But we also remember the light that shone through the darkness.  We remember sisters and brothers who gave everything to those they loved — survivors like Steven Springfield, who, in the long death march, carried his brother on his back.  As he said, “I just couldn’t give in.”

We remember the brave souls who banded together to save the lives of their neighbors — even at the risk of their own life.  And we remember those first hopeful moments of liberation, when at long last the American soldiers arrived in camps and cities throughout occupied Europe, waving the same beautiful flags before us today, speaking those three glorious words:  “You are free.”

It is this love of freedom, this embrace of human dignity, this call to courage in the face of evil that the survivors here today have helped to write onto our hearts.  The Jewish people have endured oppression, persecution, and those who have sought and planned their destruction.  Yet, through the suffering, they have persevered.  They have thrived.  And they have enlightened the world.  We stand in awe of the unbreakable spirit of the Jewish people.

I want to close with a story enshrined in the Museum that captures the moment of liberation in the final days of the war.  
It is the story of Gerda Klein, a young Jewish woman from Poland. Some of you know her.  Gerda’s family was murdered by the Nazis. She spent three years imprisoned in labor camps, and the last four months of the war on a terrible death march.  She assumed it was over.  At the end, on the eve of her 21st birthday, her hair had lost all of its color, and she weighed a mere 68 pounds.  Yet she had the will to live another day.  It was tough.

Gerda later recalled the moment she realized that her long-awaited deliverance had arrived.  She saw a car coming towards her.  Many cars had driven up before, but this one was different.  On its hood, in place of that wretched swastika, was a bright, beautiful, gleaming white star.  Two American soldiers got out. One walked up to her.  The first thing Gerda said was what she had been trained to say:  “We are Jewish, you know.”  “We are Jewish.”  And then he said, “So am I.”  It was a beautiful moment after so much darkness, after so much evil.

As Gerda took this solider to see the other prisoners, the American did something she had long forgotten to even expect — he opened the door for her.  In Gerda’s words, “that was the moment of restoration of humanity, of humanness, of dignity, and of freedom.”

But the story does not end there.  Because, as some of you know, that young American soldier who liberated her and who showed her such decency would soon become her husband.  A year later, they were married.  In her words, “He opened not only the door for me, but the door to my life and to my future.”

Gerda has since spent her life telling the world of what she witnessed.  She, like those survivors who are among us today, has dedicated her life to shining a light of hope through the dark of night.

Your courage strengthens us.  Your voices inspire us.  And your stories remind us that we must never, ever shrink away from telling the truth about evil in our time.  Evil is always seeking to wage war against the innocent and to destroy all that is good and beautiful about our common humanity.  But evil can only thrive in darkness.  And what you have brought us today is so much more powerful than evil.  You have brought us hope — hope that love will conquer hatred, that right will defeat wrong, and that peace will rise from the ashes of war.

Each survivor here today is a beacon of light, and it only takes one light to illuminate even the darkest space.  Just like it takes only one truth to crush a thousand lies and one hero to change the course of history.  We know that in the end, good will triumph over evil, and that as long as we refuse to close our eyes or to silence our voices, we know that justice will ultimately prevail.

So today we mourn.  We remember.  We pray.  And we pledge:  Never again.

Thank you.  God bless you, and God bless America.  Thank you very much.  Thank you.  (Applause.)


With pro-Israel groups all but absent, UCLA student government endorses divestment

UPDATE, 3:00 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 19: UCLA Chancellor Gene Block released a statement, which reads in part: “UCLA and the UCLA Foundation share the Board of Regents conviction that divestment decisions should not hold any one organization or country to a different standard than any other. The Board of Regents does not support divestment in companies that engage in business with Israel and UCLA agrees with that position.”

Some students held up posters, others wore t-shirts with pro-divestment slogans and most of the 400 UCLA undergraduates present repeatedly snapped their fingers along in near-unanimous agreement as they packed an auditorium on campus Tuesday night to hear – in the school's second public hearing in 2014 – their student government debate passage of a symbolic resolution that would call on school administrators to divest university funds from American companies that do business in the Israeli-controlled West Bank.

And unlike in the previous attempt in February, which failed by two votes, the student government voted this time for divestment by a decisive 8-2 margin, adding UCLA to a small but growing list of universities where the elected, representative undergraduate body endorsed the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which aims to weaken Israel and promote the Palestinian cause via economic pressure.

Supporters of the resolution, who comprised nearly 100 percent of the audience, saw the move as a protest against American economic support of what they view as Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.

And prompted by a new strategy enacted by some of UCLA’s Jewish student groups, including Hillel at UCLA, Bruins for Israel and J-Street U, supporters of Israel effectively boycotted the hearing in an attempt to discredit and delegitimize UCLA’s strengthening pro-BDS movement. Only about 10 student representatives and members from those three organizations sat together during the hearing. While none of them participated in the public comment period that would have given the floor to dozens of divestment opponents in two-minute intervals, four of them made their case against divestment to the student government during a scripted 15-minute speech.

“We are not going to have our community sit through however long a session of bullying and hate speech,” said Tammy Rubin in an interview before the hearing began. Rubin is the president emeritus of Hillel at UCLA. She said that unlike last year, Hillel at UCLA, Bruins for Israel and J-Street U will now use the time not spent on opposing symbolic divestment resolutions to “reinvest in our community.”

“We’re not not fighting it [divestment],” Rubin said. “We are just fighting it strategically in a different way.”

Gil Bar-Or, president of the UCLA branch of J-Street U, described an approach that would differ markedly from that of last year’s pro-Israel community, which passionately and publicly opposed divestment actions in a climate of toxic relations between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students.

“We are trying to present an approach that’s creating positive things for both people that are involved in the conflict and not alienating anybody,” Bar-Or said. “In order to promote one community’s interests you do not have to trample on the other community’s interests.” In place of rallying against the divestment resolution, Hillel at UCLA, Bruins for Israel, and J-Street U hosted an alternate off-site meeting with about 125 pro-Israel students, where they discussed the thinking behind the new tactics and how Jewish UCLA students can strengthen their community.

At Tuesday evening’s hearing, while dozens of divestment supporters from a broad spectrum of various ethnic, national, religious and gender student groups took the podium during the hour they were granted for public comment, not a single pro-Israel student took the podium, even as the few present divestment opponents brought forward a list of 2,000 students who signed a statement opposing divestment.

And while the public comments coming from the pro-divestment side covered an enormously wide array of political grievances—from exploitative capitalism and U.S. drone strikes to discriminatory gender bathroom rules at UCLA and Chicano feminists—each settled on a similar opinion: UCLA should divest from American companies doing business in parts of Israel. Virtually every public comment was met with a sea of approving snaps and the occasional holler.

Some of the commenters included Arab-American UCLA students who described the plight of friends and relatives who live in the Gaza Strip, and two Palestinian students studying at UCLA—but who were not present—recorded an interview that divestment supporters played on a large projector.

During February’s vote, with no time limit and with members of the public permitted to submit public comments, the hearing went until dawn before the student government voted 7-5 against divestment. This year, though, security guards manned every door, only current UCLA students and approved media were allowed inside, and the student government ensured that the evening would end relatively early—this time officials voted just before midnight.

Just before the vote, when it was already clear that the student government would endorse divestment, Avinoam Baral, an Israeli native and the government’s president, emotionally lambasted divestment supporters, accusing them of targeting Jews and Israelis while purporting to be concerned about human rights in general.

“[The resolution] says this language that it’s not meant to target you, but there’s a difference between intention and action and if our intention is to divest from all countries violating human rights and the actual effect is to only divest from Israel, the only Jewish state in the world, it’s hard for me to take it any other way,” Baral said. “It’s hard for me to not feel targeted.” After Baral concluded, student government representatives voted, and as their votes were tallied, the auditorium erupted in applause. About 20 minutes later, around one hundred divestment supporters gathered outdoors and chanted slogans such as, “Free, free Palestine.”

Just moments after the vote, Amber Latif, a UCLA sophomore and member of the campus branch of Students for Justice in Palestine, was pleased with her side's victory but “unnerved” by Avinoam Baral’s vocal opposition.

“I’m trying to think if there’s anything that we could’ve done to make the Jewish community feel less targeted by this,” Latif said. “But I feel like we did everything to the best of our powers.”

The small and hugely outnumbered pro-Israel group of students that came all sat together and provided some lonely snaps in response to comments by Baral and the other representative who opposed the resolution. Those interviewed reaffirmed their support of the Jewish community’s decision to sit out the divestment vote, but still appeared visibly upset after the council resoundingly endorsed it.

Natalie Charney, the student board president for Hillel at UCLA, led the alternate off-site meeting and, while disturbed by what she saw at the divestment hearing, expressed no regret at Jewish groups’ decisions to avoid it.

“We don’t validate this conversation, not in a space where people are able to spew hatred and anti-Semitism,” Charney said. “We didn’t subject Jewish students, pro-Israel students, to the hate that is in this room.”

Omer Hit, the vice president of Bruins for Israel, said he’s concerned that UCLA may now be perceived as “not a good place for an entire Jewish community.”

“I am thankful that we did not have to bring our entire community to sit through that,” he said. “That would’ve been heartbreaking. Look at it now—it’s already heartbreaking for the six of us that came.”

“I know that this is all a PR thing,” Hit added. “I’m afraid that they were able to dominate that.”

Path to peace: StandWithUs

On Monday evening, March 11, I had a public discussion with Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder and president of J Street, at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles. The topics included how American Jews should approach pro-Israel advocacy, whether peace is currently attainable between Israel and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, and what American Jews can do to help the two sides reach an agreement.

We agreed that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is dangerous and harmful to Israel. We agreed that the Palestinian teaching of hate, incitement and terrorism is an impediment to peace, and we both professed a desire for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

[Read a counterargument to this column here: Pathway to peace: J Street]

We strongly disagreed, however, on some critical issues. J Street argued that American Jews should lobby the U.S. government to pressure Israel into changing some of its policies. Referring to a statement from J Street’s Web site, I read aloud that, “J Street was formed to change the conversation on Israel and to give voice to American Jews who believe that they have a responsibility to vocally oppose Israeli government policies that threaten Israel’s future.” While Ben-Ami claimed he did not recognize this statement from his Web site, I was troubled that J Street felt it had a right to lobby the American government in order to pressure Israel — and its democratically elected government — into pursuing J Street’s agenda. 

We also disagreed about whether Abbas is a reliable partner for peace. While Ben-Ami assured the audience that “this is the time, and Abbas is the man,” I noted that just two months ago, in January 2013, Abbas honored past Palestinian terrorist leaders, including the Mufti of Jerusalem who collaborated with Adolf Hitler to bring the Holocaust to the Middle East. I questioned how Ben-Ami could trust Israel’s security in the hands of Abbas, who promotes one set of values to his Arabic constituency and quite another to Western audiences.  

Likewise, Ben-Ami and I differed on how he characterized certain facts. For instance:

Beitar soccer games: Ben-Ami suggested that Israeli incitement and Palestinian incitement are similar. I expressed that I felt this was an unreasonable comparison. For evidence, he pointed out that Israeli crowds at Jerusalem soccer matches shout, “Death to Arabs” so much that former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he could no longer root for his team. In response, I noted that this is a critical point: Olmert represented the State of Israel and he condemned such views. I said that you can judge a society by the way its leadership responds when its people say or do hateful things. 

Ben-Ami then implied that there was a lack of an official Israeli government response to the hateful soccer rhetoric because Olmert is now a private citizen. In fact, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu strongly condemned the racist comments of Beitar fans. 

Monument for Baruch Goldstein: When I cited Baruch Goldstein as an example of how Israel denounces acts of violence by Israelis against Palestinian civilians, he stated that Israel “funded a monument [to Baruch Goldstein]. See the public memorial!” In fact, Israel never funded a monument to Baruch Goldstein. There was indeed a monument erected by some Goldstein supporters, but the Israeli army demolished it after the Knesset passed a law in 1999 forbidding memorials to terrorists. My point was that the Israeli government condemned Goldstein as a terrorist while the PA government glorifies terrorists.  

Demographic threat: Ben-Ami repeated his oft-made declaration that Israel must be pressured into making peace now because demographics are such that Jews will be a minority in Israel within a generation and “will be ruling over a majority that doesn’t have rights.” I called this fear-mongering and asked Ben-Ami if he includes the Palestinian population of 1.5 million people living in Gaza in his accounting of Israeli demographic concerns. This is a critical point because Israel no longer has administrative or political control over the Gaza population. Ben-Ami admitted he includes the population of Gaza. Interestingly, if we remove Gaza from these calculations, Ben-Ami’s demographic numbers are reduced by 50 percent and no longer make the case for the demographic threat being an emergency. 

Humanitarian blockade on Gaza: Ben-Ami asserted that Israel caused a humanitarian crisis in Gaza in the 2008 war through its blockade and that the blockade was lifted in part because of J Street’s lobbying. I pointed out that Israel has consistently allowed food and medical supplies into Gaza, even during wars and blockades. At the time, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which provides aid to Palestinian refugees, said that the agency received 15 trucks of aid a day and had two months of stock in Gaza to aid recipients.  

Mediation techniques: While I agreed with Ben-Ami’s statements that we need an active American role in facilitating Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, I disagreed with his desire to impose specific details about what the peace agreement should be. As an honest broker, I would hope that the American role would be to mediate a plan arrived at by the parties themselves, rather than pressuring the parties into pre-existing expectations. President Barack Obama himself echoed this sentiment when he recently said that his role should be to listen to both sides and help them work out compromises.

Looking back at the evening’s discussion, I am saddened that Ben-Ami insists that he and J Street are helping Israel, when in reality the actions of his organization are only hurting Israel and the advancement of peace. Although we all wish for a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, J Street’s work only emboldens Palestinians to continue their history of rejectionism and incitement. J Street encourages Palestinian refusal to return to negotiations because it does not require any accountability from them and does not seek to change hateful attitudes toward Israel — both of which are prerequisites for a lasting peace.  

Roz Rothstein is the CEO of StandWithUs.

Path to peace: J Street

Opponents of J Street consistently argue that our positions are somehow radical, strange and way out of the Israeli or American-Jewish mainstream.

The opposite is true: When it comes to Israeli-Palestinian peace, the two-state solution and the inexorable demographic threat to Israel’s future as a democratic state that remains the homeland for the Jewish people, our position is the same as that of the Israeli government, the Obama administration and the vast bulk of the American Jewish community.

It is right-wing critics like StandWithUs CEO Roz Rothstein who are out of step.

[Read a counterargument to this column here: Path to peace: StandWithUs]

Take for example the two-state solution. Israeli ambassador Michael Oren, in a March 15 NPR interview, said he agreed with our view that the current situation is unsustainable. 

“I think it’s preferable to replace it with a two-state solution based on recognition of the Palestinian people and their unassailable right to self-determination to live in their own state and their own homeland and the recognition of the Jewish people and its unassailable right to self-determination and our right to live in an independent state in our ancestral homeland. That is the only way to end the conflict and bring about a permanent and legitimate peace,” Oren said.

Rothstein argues that Israel has no Palestinian partner with whom to negotiate. Ambassador Oren, citing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, disagreed: “He says we have someone to negotiate with. It’s President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority.”

On the demographic threat to Israel’s Jewish character, this is how Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak framed it in his speech to AIPAC: “We need a daring peace initiative vis-à-vis the Palestinians. A two-state solution is the only viable long-term solution. It is a compelling imperative for us, in order to secure our identity and our future as a Jewish and democratic state; it’s not a favor for the Palestinians.”

Rothstein contends that if we take the Palestinian population of Gaza out of the equation, there is no demographic threat to Israel’s Jewish majority. But Sergio DellaPergola of the Hebrew University, who is the foremost expert on the subject, disagrees.

Right now, the total number of Jews and Arabs living under Israeli rule in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza is just under 12 million people. Already, under 50 percent of the population is Jewish. Those figures will continue to worsen over time because Palestinian birthrates outstrip Jewish birthrates.

Contrary to Rothstein’s view, DellaPergola’s figures show that taking Gaza out of the equation does not buy Israel much time. If Israel continues to occupy the West Bank alone (without Gaza), Jews will constitute only 54 percent of the population by 2030 and 45 percent by 2048 when it celebrates its 100th anniversary.

Rothstein makes much out of my contention that for negotiations to succeed, an active and leading U.S. role will be required. My view is based on common sense and informed by the views of experts in conflict resolution like Allen S. Weiner of Stanford University.

In a Feb. 28 op-ed in the International Herald Tribune, Weiner argues that, “direct talks between implacable foes, without active mediation, may be the worst possible way to try to settle the conflict. Facing one’s adversary directly across the table heightens psychological barriers even to a mutually beneficial deal.”

Weiner continues: “The parties to the conflict are prisoners to beliefs based on their history, which color the way they see both themselves and their adversaries. As a result, it is hard for them to interpret information, evaluate risk and set priorities in a purely rational way. Even when an advantageous deal is on the table, they are psychologically disposed to reject it.”

At the end of the day, J Street exists to help Israel reach the deal it needs and wants so much and which is so central to its future as a Jewish state and as a democracy. It’s also a crucial U.S. national strategic interest. As citizens of this democracy, we have an obligation to state our views and the right to be active in the political arena.

We work for a strong America and all that it represents in the world. And we work for a safe, secure, democratic Israel living at peace with its neighbors. 

Jeremy Ben-Ami is the executive director of J Street.

J Street, StandWithUs heads tangle at Temple Isaiah

These are tough times for people hoping for a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

A recent cover story in The New Republic optimistically called the prospects for a two-state solution “not altogether hopeless.” President Barack Obama has made clear that he will not present a new peace plan during his visit to Israel later this month. And in Los Angeles, a recent, tense conversation between two leaders of opposing pro-Israel groups at Temple Isaiah ended without any evidence of common ground between them. 

Jeremy Ben-Ami, the founder and president of J Street, a “pro-Israel, pro-Peace” lobbying group, and Roz Rothstein, co-founder and CEO of the right-leaning pro-Israel nonprofit StandWithUs, appeared together on stage at the L.A. synagogue on March 11 for a well-attended conversation about Israel’s future and the role of the American Jewish community. 

Over the course of the 90-minute event, the two differed on a number of issues, including how much area in the West Bank was occupied by Israeli settlements and whether an American group had the right to lobby the U.S. government in support of policies that run counter to those of the Israeli government. 

But the chasm dividing the two speakers was most evident when the moderator, Los Angeles Times reporter (and Temple Isaiah member) Mitchell Landsberg, read a question from the audience asking each to describe, in one minute or less, their vision of an “achievable and fair” solution to the conflict. 

“First of all, it’s two states for two peoples,” Ben-Ami said. In about 100 seconds, he presented his preferred outcome: the border should be negotiated — start with the pre-1967 Green Line and use land swaps to bring most settlers into Israel proper — Jerusalem should be home to an Israeli capital in the west and a Palestinian capital in the east and the Palestinians should have no right of return to Israel. 

Following applause – from one side of the mostly filled 400-seat sanctuary — Rothstein, who at one point had criticized Ben-Ami for using language that she felt was not appropriate for an event in a synagogue, offered her own response. 

“I find it fascinating that you have a plan like that,” said Rothstein, who then proceeded to read a quote from a wealthy Palestinian who said that his people had wasted money and missed opportunities to build their own state. After some prodding from Landsberg, Rothstein answered the question directly. 

“My solution is that people need to come to the table,” she said. “Why do I need to come up with a solution when the Israelis and the Palestinians need to sit down and talk?” 

Supporters of each side left the event unconvinced by the other; still, Temple Isaiah Associate Rabbi Dara Frimmer said that she was glad the conversation was taking place at the synagogue. 

“As a Reform congregation, I think the more we talk about Israel, the better,” she said. 

“But on a conversational level,” Frimmer added, “I think there’s a lot of work we all need to be doing, about how we listen to one another, how we try to express our ideas, how we push back in a way that enhances our dialogue.”

Jeremy Ben-Ami and David Suissa face-off over Israel

On April 11, David Suissa, a columnist for The Journal, joined Jeremy Ben-Ami, president and founder of J Street, the self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby group, for a discussion about what it means to be “pro-Israel.” (SEE COMPLETE VIDEO BELOW)

It was an evening for civil discourse and hard questions, particularly one asked quite often in the two years of J Street’s rapid rise to prominence: Can groups and individuals criticize policies of the Israeli government yet still be pro-Israel?

The topic was nearly identical to one addressed by a committee in the Israeli Knesset in March, but the Monday night event, which drew more than 600 people to Temple Israel of Hollywood, could scarcely have been more different from that investigation.

If the Knesset hearing was designed to endorse or reject Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government’s decision to either isolate or ignore J Street, the “community conversation” at the synagogue assumed such a policy would be wrongheaded.

“Not to argue with each other about important ideas is simply un-Jewish,” Temple Israel Senior Rabbi John Rosove said in his introduction.

Co-sponsored by J Street (and by The Jewish Journal, along with a number of local synagogues), the evening was designed to steer clear of rancorous debate even as it attracted a politically varied audience. Rabbis Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom,  Zoë Klein of Temple Isaiah, Shmuly Yanklowitz of UCLA Hillel and Sharon Brous of IKAR were each invited to ask one question of the speakers.

Because the evening was organized to focus primarily on the way the Jewish community talks internally about Israel, the discussion felt, at times, oblique.

At no time was this more apparent than when Suissa dispensed with many of the best-known critiques of J Street in an early aside. “I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint all my friends on the right who’ve been asking me to take the gloves off,” he said before quickly running through criticisms of J Street, ranging from the money that the group received (but did not initially disclose) from George Soros, to the way the group is alleged to have escorted South African jurist Richard Goldstone around to the offices of lawmakers in Washington D.C. (Ben-Ami denied the latter point, but not the former.)

Ben-Ami used a similarly light touch when he used one of the metaphors frequently employed by the left — that Israel, by building settlements in the West Bank at a time when negotiations over the land have not been completed, has been eating pieces of a pizza while still discussing how that pizza should be split.

Story continues after the jump.

Part 1

Part 2

Ben-Ami said that he hoped the event would be a chance to model the kind of conversation he wanted to see within the Jewish community and invited Suissa to speak at the next J Street conference. Suissa accepted — albeit with a groan.

“You can ‘oy’ all you want,” Rosove said, “as long as you come.”

All told, the two speakers ended up spending a fair amount of the evening focusing on their similarities rather than on their differences, including:

• Both believe in the premise of “two states for two peoples” (although Suissa took issue with Ben-Ami’s presentation of that solution to the conflict as something that needs to be resolved immediately);
• Both love the city of Jerusalem (although Ben-Ami seemed more willing than Suissa to accept a two-state solution that involves sharing the city); and
• Both see the prospect of the United Nations’ voting to recognize a Palestinian state at the General Assembly in September as a grave diplomatic threat to Israel (although they certainly don’t agree as to what Israel, the United States or American Jews should do about it).

The main point of disagreement between the two men was elicited by a pointed question from Feinstein.

Both speakers, Feinstein said, were fighting against fantasies. Ben-Ami is up against the right wing’s fear that if Israel gives away land in the West Bank, it will suffer more Hamas-launched rocket attacks, like those coming from Gaza, as a result.

Suissa, on the other hand, faces the left’s nightmare scenario that the longer Israel holds onto the West Bank, the more radical the Palestinian population becomes, to the point that it would be taken over by Hamas.

“The question is,” Feinstein said, “how do you proceed with policymaking?”

Their answers were familiar. Ben-Ami proposed that Israel stop building in the West Bank — of its own accord — because it would help to make a peace deal. Suissa, who focused much of his attention on combating the idea that the Israeli settlements are the primary obstacle to a peaceful resolution of the conflict, argued that giving land for peace had been tried before and failed. He wants Palestinians to stop the practice of incitement against Israel and be required to come to the negotiating table without preconditions.

What was surprising — on the part of both men — were their acknowledgments of the uncertainties associated with both of their positions.

“Those who, like me, argue that Israel can only be secure and safe and have a future that we can hold onto and relate to by making peace cannot guarantee that signing that agreement will lead to peace,” Ben-Ami said. “We can’t guarantee that there won’t be future terror. We can’t guarantee that there won’t be rockets and bombs and suicide attacks.

“In fact,” Ben-Ami continued, “I would go so far as to say those of us who are arguing for an effort to make a two-state deal need to be honest with everybody upfront and say, ‘There will be terrorism and there will be threats, and there’s going to be a lot more need for security after a deal.’ ”

Suissa’s most surprising comment came at an earlier point in the evening, when he acknowledged he didn’t necessarily have a clear set of steps that Israel — or the United States, or American Jews — should be taking next.

“All my friends on the left have this one fantastic argument: What do we do now?” Suissa said, preempting what he called the best response to his position. “It’s a great question.”

Ultimately, Suissa argued forcefully as to why J Street and others on the left were wrong to pressure Israel in pursuit of a peace deal and why he believes the focus on settlements covers up real obstacles to peace (Hamas, the Palestinian right of return).

But when Ben-Ami ticked off the basic shape a Palestinian state would likely take — 70 percent of the Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank to be incorporated into Israel; land-swaps to make up the difference; and the fate of the city-size settlement of Ariel still to be determined — Suissa nodded along in agreement.

JStreet Expands to SoCal

JStreet, the liberal lobby and peace advocacy group that aims to influence U.S. policy toward Israel, is rapidly expanding its national operation, adding two L.A.-based staff members to launch the group’s Southern California/Southwest regional branch.

Serena Zeise will be the Southern California/Southwest regional director, charged to organize support at the community level and coordinate volunteers. Amos Buhai will be political director, working closely with local members of Congress and overseeing fundraising efforts.

Zeise worked for Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on and off since 2005, serving as a campaign fundraiser and later as a policy analyst. Buhai is a fifth-generation Angeleno with campaign experience on the local, state and federal levels, and also served as a consultant for the New York-based organization Personal Democracy Forum, which investigates how technology is changing politics.

JStreet’s expansion into Los Angeles is a sign of the growing political significance of the L.A. Jewish community on the national stage, and also an indication of a broadening divide between traditional modes of pro-Israel advocacy, notably through AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), and a host of emerging alternatives.

JStreet consists of a lobby, a political action committee and a nonprofit grass-roots arm, which launched nationally in April 2008. The group currently has regional leadership in several major locations across the country, including New York, Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C., and, according to a JStreet official in D.C., has an active grass-roots network of 150,000 supporters throughout the country. JStreet’s two-fold mission supports the creation of a two-state solution in Israel and an end to settlement building and the Gaza blockade and, secondly, aims to create a space for public discourse on Israel that is loving, but critical, and seeks to engage the broader American Jewish population on the many complex issues Israel faces.

Can war bring peace?

I’ve always been annoyed by the term, “peace camp,” the moniker commonly used by left-wing, peace-seeking organizations like Peace Now, the Israel PolicyForum and, more recently, J Street.

Because those organizations are very noisy about their desire for peace and their abhorrence for anything that smacks of a “military solution,” they have crowned themselves with the glorious “peace camp” title.

The implication, of course, is that if you don’t share their philosophy for attaining peace, you’re in another camp — if not exactly the war camp, then maybe the stiff-necked, “force is necessary” camp.

Complete Gaza CoverageIn truth, however, I’ve never met a right-wing Jew who doesn’t want peace. The divisive question is always: How do we get there? By being forceful and hard-nosed, or flexible and understanding?

One of the more powerful arguments advanced by the peace camp is that there is “no military solution” to the conflict. War is counterproductive and hardens the enemy. What we need are political solutions through smart and diplomatic engagement, like we achieved with Egypt and Jordan.

I have a lot of sympathy for the idea that wars can backfire and make things worse, as it did with the Second Lebanon War of 2006. That’s why I agonized over whether Israel should escalate the war in Gaza and invade with ground troops. Like many others, I asked myself: Can we really win this kind of war? Will it really stop the rockets? What would come next?

Then, I came across something that hit me like a lightning bolt.

It was an item in Investor’s Business Daily that reported that Hamas might already have rockets that can reach Israel’s nuclear plant in Dimona.

Even if the claim was exaggerated, it made me wonder: If a terrorist entity like Hamas — one fanatically devoted to Israel’s destruction — ever got hold of missiles that can take out Israel’s nuclear installations, would they use them?

Is there any peace-loving leftist who can honestly answer, No, they wouldn’t?

If Hamas bombs actually started falling on Dimona or Tel Aviv, would the “peace camp” still be harping against “military solutions” and calling for “immediate cease-fires”? Would J Street still find no moral distinction between the terrorist bombs of Hamas and Israel’s long-delayed response to defend its citizens?

Israel, it seems to me, has decided that if it can’t eliminate the terrorists’ desire to murder Jews, the least it can do is significantly reduce their growing capacity to do so.

There are successful precedents for this approach. In a recent editorial, David Horovitz, editor of the Jerusalem Post, touched on one: “Operation Defensive Shield, carried out in the spring of 2002, was a carefully planned and effectively executed attack on the Palestinians’ suicide-bomb infrastructure in the West Bank that remade the reality in the years ever since — precisely the kind of goal enunciated for Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.”

The new reality that Horovitz refers to is that terror from the West Bank stopped because the enemy realized there was no way it could win a war against Israel. That realization was a prerequisite to restarting the peace process.

Robert J. Lieber, a professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University, took it one step further in the Washington Post:

“Egypt and Jordan have made peace with Israel, not because they embraced the ideas of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, but because they concluded that the effort to destroy the Jewish state had failed and that refusing to come to terms with it was harmful to their national interests. Ultimately, peace will be possible only if most Palestinians and their leaders become convinced that terrorism and violence are a dead end and that they cannot under any circumstances prevail over Israel through the use of force. If today’s conflict leaves a seriously weakened and politically damaged Hamas, that result is more likely to enhance the prospects for peace than to weaken them.”

Of course, wars are tragic, messy and unpredictable — one errant bomb can derail the best plans. Lorelei Kelly, an expert in conflict resolution, wrote a powerful anti-war piece in The Huffington Post last week, where she explained that when fighting ideologies, “if you want ultimate victory, persuasion deserves as much firepower as coercion.”

Kelly appealed to my intellect, but my viscera still couldn’t shake the potential horror of Hamas rockets igniting a nuclear meltdown in the heart of Israel. I have this vision of Hamas terrorists gleefully cracking open a fresh crate of new missiles just arrived from Iran with the capacity to kill several thousand Jews at a time, and doing high-fives in anticipation of using them. Am I paranoid? Maybe. But this should give you an idea of the unlimited faith I have in Hamas’ callous disregard for human life, whether Jewish or Palestinian.

From a PR standpoint, Israel is fortunate that the war in Gaza was started not by right-wing tough guys but by centrist leaders who have exerted enormous effort over the years to achieve peace. No one can ever accuse Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni of rushing to war, not when they tolerated thousands of bombs falling on their people before finally responding.

In the end, everybody has their breaking point — that moment when your survival instinct overcomes everything else. A lot of Jews, from the left to the right, seem to have reached that point.

But survival is one thing, and peace is another. It’s far from certain that making war with Hamas will bring peace. The only thing that’s certain is that as long as nextdoor neighbors like Hamas pose a terrorist threat to Israel, you can forget about peace — no matter what camp you’re in.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine, and He can be reached at

Message to the residents of Gaza from the people of Israel