The American Zionist Movement includes American organizations that endorse the basic tenets of Zionism. J-Street, an American organization that calls itself “Pro-Israel and Pro-Peace” was prevented from joining the American Zionist Movement only seven years after it was prevented from joining the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. J-Street is generally excluded from mainstream Zionist organizations, and the Israeli government has a long-standing policy of refusing to meet with J-Street and will not send representatives to speak at its annual conference.
J-Street’s approach to Israel is consistently hostile, frequently criticizing Israel when it defends itself against Hamas rocket fire and endorsing the Goldstone Report, which even its author admitted was biased against Israel. Their repeated attempts to undermine the Israeli government by lobbying the American Congress and administration against it has caused the group to be labeled anti-Israel.
J-Street sent its first (and only) student mission to Israel a few years ago. The trip spent almost all its time listening to Palestinians or Israelis critical of Israel. Towards the end of its trip, J-Street asked settlers to speak to the group. I felt it was important that their student participants hear both sides of the conflict. I explained to the group that Judea and Samaria are historically Jewish land, and that Israel treats the Palestinian Arabs living here fairly and humanely. I told the group there is room for improvement but that most of the problems that Palestinian Arabs face are brought on by their own corrupt leadership.
I have great empathy for Palestinian Arabs, and the J-Street student participants’ descriptions of the suffering they heard from Palestinians affected me as well. What I felt lacking from the J-Street students was a feeling of the same empathy for their fellow Jewish Israelis. A few of their members cried when one read her notes from a talk with Palestinian Arabs. But when I described the fear our children experience due to Palestinian terror, I didn’t feel a sympathetic heart in the room.
I don’t know if my words made an impression on the J-Street participants. I imagine many closed their minds to my ideas before I even began speaking. I still think it’s important that J-Street and anti-Israel groups like this hear from Israeli settlers, but that elected officials should not do so.
When I speak to J-Street and groups that are hostile to Israel, I face an internal debate about the appropriateness of speaking to these types of organizations. On the one hand, I feel it’s important they hear from different voices, especially Pro-Israel and Pro-settlement voices. On the other hand, these organizations are constantly battling for legitimacy and validation from mainstream Jewish and Zionist organizations. They want their opinions, traditionally considered out of the mainstream and anti-Israel, to be accepted as a legitimate Pro-Israel voice.
Organizations like J-Street advertise their Judaism as a license to criticize Israel with the same double standards Israel’s most anti-Semitic enemies use. These organizations are not Zionist or Pro-Israel, and their voices should never be considered legitimate by the Pro-Israel community. By speaking to their visiting groups, I ran the risk of lending them the legitimacy they so desperately seek. Yet I felt that since I had no official position in the settler community – I wasn’t an elected official or government representative – I was speaking as a private individual and therefore had no legitimacy to lend to the group. Elected officials have official status that can lend legitimacy.
It’s important that the Israeli government and its elected leaders convey the message that organizations that act with hostility towards Israel and her people aren’t welcome to Israel’s generosity. The message to these groups must be that if you stand against Israel, Israel will not stand with you. Just as American Zionist organizations won’t include these groups, neither should Israel. Thankfully, the Israeli government’s longstanding policy is to refuse to meet with these groups, settler elected leaders must do the same.