Reflections on Peace Advocacy and the Gaza Floatilla
Israel has been on my mind a great deal of late – even before the crisis over the tragic interception of the Gaza Flotilla. Prior to this most recent crisis, I had been anguishing over whether or not to officially add my name as a supporter of J Street. It all started when one of my congregants approached me about it. He had read some J Street material and wanted my advice as to whether or not he should throw in his support. His questions brought focus to my own indecision on the matter. So I went back on the J Street website, read their vision statements, and, like my congregant, found a great deal with which I could agree. For, I too, am a big supporter of a two-state solution which needs to be arrived at through serious non-violent negotiations; a two state solution which would deliver to the Palestinians a nation of their own of which they could be proud, while at the same time would deliver to the Israelis a positive resolution to their security concerns. However, all that being said, I still had an uneasy feeling that rightly or wrongly, J Street was identified as an influential Jewish voice, all too often critical of Israel.
In my struggle to resolve this question, I gathered, via email, a list of some 50 rabbinic colleagues whose opinions I value greatly; some of them ardent supporters of J Street, some opponents, and many whose positions I simply did not know. I shared with them my indecision and my questions, seeking their insights and counsel. And we were off to the races. Not all responded to my queries. Many of those who did, did so privately. Others shared their thoughts with the entire group. Many and diverse were their opinions. So many excellent points were made on both sides. My eyes were opened to new perspectives on the issue. But in the end, I still remained undecided. Yet in the process, I came to truly believe that J Street was often misunderstood and intentionally misinterpreted. I found that more often than not, their statements honestly strove to be evenhanded and fair, but between sensationalist media, unscrupulous politicians, and Israel’s enemies, what came most to the public eye were, and are, their critiques of Israel. I saw it akin to the old media adage about “Man bites dog” over “dog bites man.” It is not news when Jews support Israel or criticize the Palestinians, but when Jews criticize Israel, now that is newsworthy.
I also was brought to the realization that it would be great if there was a “J Street” like organization on the Palestinian side, equally dedicated to the peace process and equally willing to criticize both parties in an evenhanded manner. But alas, while there are Muslim peace organizations, they usually speak in whispers and do not garner the type of support and prestige that an organization like J Street does within the Jewish and the general community. This is a tragic unfulfilled need, for in order for an organization like J Street to most effectively address its mission, it really needs a real Muslim partner organization with which it could work hand-in-hand.
It was while my colleagues and I were in the midst of these discussions that we woke up one morning to learn of the violence which had taken place in the waters off of Gaza.
Many groups and world leaders were quick to make statements in response to that situation, even though the facts were far from complete and the story was still unfolding. Among them were Jeremy Ben-Ami, the President of J Street, as well as Yaariv Oppenheimer, speaking for another Jewish peace organization – Americans for Peace Now. Mr. Ben-Ami made the following remark which I found disturbing: “We do know, however, that today is one more nail in the coffin for hopes of ending of ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict peacefully and diplomatically and for preserving Israel’s Jewish and democratic character.” As for Mr. Oppenheimer, in an article published in the Israeli newspaper, MaAriv, he wrote a statement which I found equally disturbing: “Tonight Israel marked a new low point in the way it chose to contend with its domestic and external policy dissidents. A state that will not let its citizens protest, demonstrate and demand justice, a state that is busy composing loyalty tests for its citizens and passing laws to limit the freedom of expression, failed again in the real test and stopped a protest fleet of civilian ships at the cost of more than ten lives.”
Statements like these are precisely why I have discomfort with organizations like J Street and Peace Now. While I share their ultimate vision of arriving at a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I cannot condone their knee jerk reactions which immediately assume that Israel is in the wrong in whatever crisis arises. I find myself scratching my head and wondering why Mr. Ben-Ami of J Street could not have ended his statement at the word “diplomatically” but felt the need to go forward with the assumption the Israel’s actions have done great harm to her fundamental “Jewish and democratic character.” And as for Mr. Oppenheimer, just the simple fact that an article such as his could appear in a major Israeli publication like MaAriv gives far greater testimony in opposition to his premise for the Israeli democracy is alive and well as long as it permits those who so wish to publicly protest against the actions and policies of its government.
For my part, the events of the last few days have triggered an odd confluene of reflections. It almost seems ironic that a short while back, I was re-watching the film “Thirteen Days”, about the Cuban missile crisis. Every time I watch that film I am flooded with memories of the actual event. As if it were yesterday, I recall my childhood conversations with my childhood friends, wondering whether or not the end of the world was upon us; whether or not the Russians would stage a nuclear attack. It was indeed a frightening time, especially for children. Yet with that danger being real and present, there was no question of the legitimacy of Kennedy’s use of a naval blockade in defense of our country; at least not among those of us us who were living under the threat of a missile attack. Then my thoughts have likewise turned to the painful fact that as Americans, at this very hour, our combat troops have their boots on the foreign soil of two nations – Iraq and Afghanistan – ostensibly waging a war against terrorists who supposedly threaten the security of our nation and its citizens. So one American President can conduct a naval blockade – in international waters – against another nation, in defense of our country, and it is considered appropriate and heroic. Two American Presidents can send and maintain troops on the soil of two sovereign nations, having invaded both of them, in defense of our country against terrorism. While there are those among us who protest this fact, those troops remain, yet we do not view the failure of our protests to achieve their goal as indicative of the demise of American democracy.
Then we have Israel. Who in their right mind can question the very real danger posed to the security of the nation of Israel and its citizens by the terrorist actions of Hamas, coming out of Gaza? Who can doubt that if the borders of Gaza were left wide open, there would be no question but that arms aplenty would flood into Gaza, all intended to be used against Israel, and specifically against Israeli citizens? The threat of arms being smuggled into Gaza is a very real one and an Israeli government which would intentionally ignore that threat would be dramatically negligent, and perhaps even criminally negligent. So while a blockade and a siege of Gaza is not a desirable course of action, especially from a humanitarian perspective, it – like the naval blockade of Cuba in the 60’s – would seem to be a necessary one in the name of national defense. It is tragic but unavoidable that in defending one people from those who threaten its security, there very well may be loss of life – sometime, most tragically, innocent loss of life. If any nation should understand that harsh reality, it should be the U.S., which has been faced with that very same situation in both Iraq and Afghanistan. There is a certain hypocrisy when an American President (one whose election I personally supported and worked for, you should know) who is the Commander-in-Chief of combat troops on foreign soil waging active war in defense of our nation’s security, turns around and criticizes Israel for committing her troops in order to defend her people. It is wrong to have two standards of behavior – one for the U.S. and another for Israel. I cannot help but think that the children of Sderot – especially before the Gaza War – were holding among themselves conversations quite similar to the ones I was involved in as a child during the Cuban missile crisis.
I am not offering a wholesale justification for Israel’s actions of the past weekend. She made plenty of mistakes, not the least of which was naively expecting her troops to encounter actual peace activists rather than violent opponents. But it is far too easy for all of us Monday morning quarterbacks to provide Israel with our sage post facto counsel. The hard truth on the ground is that Israel had every good reason to suspect that along with the humanitarian cargo on those ships was also a cargo of weaponry. With that possibility, those ships did pose a very real security threat to the citizens of Israel and needed to be searched. How Israel did go about that task will be a matter of fierce debate in the coming months. But in all of this, I cannot concur with Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street nor with Yaariv Oppenheimer of Americans for Peace Now, that the actions here constitute a threat to the character of Israeli democracy, nor that legitimate attempts to protect the physical safety of her citizens constitute a threat to the Jewish character of the State of Israel.
POSTSCRIPT: Two days after I published the above posting, the Office of the White House Press Secretary released the following statement from National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer:
“The government of Israel has stated its desire to avoid a confrontation and a repeat of Monday’s tragic events on the Mavi Marmara. It remains a U.S. priority to provide assistance to the people of Gaza. In the interest of the safety of all involved, and the safe transmission of assistance to the people of Gaza, we strongly encourage those aboard the Rachel Corrie and other vessels to sail to Ashdod to deliver their materials to Gaza.
“We are working urgently with Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and other international partners to develop new procedures for delivering more goods and assistance to Gaza, while also increasing opportunity for the people of Gaza and preventing the importation of weapons. The current arrangements are unsustainable and must be changed. For now, we call on all parties to join us in encouraging responsible decisions by all sides to avoid any unnecessary confrontations and to ensure the safety of all involved.”
Tags: Afghanistan, Americans for Peace Now, Cuban Missile Crisis, Gaza, Gaza Floatilla, Gaza Naval Blockade, Hamas, Iraq, Israel, J Street, Jeremy Ben-Ami, President John F Kennedy, President Obama, terrorism, Yaariv OppenheimerYou can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.