Friday, June 24, 2011

Engaging Ben Ami On Engagement

Regardless of your politics, J Street President Jeremy Ben Ami's editorial in today's Haaretz is worth a read. Ben Ami titles the piece "Caring Enough To Engage" but touches on this point only peripherally. The main thrust of his argument is that criticism of Israel is not disloyalty, and is necessary to ward off the threats Israel faces in its short and long-term future.

On the point of caring enough to engage, Ben Ami is dead on. The youth of the American Jewish community are motivated largely by service and the values of social justice and tikkun olam. Some have suggested that these values are stronger mobilizing factors than support for Israel as a value in and of itself. Israel's shortcomings as a state need not be understood as a blemish to be masked. Rather they should be presented as a challenge to be met. Young American Jews have a potentially positive role to play in improving the lives of poor Ethiopian immigrants, Bedouin schoolchildren, or elderly Holocaust survivors. The sense of ownership in Israel which programs like Birthright create could be more tightly linked to a sense of responsibility to help the people of Israel in all their myriad backgrounds, beliefs, and orientations.

Creating this sense of responsibility would also create an American Jewish community more willing to defend Israel's response to these problems and more educated on their complexities. For example, those who haven't been to Israel can easily criticize the prejudices of its society. Those who have been there and worked on behalf of minorities, however, can attest to the self-awareness of Israeli society to these prejudices. They can better understand the necessary steps which must be taken to create further equality, and defend Israeli efforts to do so. And most importantly, they will have the personal connection to individuals who are a part of that society to speak out against misinformed blanket statements from the heart and not only from the brain.

In advancing this strategy, many in the American Jewish community will be met inevitably with criticism, including accusations of disloyalty. These criticisms are a price worth paying to better ensure the security and well being of Israel.

Ben Ami's editorial, however, reads largely as a defense of criticism itself. Here, reasonable minds diverge. The fact that policy differences amount to criticism is largely peripheral to the debate over Israel's security. Criticism is valuable not for the shortcomings it identifies, but rather the solutions it offers. Defending criticism is meaningless if that criticism is devoid of meaningful content other than "No, I disagree."

Be it hosting a panel on BDS at its conference, or defending a Congresswoman who supported the Code Pink heckler at Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech to Congress, J Street's tendency to defend criticism for its own sake is out of synch with its doctrine of creating progress towards peace and security. Furthermore, continuing to press the talking point of restrained discourse under-sells the very real progress which J Street itself has made in widening the space for debate in the pro-Israel community. Ultimately, pointing out the injustice of people criticizing J Street is as self-victimizing as the criticism itself. And neither strategy creates tangible progress on behalf of Israel's well-being.

Rather than defending those who criticize, J Street's policy goals would be more effectively met by continuing to highlight concrete policy prescriptions like the Israeli Peace Initiative. Such a policy would open up debate more indirectly, but with no lesser value. Commenting on Tony Kushner and other petty and largely irrelevant matters with which some in the pro-Israel community choose to engage will only bring J Street down to the lowest common denominator of discourse. It does not take much research to understand just how low this denominator is. Instead, initiating a renewed focus on policy is the best way to create the engagement with Israel which Jeremy Ben Ami identifies as the ultimate solution.

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