American Jews, it’s time to make a difference

by Michael Felsen
23 August 2011
Boston, Massachusetts - It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognise that these are especially turbulent times in Israel. In the past few days, deadly terror attacks in Israel’s south have prompted retaliatory strikes into Gaza, a regrettable resurgence of cross-border violence with an uncertain end. Before this latest flare-up grabbed attention in the Middle East and abroad, from the United States we had been watching spellbound as hundreds of thousands of Israelis protested current government policies, demanding greater equity and “social justice” that they now find wanting.

Stasis in the “peace process” and the ramifications of 44 years of occupation of the West Bank haven’t been the focus of these weeks-long protests, but many quietly acknowledged the great sucking sound – financial and otherwise – attributable to the settlement enterprise.

Meanwhile, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has continued to cement "facts on the ground", having recently granted another 930 building permits in a disputed section of East Jerusalem and 277 in the Ariel settlement. In response, the Quartet – the United States, Russia, the EU and the United Nations – expressed "great concern". At the same time, the Palestinian "street" is growing increasingly anxious for an end to the Occupation and establishment of a state of their own. The Palestinian Authority will seek a UN vote on statehood. Much of the world community – in the General Assembly and beyond – hears its cry and sympathises.

What is the American Jewish community to do?

This depends, of course, on what our objective is.

While with each passing day the window for a two-state solution – a safe, secure and democratic Israel living in peace with a viable Palestinian state – grows smaller, most American Jews would agree that’s the goal. If it is, then it’s fair to ask what actions the leading organisations of the American Jewish community should undertake to most effectively help the parties reach that goal.

In what is presumably its answer to that question, the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the largest Jewish advocacy group in the United States, has decided to mount a major campaign to oppose the expected UN vote on Palestinian statehood. There are, indeed, good and sufficient reasons why that vote is problematic: for Israel, for the United States – which has vowed to use its veto in the Security Council – and for the Palestinians. But is pulling out all stops to stifle the Palestinian move the most effective means to help the parties reach that ever-elusive two-state goal? We can’t afford to spend time and resources on any campaign that serves anything other than our sole objective: how best to help the parties reach a negotiated resolution.

If American Jews are serious about getting to "yes", there are likely more effective strategies than waging a losing battle in the General Assembly.

What about pressing our government to join with the other Quartet players in laying out the terms of a comprehensive resolution, along the well-known lines of the Clinton parameters and the Geneva Accord? Rather than treating the Palestinian Authority as an adversary that bears the blame for the ongoing impasse, shouldn't our Jewish communal organisations be spearheading a campaign for the kinds of difficult mutual compromises that are most likely to lead to a sustainable end to the conflict?

It would also behove our communal leaders, when they speak with those holding the reins of power in Israel, to echo the words of Gabriela Shalev, Israel’s former Ambassador to the UN. Interviewed in the Los Angeles Times on 8 August, Shalev asserted that in order to move forward, “Israel could show by gestures that when Netanyahu talks about negotiations without preconditions, there really are no preconditions; that we are not only willing to speak about painful concessions, but show that we are willing to do it by not going on with building settlements; and by not putting new things on the table, like the requirement that Palestinians recognize Israel as the homeland of Jewish people….”

These are the kinds of views that leaders, who - like Shalev - love Israel and whose goal is a two-state peace, should be championing.

In a 7 August editorial on this topic, The New York Times concluded: “We see no sign that Washington or the Israelis are thinking beyond the incremental.” Likewise, it’s fair to ask whether the AJC’s anti-UN vote campaign is anything more than incremental. The current situation – the current crisis, really – cries out for needed compromises that will effectively deliver two states for two peoples. Blocking, finger-pointing and “incremental” simply won’t do. It’s time for the AJC and the broader American Jewish community to step up, boldly, and help make peace.


* Michael Felsen is an attorney and President of Boston Workmen’s Circle, a 110-year old communal organisation dedicated to secular Jewish education, culture and social justice. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 23 August 2011,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.
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