On Thursday evening, February 4, from 7 to 9 pm, the pro-peace, pro-Israel organization J Street held a launch of its multilocal grass-roots organizing campaign.
The launch was based in Philadelphia, when Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami broadcast a call to action, live not only in Philadelphia but also to thousands of supporters at local gatherings across the United States!
J Street rented the space for the launch from Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania. About 250 Philadelphians came to hear Jeremy and to take part in work groups for planning the next steps for action to get the US government to lead the way to a Middle East regional peace settlement guaranteeing security and self-determination to Israel, Palestine, and all Arab states.
All OK so far? Yes! -- BUT -- On the front page of this week’s Philadelphia Jewish Exponent was a major article reporting that a number of members of the board of Penn Hillel had protested against Hillel’s allowing J Street to hold its meeting there.
This effort –- sensibly and bravely resisted by Rabbi Jeremy Brochin, director of Penn Hillel -- was by no means the first effort to choke off free debate and discussion of Israeli government policy by American Jews.
It behooves all of us who believe in free and decent debate within the Jewish community — whether we agree with J Street’s specific policies or not -- to support and take part in such gatherings, to make clear that we support not only the right of J Street but the need of the Jewish community to freely debate the issues J Street raises.
Open debate includes but goes beyond the importance of free speech for the debaters. The importance of debate, of discussion, of people learning from new ideas, learning perhaps to agree and perhaps to disagree and perhaps to come to a new understanding beyond the debate itself, is also that the community is much more likely to make wise choices out of such discussions than if some of its voices are silenced.
What are the claims made by the “Silence Now!” people? That J Street proved it was “anti-Israel” because it criticized the Israeli government’s invasion of Gaza.
Hmmm. Somewhere between 45% and 55% of the American people criticize or outright oppose the US government’s continuing war in Afghanistan. All those people are “anti-American,” right? And since they are Americans, they must be "self-hating Americans."
Why this effort to silence J Street? Because it has shown good sense, great strength, and wide appeal in setting forth its vision of an Israel made secure by achieving peace and its vision of an America that takes a leading role in making this happen, for the sake of American security and peace as well as Israeli and Palestinian peace and security.
In just two years, J Street has attracted nearly 140,000 online supporters and a third year budget of over $4 million. It has put money into then campaign of pro-peace candidates for congress – and won. It has built support among more than 100 members of Congress. It gathered 1500 people to its first national conference, last fall. And now, having absorbed the grass-roots network of Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, it is putting money and talent into organizing strong local chapters around the country. It has great p[otential for continued growth, since a sizeable majority of real live flesh-and-blood American Jews share its opinions, though most of the official institutional Jewish leadership does not –- or pretends not to.
So J Street is a real threat to most of the "official" American Jewish leadership. What to do?
If you are an oligarchic, top-down political structure with few spiritual roots to see your self as part of a larger whole, and if without such roots deep in the Ground of Being you are possessed by a great fear of toppling in the winds of change, you are likely to respond to change by rigidifying and trying to silence criticism.
This becomes a vicious circle, not only ethically –- the more you repress, the more people resist, so the more you repress –- but also in practical terms, because the more you screen out different opinions and information the less likely you are to understand the real world and be able to deal with it effectively.
That is the path of Pharaoh, who hardened his own heart so often that he became addicted to hard-heartedness and could not change even when his own advisers warned him he was on a trek to self-destruction. Unfortunately, as the story of Pharaoh tells us, this path endangers not only Pharaoh's own self but brings down plagues on everyone else as well.
And that is what the Likkud government of Israel and its sycophants in America are doing.
So how should we react –- those of us who believe that discussion is wise, diplomacy is sacred, and domination is self-destructive?
By standing together. By remembering that just as J Street and New Israel Fund need affirmation even from people to their "right" who may not agree with their specific proposals, so J street and NIF and all of us need to affirm the importance of public speech by those who are willing to debate without slander and hatred, even if they stand to our "left," even if we are embarrassed by their views. Listening, we all learn; silencing, we all become stupid.