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Justice dwells on J Street

This past week a historic intersection of religion and politics made its mark on the Washington DC scene at J Street's inaugural conference (Oct 25th-28th). Peace seeking members of humanity’s community of conscience have found a welcome dwelling place; and speaking for myself, I feel right at home.

Founded over 18 months ago to promote meaningful American leadership to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict peacefully and diplomatically, J Street’s political advocacy group will continue to press for the realization of a Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel; in an equitable two-state solution where the sovereign and civil rights of all peoples are respected and upheld. J Street supports American foreign policy that invites broad public debate about the U.S. role in the Middle East in order to foster multilateral approaches to conflict resolution. The goal is to encourage citizen involvement from all stakeholders: American Jews, progressive international voices, and civil society organizations collaborating in the decision making process to avert conflict where ever and however possible.

Remarkably, J Street represents Americans who are primarily but not exclusively Jewish working shoulder-to-shoulder to actively preserve and defend the right of the Palestinian people to thrive in a nation of their own. At the conference we were introduced to dozens of affiliated organizations operating concertedly within the constructs of every social and communal avenue to realize this monumental goal which included American, Israeli and Palestinian clergy, intellectuals, social change activists, entrepreneurs, statespersons, diplomats, educators, and media professionals. J Street did not invent this movement, but they have innovated a forum for its collective expression the likes of which has never been seen before. If the State of Israel had been so fortunate to have had such support at the time of her establishment, perhaps she would have been spared the weight of many of her present social ills. 

If you will it, it is no dream. If you plan it wisely it will indeed flourish.

Those involved in the J Street phenomenon have been profoundly affected by its political immediacy and newfound efficacy—inspired by the momentum of what we in the spiritual community acutely comprehend; the consequence of the pursuit of justice and peace, begets the benefits that justice and peace brings. Their arrival on the political scene will no doubt serve to temper the vocal Jewish minority who have been understandably paralyzed by hyper-vigilant fear; who in their over-arching need for self-protection, have marginalized those outside of their circle of influence. In contrast to this, J Street is honing its resources and collective energies to genuinely seek partnerships in fostering solutions for insuring the safety and security for both populations.  We have come to recognize as President Obama reminded us that, ‘we are the ones we have been waiting for,’ in working to realize a lasting peace to steward a future framed in clarity and industry. 

Hundreds more than expected converged upon Washington this week seeking a means to exorcise their frustrations; arrested by beleaguered leaders mired in the lassitude of the status quo. Journalists from 17 countries covered the event and noted what was deftly expressed in multiple plenary sessions—that we cannot wait a moment longer to move the peace process forward.

The spiritual component of what it means to be a righteous Jew walking the path of justice was an ever-present topic throughout the offered plenary sessions and best reflected in the opening words by J Street’s Founding Director, Jeremy Ben-Ami,
“Do not think we are looking to build a new voice in this process. Far from it. Ours is – in reality – an ancient voice. The voice of our people and our prophets through the millennia.

It is a voice that speaks from the soul of our people. It is the voice that forms the character and conscience of our community.

Yes, it is a voice that loves Israel as the state of our people.

But one that expresses love not in unquestioning embrace but in caring partnership.

A voice that gives expression to the most basic of Jewish and universal values.

A voice that cares not simply about our people’s destiny but about the future of the Palestinian people – not just because it is in our interest, but because Palestinian children deserve a future and freedom, hope and happiness every bit as much as Jewish children.

A voice that rejects racism and prejudice as much when it is directed at our community as when it is directed at those of other backgrounds, particularly Muslims.
My friends – it isn’t the voice that’s new – we’ve simply got ourselves a megaphone…This majority will be silent no more.”

To be sure J Street wasted no time employing head, heart and soul into action when it publically announced that it had merged earlier this year with the peace and justice advocacy group Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, http://btvshalom.org/aboutus/foundingprinciples.shtml integrating nearly 40,000 of its members into the J Street family. Since 2002, Brit Tzedek has been lobbying on Capitol Hill for a substantive shift in US-Israeli policy, educating and engaging US lawmakers toward adopting a comprehensive and permanent resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At conference end, 700 strong visited 200+ offices in both Congress and the Senate to communicate this vital message—also encouraging leaders to ask President Obama to visit the Holy Land to address her people(s) to speak on the issues of safety, security, and the pressing social and environmental challenges that call for mutual cooperation in order to improve conditions for all.

The message of compassionate action resounded throughout the meetings I attended. A Text Study: What’s Jewish about J Street, presented by Rabbis for Human Rights, articulated a Torah informed approach to strengthening the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. Tractates were reviewed, turned and turned again, which illustrated our foundational commitment to seek out and embrace coexistence and reconciliation as way of life. One passage struck a chord of universality:  Don’t say, since I have been humiliated, let my neighbor be humiliated also. Know that (through your actions and intention) it is the image of G-d you will be humiliating in your neighbor (Rabbi Ben Azzai Genesis Rabba 24:7)

Israel herself has never been a static people; we have been evolving and enriching our traditions for many thousands of years seeking to traverse a narrow bridge of faith and reason. In fact, our Patriarch Jacob’s name was changed by G-d one fateful evening after an intense physical struggle with a heavenly messenger sent by HaShem. The Torah tells us that the name Israel means, "for you have striven with the Divine and have overcome."

Rabbi Rashi of blessed memory, explains (on the same verse) that the Angel declared, "it will no longer be said that you deserve the name Yaakov (Jacob) - which implies he who supplants-- because you obtained Isaac's blessing away from your twin brother Esau cunningly. Instead you will receive the name Yisrael which connotes dignity and nobility; it will be acknowledged that you received this blessing because you were thus deserving". The metaphor for this struggle was not only a personal triumph over unseemliness, but a call for Jacob to embrace a commitment to model dignity and integrity as a lasting legacy for future generations—this psychical Aliyah or 'rising up' was achieved by confronting his shadow and to assuage the ill gotten blessing received by his blind and weakened father Isaac.

Today, the modern State of Israel is embroiled in a similar struggle to define its identity. To be sure she does and must exist for a myriad of reasons, but her existence need be held to the highest standards of justice and inclusion without mutual exclusivity or derision. But how do we set about rectifying the present challenges to Israel's democracy posed by her haphazard establishment? The result of which often derided in the press as a kind of 'geographic affirmative action,' brought into being as a means to settle the Jewish remnant post-Holocaust. This central question must be substantively addressed in our generation with candid intellectual inquiry and informed pluralistic civic engagement driving the debate. 

The struggle that we as Jews face today is similar to the triumph of spirit won at Penuel---our moniker (Israel) was well earned by Jacob as he surmounted an act of conscious prevarication by strength and sheer will. He earned the distinction to authentically hold the title of righteous servant to the Almighty as the result of his courage, self-reflection and contrition.

Consequently, the Torah commands us never to turn a blind eye to unseemliness in ourselves or in our neighbor -- and to direct our intention to compassionately rebuke our brethren when we know that they have ‘missed the mark’. In this way, we partner in concordance with HaShem’s ideals for humanity; which are, to exalt one another, to elevate our actions and to reflect our highest sense of right.  The decision to remain silent when suffering reigns in the lives of others amounts to complicity to that which is iniquitous.
In the spirit of loving correction those who humbly seek to reproach the politics of Israel should do so in a timely, authentic, and fully transparent manner to avoid causing undue harm to innocents, conduct damaging to her integrity. Half measures adopted ‘too little, too late and for all the wrong reasons,’ leave a lasting impression of detached indifference to the suffering of others.

Nowhere was this more clear when rapt attention was directed to a panel presentation entitled: “Palestinian Perspectives: Looking Forward”:  One stark example of the plight of the widespread societal and economic inequality in Israel was illustrated in a comprehensive power point presented by former Palestinian Economics Minister Bassam Khoury. His report evidenced sobering statistics showing the population of Jerusalem’s Israeli-Arab residents lacking basic funding for civic services, schools, roads, access to healthcare, water and sewer hook-up, trash disposal, neighborhood parks and recreation programs, etc. Arab-Israeli citizens pay taxes to subsidize these community needs, but these are too often disproportionately reserved for Israeli-Jewish regions of the city. During the Q and A, I introduced Mr. Khoury and his accompanying panelists to the work of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli-Arab Issues http://www.iataskforce.org/ which empowers Israeli-Arab citizens in Israel's mixed cities to be linked to international funding sources to help make improvements in housing and civic infrastructure, as well as educational, social, cultural and economic services. Such philanthropic initiatives are new on the scene sponsoring fact finding missions from abroad that visit and assess where allocations are needed most, addressing pressing challenges on a case-by-case basis. 

Civically and religiously Jerusalem plays a central role in the Holy Land. In the Monday morning session that highlighted interfaith cooperation, "How Can Jews, Christians and Muslims Work Together for Peace?" Salam Al-Mariyati, Washington DC Executive Director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, remarked that Jerusalem is, “the place where the Qur'an says the Prophet ascended to heaven, so it holds religious and historical value for Muslims, and it also holds great human rights value. "The Prophet says that one human soul is worth more than the Ka'aba. Human rights and dignity are more important than religious tradition or ritual."

This familiar understanding is critical as we continue to foster effective lasting dialogue with Muslims as to how we share that which we hold sacred.

Al-Mariyati continued, "The pain and suffering that Palestinians have had to endure is something that many Muslims feel is swept under the rug." It's not part of the discourse, he says. "Any time there is a report, it is shut down. I know many people are discussing the Goldstone Report. I don't want to get into Goldstone and what he represents, necessarily -- there are other reports, from B'Tselem for instance, which talk about war crimes committed against Palestinians and war crimes committed by Palestinians. We have to go to our religious texts again”.

The Qur'an says, 'O you Muslims, stand up for justice, even if it is against yourself or your parents or your communities.…Continue working and G-d will surely find a path for peacemaking.”

 J Street has blazed a trail on this transformative journey delving deep into issues of Jewish identity, religion and politics -- taking firm first steps on the road to securing peace in the Middle East at the dawn of this citizen century.

Speaking on behalf of President Obama, National Security Advisor General James Jones addressed the conference and congratulated its success, promising,
 “…you can be sure that this Administration will be represented at all other future J Street conferences."

The event marks a turning point in American-Israeli advocacy – J Street has arrived and is here to stay.

Join in their efforts and share the news of their auspicious arrival in your corner of the world. If not now, when?


Topics: Coalition Building

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