"Emotions run high when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the role of the United States in helping to resolve it," Burlington's Ohavi Zedek synagogue says in announcing a talk tomorrow (June 13 at 7:30 p.m.) by the leader of a progressive and increasingly influential Jewish American lobbying group.
Strong responses — pro and con — can be expected when Jeremy Ben-Ami (pictured), founder and president of J Street, outlines what he regards as a just and achievable resolution of the seemingly endless confrontation in the Middle East. The talk will also serve as something of a homecoming reception for Ben-Ami. He lived in Burlington for much of Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign, for which he served as national policy director.
While J Street's call for a two-state solution and removal of some Jewish settlements may generate controversy at Ohavi Zedek, its position appears to be gaining ground among mainstream U.S. politicians.
Until recently, the New York Times observed in a May 27 profile of J Street, Israel-related lobbying in the U.S. had been dominated by AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee), which Ben-Ami describes as "a right-wing and militant voice" that is unrepresentative of the politics of most American Jews. AIPAC's clout has been such that many U.S. Congress members were reluctant to accept contributions from J Street, even though their outlook on the Middle East is more aligned with Ben-Ami's group.
J Street's political reach is becoming much more extensive, however. It expects to donate a total of $2 million to more than 60 congressional candidates in the current election cycle.
Interviewed by phone, Ben-Ami says J Street is succeeding by filling a "political vacuum." Most American Jews, like many Americans generally, are eager for a settlement that will finally ensure durable peace and security in the Middle East, he suggests.
In J Street's view, that would involve a Jewish state and a Palestinian state separated along borders more or less congruent with those in place prior to the 1967 war that resulted in Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Border adjustments could be made to incorporate most Jewish settlements into Israel, with the Palestinians being provided land as compensation, Ben-Ami says. As for Jewish settlements far from the 1967 lines, "They will have to go," he declares.
That scenario elicits strong opposition from some zealous Zionists — as well as diplomatic disagreement from some pro-Palestinian activists involved in the sister-city project that links Burlington with both Bethlehem on the West Bank and with Arad in Israel.
In the view of some American Jewish leaders as well as some Israeli officials, the Times reported, J Street's positions qualify the group as "anti-Israel."
Mousa Ishaq, a Palestinian American who lives in South Burlington, calls the two-state solution favored by J Street the only practical way of achieving peace — at present. Ideally, Ishaq adds, he favors creation of a single, secular, democratic state that would include Jews, Muslims and members of any religion, with each person having one vote. "Democracy involves separation of religion and state," Ishaq notes.
Bob Green, a sister-city supporter returning to Vermont after a stint in California, prefaces his critical comments on J Street's position by saying, "I don't consider anybody in the peace movement an enemy." Green adds that a two-state solution may not be practical or possible due in part to "the slow genocide of the Palestinian people."
Ben-Ami is reciprocally polite in his response to advocates of the single-democratic-and-secular-state option. "A lot of very well-intentioned people support that concept," he says. "But it's wrong in terms of what's practical and what's in keeping with human nature."
Ben-Ami's stance also reflects his identification as a Zionist. "I firmly believe Jews are a nation, as are Palestinians, and both peoples deserve having a national home of their own." A Jewish state, he adds, "doesn't have to be a theocracy" and can provide "equal rights for all its citizens."