Not Feeling The Love

How AIPAC Pushed Us To J Street

Harry Samuels and Simone Zimmerman on how Washington's top pro-Israel lobby glosses over the big issues facing the Jewish state.

It was not always obvious that the two of us would end up on the National Student Board of J Street U. Though we grew up on opposite coasts, we both experienced eighteen similar years of Jewish day school, summer camp, and United Synagogue Youth, where celebrating Israel’s achievements—from Iron Dome to the cherry tomato—was the norm. After meeting at a Long Island Bar Mitzvah, we reunited years later as college freshmen eager to become pro-Israel advocates at AIPAC’s Saban Leadership Seminar and Policy Conference. We were surprised to meet again as sophomores at what seemed an unlikely venue: J Street’s second national conference. Gil Troy’s recent reflection on “feeling the love” at AIPAC Policy Conference reminded us of the parallel experiences that in part led us to J Street: while the conflict seems to grow more intractable, AIPAC appears uninterested in addressing its cost.

Troy writes that he was “impressed” by the “earnestness, intensity, and warmth,” of the people at AIPAC and moved by their “innocent love” for Israel. For us, that innocent love came at the expense of the critical engagement we so desperately sought, and that we now realize Israel so desperately needs.

We have many dear family and friends who are active with AIPAC. They are smart people. We do not doubt the kindness in their hearts nor the earnestness of their intentions. We do, however, question the wisdom of a foreign policy conversation based on “innocent love,” instead of on the hard realities facing Israel.With every successive AIPAC gathering, our dissatisfaction grew. At AIPAC’s Winter Saban in 2009, our questions about the settlements were consistently deflected. At Policy Conference 2010, barely two weeks after the Israeli Housing Ministry welcomed Vice President Biden by announcing 2,000 new housing plans in East Jerusalem, AIPAC Board Chair Lee Rosenberg dismissed them simply as expanding Jewish “neighborhoods.” In 2011, we watched as President Obama’s proposal of Palestinian statehood based on the 1967 borders with land swaps was met with skepticism, while Netanyahu received a standing ovation when he declared refusal to share Jerusalem. This year, the peace process was startlingly absent from AIPAC’s program. For us, peace with the Palestinians should be center stage, not an inconvenient nuisance.

Such a pattern tests Troy's claim that a “firm commitment” to the two state solution abounds at AIPAC. As settlement construction plans in E-1 arouse further doubt regarding Netanyahu’s commitment to a two-state solution, this year Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren repeated the hackneyed refrain that the Palestinians “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” This politics of blame continues to plague mainstream discourse on Israel. Rather than working to effect a peaceful resolution to this conflict, AIPAC tacitly supports policies that perpetuate Israel’s 45-year rule over the Palestinian people.

According to Troy, AIPACers also understand the “genuine pain” of the Palestinian people. Yet this pain has never been reflected in the conference program. We have both visited Hebron, where armed Jewish settlers walk along the once bustling Shuhada Street, where their Palestinian neighbors, living literally feet away, are forbidden access. We have seen the wreckage of homes in Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, where Palestinian families were evicted and replaced by Jews.

We have also visited families in Sderot experiencing the trauma of rocket fire. We too love being in the Old City on erev Shabbat. But it is precisely because of our exposure to the “genuine pain” of the Palestinian people that we insist on activism that values democracy and security for both Palestinians and Israelis.

Contrary to what some leaders in the American Jewish community often assert, we are not just “wrestling” or “struggling” with the reality of occupation. We are wrestling with our community's refusal to admit our responsibility to help end it.

J Street speaks to us not only because we value open conversation. It is because we fundamentally believe that caring about Israel necessitates working to stop its self-destructive policies before it’s too late. We left AIPAC because we found a persistent refusal to make the necessary concessions for the two-state solution. J Street has allowed us to mature from “innocent love” into embracing a model of Israel activism grounded in our commitment to the full story of Israel, including the hard reality of occupation and the necessity of ending a century of conflict.

Community “lovefests” do not allow for meeting the challenges of our time. They do not produce wise and effective foreign policy. Enough with the cherry tomato. For the love of Israel, we need to talk about how to end the occupation and achieve a lasting peace.