THE BLOG

Herzl and J Street are right: You can be Pro Peace and Pro Israel

06/24/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Lately there have been attempts to exert pressure on Obama's administration to minimize conflict with the Netanyahu government. An open letter by Ron Lauder argued that Obama was one-sided in his approach, and the Palestinians are responsible for the stalled peace process. In another open letter, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel urged the administration to leave Jerusalem out of politics, effectively asking the administration to stop pressuring Israel on the matter.

The background of these attempts is, of course, the open conflict between the Netanyahu government and Obama's administration. Right-wingers both in Israel and the US keep accusing Obama of this conflict. Before, they say, Israel and the US saw things the same way; there was harmony, and Israel could do as it pleased. This is incredibly short-sighted: the international community, including the US, has long ago made up its mind that the two-state solution needs to be implemented. It has never accepted Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem, and even George W. Bush, whom Netanyahu and Lieberman miss sorely, didn't move the US embassy from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv.

In any case the vocal right wing does not represent US Jewry. A poll conducted by J Street shows that Jews in the US continue to back Obama by a margin of four to one. A similar proportion believes that the administration should play an active role in the Middle Eastern peace process even if this means that pressure needs to be exerted on both sides of the conflict. They think that, in the long run, Israel's existence as a Jewish and democratic state, depends on implementing the two-state solution, and they know that time is running out. They think that Obama's policy is ultimately in Israel's existential interest.

This doesn't mean to beat Israel into submission: it means to remain firm in the conviction that it is in the interest of the US, of Israel and of the Free World to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It doesn't mean to exert one-sided pressure on Israel. It equally means to hold the Arab League to act upon the terms of its own peace initiative, and not to backtrack when it is politically easier to do so. It means to extend full support to Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in his effort to establish good governance and a reliable security force; it means to be forcefully clear that terror is not the way towards Palestinian independence.

It is time for the liberal majority of US Jews to speak up; not in order to harm Israel, but to help it. US Jews are overwhelmingly liberal in their worldview, and for good reasons: we Jews know how immensely important liberal values have been for us in the last two centuries. These values have allowed Jews to find their place in the free world, and they must be upheld up even in difficult times.

Liberal Jews in the US must make clear that they, and not the vocal right wing, speak in the name of Zionism's most important figure, Theodor Herzl, whose 150th birthday is coming up. The appropriation of Zionism by the right is wrong, historically, politically and morally, and it is time to reclaim it from those who think that they have a monopoly on the term or the idea.

Herzl wanted Jews to have a sovereign state of their own, and he dreamt of it as a liberal, progressive country. His vision was forward looking rather than preoccupied with symbols of the past. Herzl believed in diplomacy rather than confrontation, and his impact on the Zionist movement was primarily a combination between his visionary and his diplomatic abilities. Herzl also made a constructive and cooperative relation between Jews and Arabs into one of the centerpieces of his depiction of the new Jewish state in his novel 'Altneuland'. Long before the term 'multiculturalism' was even invented, Herzl saw the Jewish state as a place where people of all ethnicities, languages and religions could live in dignity - a vision restated in Israel's Declaration of Independence, but often left behind by Israel's current leaders.

Implementing Herzl's liberal vision entails a price: Israel will have to choose between the holy places and East Jerusalem on the one hand, and peace and democracy on the other hand. Do not let the right's propaganda fool you: Jerusalem is not a united city: it is divided under Israeli rule.

Elie Wiesel's - certainly heartfelt, but ultimately sentimental -- letter says that Jews have been yearning for Jerusalem over Millennia and that under Israeli rule it has been peaceful and open to all religions. Obviously he is writing about a Jerusalem that exists in his heart but not in reality, as he could easily find out if he were to follow the continuing eviction of Palestinians from their properties in Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah. Wiesel's policy of never criticizing Israel makes him lose track of his humanitarian ideals, and to blind himself to the simple fact that continued actions of Jewish settlers trample the rights of Palestinians without remorse. He pleads for Jerusalem to be beyond politics, but this a fiction, because Jerusalem is at the heart of the Middle Eastern conflict.

I call upon the majority of liberal US Jewry to speak its mind. Don't let the vocal minority of the right tell you that you need to choose between being pro-Israel or pro-peace. J Street is right: you can be both. Don't be afraid that you are abandoning Herzl's Zionist dream of a State of the Jews that is fully democratic. Under the current circumstances, Herzl's vision would have been for Jerusalem to be the capital of two peoples who respect each other's desire for sovereignty, dignity and security, because Herzl was a pragmatic humanist. Don't be afraid that in doing so you are imposing a foreign will on Israel. Most of the current stalemate is a function of the dynamics of Netanyahu's right-wing coalition and of its fear of confronting the settler movement openly. Fully seventy percent of Israelis support the two-state solution - most are just afraid that it is not possible.

Use your influence to convince President Obama to come to Jerusalem and address Israelis from the Knesset. Tell him that only leaders who come here can reach the heart of Israelis. Call upon Obama to support Herzl's 'if you will, it is no dream' with hope we can believe in.