I began my commitment to Zionism before most of you reading this were born. So I send you this message as a long-standing friend of Israel who has supported its creation and growth, who has invested heavily in its industries -- time, effort and money -- and who has donated to its institutions. For over 25 years, I have been actively pursuing the position that Israel must separate itself from the Palestinians, ultimately by resolving the issues between them through establishing two separate states. I recently started to sift through my personal history with Zionism to better understand what prompted me to feel so strongly about this conclusion.
My Zionist efforts began even before my bar mitzvah. I traveled the subways of New York City with a blue box, a "kufsah," showing a map of the Israel we dreamed of, going from car to car, screwing up my courage to make a speech asking for donations for the Jewish National Fund to enable it to buy land in Palestine to add to the Yishuv. And at home, like many Jewish families, we had the "kufsah" waiting for the deposit of some of the day's change and any extra money. My efforts were encouraged by the Hebrew Day School I attended and by the example set my parents.
It was only as I got older that I began to fully appreciate the reasons for the great drive by the Jewish people for a homeland of their own. I appreciated it as I learned how my father's family fled Russia to avoid growing anti-Semitism and pogroms and as I studied the history of how Jews were mistreated throughout history and cast out of country after country -- Spain, England, France, Austria, various Arab lands -- even as they thought they were becoming accepted. I appreciated it as I witnessed anti-Semitism in the America of my youth, in quotas for Ivy League colleges and medical schools and ugly words about Jews even in the daily newspapers. But most of all, I appreciated it as I watched what was happening to the Jews in Germany and countries conquered by the Germans; the shameful spectacle at the Evian Conference in 1938 where no nation, not even my own, was willing to offer sanctuary to significant numbers of those Jews, even to the point that in 1939 Hitler used that reluctance in a speech to attempt to legitimize the Nazi program of expulsion. I watched as leading American figures like Charles Lindbergh called for the United States to reject support for Great Britain in its battle with Germany, suggesting that "the Jews" were among the three groups pushing for that support. I saw how even the establishment American Jews were unwilling to join in a boycott of Germany called by Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, founder of the American Jewish Congress, in part for fear of engendering anti-Semitic responses.
You can imagine, then how excited and proud we American Jews were in 1947 when the UN with American backing voted for partition to allow the Jews to have a state of our own. Finally, after thousands of years of being treated like underclass members of various nations, after pogroms and the indescribable horrors of the Holocaust, we Jews had a state of our own -- a safe haven for the Jewish people the world over. A haven that was proven effective as Israel, living up to our dream, accepted and integrated refugees from Arab states and over a million refugees from the former Soviet Union and from other countries.
Oh, how proud we were when Israel defeated the combined Arab forces in 1967 and held them off again in 1973. And how proud we have been to watch Israel develop into a major economic engine, demonstrating the ability of Jews not only to govern themselves but to build a highly successful nation and culture that is the envy of nations.
So, why am I writing this to you: because I am afraid once more for the future of the Jewish people. I am afraid that if Israel chooses the wrong course that choice will endanger all that you have succeeded in building and all that you and we dreamed of and worked for. After the 1967 victory, a pattern of ambitious nationalism has emerged in Israel, for some inspired by messianic belief, that seeks to encompass the territories inhabited by Palestinians. This is a policy that advocates continually increasing settlements in those lands. As it stands today, even the deal offered to the Palestinians by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008 would require that some 100,000 settlers move out of their homes, with all the pain and strife that would bring. Such a wrong course based on religious nationalism puts Israel in danger of losing its singular Jewish character and starting down the path of a bi-national state. And do not be fooled. Israel will not be able to continue as a Jewish state once it encompasses the Palestinian land and people. Announcing that Israel is a Jewish state, even pressuring the Palestinian leaders to say that it is a Jewish state, will not assure that it continues as a Jewish state if a large part of the population is Palestinian. That growing population will not forever be denied voting rights. The history of South Africa has demonstrated how the nations of the world can force a country accused of apartheid to change its behavior and grant voting power to a large disenfranchised population. And if that point is ever reached, Israel will pay a very heavy price. I am concerned that Israel is already experiencing the beginning of an international isolation. The alliance between Israel and the United States is built on strongly shared democratic values. If Americans see those values as eroding on the Israeli side, that alliance will weaken. Despite all their wishes, pro-Israel American Jews will not be able to defend Israel.
As former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin warned recently Israel is "approaching a point of no return." The current negotiations may be the last clear chance to save a two state solution. Prime Minister Netanyahu now speaks of avoiding a bi-national state. He has suggested a national referendum that would allow voters to approve or reject any peace deal he makes. But even before it reaches that point, the Israeli people must make clear the direction they want their country to pursue. They must encourage the Prime Minister and the parties in power to make every effort to separate Israel from the Palestinians and their land and to avoid being ensnared in a bi-national state or other form that involves annexation or incorporation of the Palestinians in the land of Israel.
Many leading American Jews representing a broad spectrum of political and denominational affiliations are publicly iterating their support for your government's decision to enter the peace process negotiations. We see it as the first step towards a two state solution. We also believe that resolving the Palestinian conflict may be valuable in galvanizing the international community and particularly potential regional partners to effectively address the threat from Iran. But, in the last analysis, it is up to you as citizens of Israel to decide on your nation's course of action. For the sake of the Jewish people, I ask you to make a decision that maintains Israel as a Jewish, democratic state, one that remains a haven for Jews anywhere in the world and an example to the world of what a great nation a Jewish state can be.
Robert K. Lifton was president of the American Jewish Congress, a founder and president of the Israel Policy Forum and co-chair of the Middle East Project of the Council on Foreign Relations. His memoirs, titled "An Entrepreneur's Journey: Stories From A Life In Business And Personal Diplomacy," have been published by AuthorHouse.)