Young Americans are notoriously liberal because they are constrained by neither cynicism nor historical failures. Over the past half-century, the campaigns they have spearheaded have initiated momentous social change -- from the civil rights movement in the 1960s to the gay rights movement that is mobilizing young people today. This past weekend, we had the privilege of joining Jewish students from across the tri-state area to discuss the future of Israel and outline a serious plan for peace. The ideas they proposed and the compromises they reached deserve serious consideration inside and outside of the Jewish community. Not only did their rhetoric rise beyond the self-destructive pessimism that often dooms the Israel debate to failure, but their proposals also struck a balance between realism and hope.
The students addressed four issues pertaining to peace: Iran, Settlements, West Bank/Jerusalem and the Right of Return. They also discussed the role of the rabbinate is Israel politics, a domestic issue.
Iran: Students were skeptical of Iran's willingness to abandon its nuclear program, despite Iran's agreement to a Joint Plan of Action this fall, an interim agreement that froze uranium enrichment until a long-term solution is reached. Despite their lack of confidence in Iranian President Rouhani, students did not go as far as many leaders in the Jewish establishment, who have called for a preemptive bill that would reinstate sanctions should Iran violate its agreement with the US. The students believed that such action might undermine the political will of Iranian leaders to negotiate with the United States. Instead, they proposed that Congress should sanction Iran only upon an actual breach of its agreement with the US, though such action should be taken in as swift a manner as possible.
Settlements: While a number of students defended settlement growth on religious grounds, citing the Jewish biblical claim to the West Bank, the vast majority of them agreed that the Israeli government should halt settlement growth immediately. The reason for this conclusion, however, was not the traditional one. Students did not perceive the settlements to be a major impediment to the peace process (students felt the unwillingness of Palestinian leaders to acknowledge Israel's right to exist was a more pressing concern), but rather, many simply believed that catering to international public opinion was worth the domestic political cost.
West Bank/Jerusalem: Students strongly favored a two-state solution with land swaps over maintaining the status quo (a position that Israel has maintained for a number of years). They supported establishing a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, though each religion would be given sovereignty over their holy sites. They advocated for an agreement to place UN Peacekeepers in Jerusalem and on the border of the West Bank to ensure a smooth transition.
Right of Return: Giving the descendants of Palestinian refugees an unlimited right of return was a deal-breaker for the young Jews at the conference. Students were almost unanimous in their belief that a right of return would be a demographic disaster for Israel, because it would quickly turn Jews into a minority in their own country. Instead, they proposed allowing for a limited right of return (100,000 individuals) as a token concession to Palestinian leaders.
Domestic Issues (the Rabbinate): Students were decidedly in favor of minimizing the power of the rabbinate in Israel. They voted to secularize Israel's marriage regime by abolishing the rabbinate's control over the marriage and divorce processes. Israel is currently moving to end exemptions that allow ultra-orthodox Jews to avoid military service. The students supported mandatory conscription of all Israeli Jews for military or national service, tending to view Israel as a secular Jewish state rather than a religion one.
The Arab-Israeli conflict is an issue about which everyone seems to have an opinion. Unfortunately, in the mainstream discussion of Israeli politics, constructive solutions are often drowned out by loud and aggressive rhetoric. The young Jews we met this weekend seem to have the right idea -- both in their tone and in their content. We should all follow their lead.