07/23/2010 11:17 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Embracing Israel, Justice and Peace

Jews are people of history. It is not possible to make any progress towards peace without fully recognizing why Israel exists and what the state means to Jews. Each of us owns a piece of this narrative. Here is mine:

  • 1966: My first trip to Israel as a teenager. My father, who had left Berlin for the U.S. at age 16, just two weeks before Kristallnacht, was reunited with his sister for the first time in 28 years. My aunt Shula was one of 15,000 children rescued from Central Europe during World War II and brought to Palestine through Youth Aliyah.
  • 1971: My first of several trips to visit Jews in the Soviet Union. I was part of a trip organized by USY, the Conservative youth movement. The Jews we met were able to resist the attempts of the Communist regime to crush their Jewish identity because of their deep ties to Zionism and to the state of Israel. Refuseniks named Anatoly Sharansky, Yuli Edelstein, Ida Nudel, and Yuli Kosharofsky were the heroes of my youth. We landed in Israel at 2 AM and went straight to the Western Wall to pray at a place that these Soviet Jews could only dream about at the time. Today, they all live in Israel.
  • 1976: The American Bicentennial, July 4, 1976. I was on the #5 bus in Tel Aviv, a bus that years later would be blown up by a suicide bomber. The news came on and we heard the reports that Israeli commandos had flown 6,000 miles to rescue over 100 Jews who were being held hostage by Palestinian hijackers and the military of Idi Amin at Entebbe airport in Uganda. All traffic in Israel came to a halt. Everyone on the #5 bus stood and spontaneously sang Hatikvah.
  • 2002: We were in the midst of Intifadah II. Suicide bombings were taking place every few days in Israel, and tourism to Israel totally dried up. I organized and led a Solidarity Mission to Israel on behalf of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, D.C. During the trip we went to Ben Gurion airport to watch three planes land: one from the Ukraine, one from France and one from Argentina. Remarkably, each was filled with Jews moving to Israel in the midst of Intifadah II because the antisemitism in their native countries was intolerable. Several new immigrants coming off of each plane bent down to kiss the tarmac in gratitude for the privilege of "coming home."

I share these pieces of personal narrative because each anecdote, in its own way, speaks to the importance of a homeland for the Jewish people in the land of Israel. But this is more than just my story. Millions of Israelis -- bakers, plumbers, bus drivers and nurses -- could tell anecdotes just as compelling. The miracle of the Jewish state is embraced and cherished, not only by Jews in Israel, but by Jews the world over. Nonetheless, Israel is the only democracy in the world that, 61 years after its founding, still needs to make the case to the community of nations that it has a right to exist. We must unequivocally affirm that right in the international arena.

With that said, I am not unaware that there is a counterpart Palestinian narrative. It includes dispossession, the loss of property that was in families for generations, abandonment by Arab governments, the squalor of refugee camps, the humiliation and degradation of occupation and much, much more. Just as the Jewish narrative leads logically to a legitimate Jewish claim on the land of Israel, so too does the Palestinian narrative lead logically to a legitimate Arab claim to create an independent Palestinian State in the same land. In the poignant words of the Israeli author A. B. Yehoshua, the land is torn between right and right.

The Mishna tells us that the world can only be sustained through justice (din), truth (emet) and peace (shalom). I think this is a vision of Judaism that most all of us find compelling. The Declaration of Independence of the state of Israel envisions a society based on the prophetic ideals that promise full social and political equality to every person regardless of race, religion or culture. Only when all parties in the region come to respect these ideals and extend them to each other reciprocally can peace be achieved. There is no peace without justice, and there is no peace without mutual recognition.

In the Jewish morning service there is a prayer that we recite: "May a new light come to shine in Zion, and may all of us enjoy the promise of that light." That "all of us" needs to include all the inhabitants of the land. Whenever there is an initiative towards peace in the Middle East, there are forces that will seek to undermine those forces. Anwar Sadat and Yitzhak Rabin paid for their peace initiatives with their lives. Too many parents have buried their children. Too many children have been turned into warriors. And too many organizational efforts have been marginalized and derailed.

The forces of extremism on both sides of the conflict are strong and determined. Those of us who desire peace must be at least as strong and at least as determined. Let us pray that all of us -- Jew and Muslim, writers and business leaders, clergy and elected officials -- re-double our resolve to bring that new light to Zion so that all can live in peace and security and enjoy the wonder and blessings of life.

A version of these remarks were delivered at the J-Street Congressional Banquet at its inaugural conference in October 2009.