Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, addressed a crowd of almost 200 students attending J Street U’s East Coast Regional Workshop in Barnum Hall this Sunday.
To begin the event, moderators Tali deGroot, a junior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Eli Philip, a senior at Brandeis University, asked attendees who supported the state of Israel to stand. Nearly all did, which Shrage cited as an indicator that Israel could be a uniting factor for young American Jews.
“You are what we have left,” he said. “I’m not worried about you.”
The crowd, however, clashed with Shrage’s position on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he described as desirable but not immediately attainable.
“Right now, this is our fate. This is where we are,” he said. “I wouldn’t be too optimistic.”
The moderators and other attendees advocated for a more urgent resolution in line with J Street U’s stated goals, which support a two-state solution. But Shrage said that current instability in the Middle East brought on by the Islamic State, among other forces, made Israeli security the top priority for the moment, and policy changes would have to wait.
“Support Israel when you have to,” he said. “It’s clearly impossible to create a two-state solution right now.”
Noah Weinberg, a sophomore at Tufts, asked about ending Israeli occupation of the West Bank, which he cited as the country’s most pressing security and human rights issue.
“The key to our Israeli future is ending the occupation,” he said.
While Shrage agreed that the occupation needs to end, he said he sees it as less of a moral issue and more of a public relations blight.
“You have to be so careful with positions,” he said. “We’re going to lose the whole game if we don’t do something about this.”
Shrage criticized international media for putting Israel under “vicious and stupid attack,” noting that he considered Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to have been “as humane as possible” in this summer’s conflict.
“It’s not like the settlements are the biggest offense to human rights on the face of the planet,” he said. “Why is this receiving so much attention compared to everything else that’s going on in the world?”
While noting the need to discourage racism and discrimination against Israeli Palestinians, Shrage emphasized that the stability of Israel remained his top priority.
“I’m not arguing for Palestinian human rights, I’m arguing for Israeli security,” he said. “Our first commitment is to the Jewish people, to the state of Israel and to its security … If Israel goes down, you’ll go, and you’ll go down with it.”
Shrage argued that making plans for a two-state solution right now would only build up false hope.
“Pretending that there are solutions when there are no solutions isn’t going to get you anywhere,” he said. “Let’s not lie to ourselves, let’s not lie to the Israelis.”
DeGroot asked how she, as a member of the American Jewish community, could engage with Israel to help bring peace to the region.
“What is our role as American Jews in that?” she asked.
While Shrage said some political pressure could come from the American Jewish community, he characterized the conflict as a problem best left to the Israelis themselves.
“It’s their kids more than ours,” he said.
Shrage criticized J Street U for attempting to get involved in Israeli discourse over the dangers posed by Iran.
“That’s way above our pay grade,” he said. “Be a little bit careful about deciding that you’re the ultimate arbiters.”
University of Maryland senior Benjy Cannon, who serves as president of J Street U’s National Student Board, said the conference invited Shrage to speak due to his prominent role in the American Jewish community. CJP is a major philanthropy organization that provides support for 80 social service agencies as well as Israel programming.
“We wanted to continue developing a relationship with him and CJP around our shared interest in Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state,” Catie Stewart, the northeast representative for J Street U told the Daily in an email.
Shrage insisted that he was happy to further discuss the topic, and that at the end of the day, he shared many values with the audience.
“I totally feel your complete commitment to love and defend the Jewish people,” he said. “I’ll meet with anybody, any time.”