Op-ed: Learning to listen

“We bring to this debate an Israeli, patriotic voice that says ‘we love Israel, but the occupation harms it.’ It’s critical that the world knows there are Israeli soldiers who think the state’s future depends on ending the occupation.” – Yuli Novak, Executive Direct of Breaking the Silence, and former Israeli Air Force officer (Haaretz).

On March 3, J Street U will bring former Israel Defence Force (IDF) soldier, Avner Gvaryahu to speak about the reality of serving in the occupied West Bank. Avner represents Breaking the Silence (BtS), an organization of IDF veterans, who collect testimonies and seek to make public the day-to-day activities of soldiers who confront civilians in the West Bank. The primary goal of BtS is to address the dissonance between the harsh reality of the occupation and its typical portrayal in Israeli society as a justified element of Israel’s security. Whereas IDF soldiers see the day-to-day abuses of Palestinian rights, such as the restrictions placed on Palestinian freedom of movement and random military actions to “make our [military] presence known,” the mainstream Israeli media frames cases of abuse as outliers. The occupation is invisible in the daily lives of average Israelis and BtS hopes to end this by calling on the Israeli public to think about the actions that their state carries out in their name. “By definition, our job is to spoil the party. It is our job to remind everyone that even though Tel Aviv is very nice and beautiful and normal, so to speak, there is also a Hebron in our country” Gvaryahu says.

BtS represents a voice often missing in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that does not vilify either side, but instead engages critically with the reality of the occupation. BtS takes an unequivocal stance that the occupation, first and foremost, denies Palestinians their basic human rights, but it is also detrimental to Israelis. Soldiers have to grapple with the immorality of some of the orders they have to carry out and face a society that does not provide a space to acknowledge these orders and the accompanying moral dilemma. As Israelis, BtS works to create a better Israel. A spokesperson for BtS writes, “We want a moral Israel and a moral army. That is why we want the IDF to cease being an occupying army.”

Due to the polarizing nature of dialogue on Israel-Palestine, BtS faces backlash from those who believe that their testimonies misrepresent the IDF as bloodthirsty, disregard the efforts taken by the army to spare civilian lives and paint Israel in an unfair light. By this view, any criticism of Israel is seen as fueling anti-Israeli sentiment. As we began advertising our event, several people contacted us, urging us to consider the consequences of bringing a contentious group like BtS to campus, and whether we want to contribute to the already ubiquitous Israel-hating going on at American universities.

At J Street, we believe that to be pro-Israel necessitates encountering the realities of the occupation. We believe that an end to the occupation is crucial to Israel’s long term security and to the viability of a two-state solution. By learning to listen, even when we hear things that don’t match our preconceived notions, we become more understanding of each-other and recognize the moral imperative to change the status quo of this conflict.

We hope to encourage students at Tufts to think critically about the conflict, and recognize that it is possible to acknowledge the security concerns of Israelis alongside the human rights concerns of Palestinians.

We invite Tufts students from all sides of the conversation on Israel-Palestine to join us for this conversation. This is an opportunity for the Tufts community to engage critically with a powerful and challenging Israeli narrative.

Editor’s note: If you would like to send your response or make an Op-Ed contribution to the Opinion section, please e-mail us at tuftsdailyoped@gmail.com. The Opinion section looks forward to hearing from you.

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  1. Arafat
    Mar 03, 2016 - 09:52 AM

    JNS.org – Ever since its founding in 2008, J Street, the liberal Jewish advocacy group, has expended a great deal of time and energy trying to convince American Jews that it is a credible and more ethical alternative to traditional pro-Israel organizations like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

    J Street believes, not unreasonably, that there is a constituency for its work among those American Jews who are generally supportive of Israel but queasy over certain of its policies, most obviously creating and sustaining Jewish communities in the West Bank. Nor is this an unprecedented insight: from the 1970s onwards, there were organizations like Breira (“Alternative”) and New Jewish Agenda which aimed to give voice to the same disquiet.

    J Street, however, is much savvier than either of those earlier incarnations. Unlike its ideological predecessors, there are no rumors circulating of its imminent demise. For the foreseeable future, then, J Street will remain a part of American Jewry’s political landscape.

    This reality is implicitly acknowledged in “The J Street Challenge,” a critical documentary film about the organization that has just been released by Americans for Peace and Tolerance, a Boston-based group run by the well-known anti-slavery activist Charles Jacobs. And it is a reality that, Jacobs and his co-producers insist, needs to be grappled with through honest debate and discussion.

    The key question raised by the film is what it means to be “pro-Israel” not on a personal level, but within the context of the political lobbying and advocacy that swirls around American policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (or, as Harvard Professor Ruth Wisse more accurately terms it in her interview in the film, “the Arab conflict with Israel”). And when you examine J Street’s record, it becomes very hard to dispute Professor Alan Dershowitz’s assertion that the organization—despite its much-vaunted tagline—is “neither pro-Israel nor pro-peace.”

    To begin with, there are J Street’s funders. As the film documents, ferocious critics of Israel like the hedge-fund billionaire George Soros and Genevieve Lynch, a board member of the pro-Iranian regime National Iranian-American Council, have donated significant sums to the organization. And although it says it is opposed to the anti-Semitic Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, J Street maintains close ties with those who advocate collaboration with the BDS movement in targeting West Bank settlements, like the writer Peter Beinart and the corporate lawyer Kathleen Peratis. This milieu is hardly conducive to J Street’s “pro-Israel” self-image.

    Then there are J Street’s statements. As Dershowitz points out, you “rarely” hear J Street praising Israel. A far more familiar refrain consists of slamming Benjamin Netanyahu’s government as an obstacle to peace, or opposing tougher sanctions on the Iranian regime—positions that don’t raise an eyebrow when articulated by anti-Israel groups, but which sound rather discordant coming from a group that claims to support Israel.

    In that regard, much of the J Street documentary studies why the organization’s analysis of Israel’s situation is wrong. Its emphasis on Israel’s land policies in the West Bank, its tin ear when it comes to Palestinian and Arab incitement, its embrace of a strategy that would result in the U.S. pushing Israel to make decisions contrary to its basic security interests—these moral and strategic errors are all familiar to anyone who has followed the debate about J Street’s contribution.

    More enlightening is the film’s examination of why J Street exercises such an attraction to a particular kind of American Jew. Many of the interviewees argue persuasively that affiliation with J Street is more of a lifestyle choice than a political statement, in that it allows liberal Jews to equate their identity with their fealty to the “progressive” values they see Israel as betraying.

    But is that how the J Streeters themselves view it? Since no J Street representative appears in the film, it’s hard to say for sure. According to the end credits, Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s executive director, “declined” to be interviewed, which left the producers with no option but to use existing footage of Ben-Ami speaking to other audiences. J Street told me that Ben-Ami was not interviewed because he was not available at the time the producers suggested. Either way, the absence of a direct interview with Ben-Ami, in which he answers the points raised by J Street’s critics, slightly blunts the film’s impact.

    The most heartening aspect of the film consists of young, pro-Israel activists eloquently expressing why they distrust J Street. Through their words, the viewer gets an insight into the courage and intelligence required to defend Israel on campus these days. Indeed, one of them, Samantha Mandeles, who currently works as campus coordinator for media watchdog Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), is so impressive that I found myself wondering whether she’ll apply for the post-Abe Foxman national director’s job at the Anti-Defamation League—she certainly deserves serious consideration. In any case, seeing and hearing the next generation of genuinely pro-Israel Jewish leaders is reason enough to give “The J Street Challenge” an hour of your time.

  2. Arafat
    Mar 03, 2016 - 09:52 AM

    In July 2012, IsraelNationalNews.com enumerated several vital facts reflecting J Street’s consistently anti-Israel posture. These included the following:

    J Street’s political action committee (PAC) receives funds from the Saudi Arabian embassy’s attorney, Nancy Dutton.

    J Street receives more than $10,000 per year in contributions from Genevieve Lynch, a director of the National Iranian American Council, which is a pro-Iranian lobby.

    J Street’s PAC has received tens of thousands of dollars from one of the leaders of the Arab American community, Richard Abdoo.

    J Street’s PAC repeatedly took contributions from a Turkish American, Mehmet Celebi, who had helped produce Valley of the Wolves, a viciously anti-American and anti-Semitic Turkish film.

    J Street recently sponsored a speaking tour for John Ging, head of the Gaza-based UNRWA, an entity whose raison d’être is to perpetuate the Palestinian refugees’ status, thus encouraging their “right of return.”

    J Street’s visit to Israel in February 2010 was co-sponsored by an anti-Israel group called Churches for Peace in the Middle East, an organization which supports the boycott, divestment, & sanctions (BDS) efforts against Israel.

    Anti-Israel U.S. Arabists are attracted to J Street, sitting on its advisory board or contributing to J Street’s PAC. These include Ray Close, former CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia and then advisor to the head of Saudi intelligence; Lewis Elbinger, State Department foreign service officer; Nicole Shampaine, director of the State Department’s Office for Egypt and the Levant; Ted Kattouf, former ambassador to Syria and the United Arab Emirates; Robert Pelletreau, former ambassador to Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain; and Philip Wilcox, former U.S. consul general in Jerusalem, and president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace.

    Daniel Levy (Jeremy Ben-Ami’s partner in founding J Street) stated at a conference in Abu Dhabi that “the creation of Israel” was “an act that was wrong.” Levy also defended the Goldstone Report, which was very critical of Israel’s 2009 military operation in Gaza.

    J Street welcomed BDS lobbyists to its national conference, where BDS ran a session on strategies and justifications for boycotting Israeli products.

    In January 2012, J Street in Jerusalem held a special meeting to honor Israeli soldiers who refused to obey the orders of their commanders.

    In March 2012, J Street lobbied the U.S. Congress against a resolution condemning the blatant incitement and anti-Semitism in Palestinian schoolbooks and the Palestinian media. Moreover, J Street refused comment on the Palestinian Authority’s school curriculum which openly promoted the violent struggle to “liberate” all of “Palestine.”

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