Prepared Remarks, Opening Session, J Street 2nd National Conference, by Peter Beinart
The Talmud says that what cannot be accomplished by reason is often accomplished by time. For us, sadly, the opposite is true. What reason cannot preserve, time will destroy. I’m talking about the democratic state of Israel.
We are not the first group of American Jews to warn that a nation whose declaration of independence pledges that it will pursue “freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the Hebrew Prophets” cannot forever hold another people in subjugation without losing its soul.
In 1974, a group of young American Jews, mostly rabbis, created Breira, the first American Jewish group to advocate a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They were vilified by the American Jewish establishment; their inaugural conference was physically attacked by the Jewish Defense League, and three years later they gave up.
On the day they folded, there were roughly 1,000 Jews living in the West Bank, in non-democratic Israel. In 1979, American Jews created the New Israel Fund, which supports inspiring Israeli human rights groups like B’tselem and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. By then, there were 10,000 Jews living in non-democratic Israel. In 1981, after a group of Israeli army officers created Shalom Akshav, American Jews, in solidarity, created Americans for Peace Now. In 1981, there were 16,000 Jews living in non-democratic Israel. In 1993, at the urging of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, American Jews created Israel Policy Forum to support the Oslo Accords. In 1993, there were 110,000 Jews living in non-democratic Israel. In 2002, a civil and women’s rights activist named Marcia Freedman created Brit Zedek v’Shalom, which urged an end to Palestinian terrorism and the creation of a Palestinian state. In 2002, there were 210,000 Jews in non-democratic Israel.
Tonight, as we gather here, almost 300,000 Jews live in lands in which their non-Jewish neighbors lack citizenship and the right to vote, must travel on separate roads and live under a different law. And so we come together knowing that we are not the first group of American Jews to gather in defense of the principles in Israel’s declaration of independence. But make no mistake: we are the last. There will be no next J Street. If we fail, our children will meet, in halls like these, not to defend democracy in the Jewish state, but to mourn democracy in the Jewish state.
Our parents and grandparents struggled to ensure that the Jewish people would survive, to ensure that we would not be forever at the mercy of the gentile world. And in that awesome struggle, to their everlasting credit, despite the millions of dead, they triumphed. Today, because of them, we not only have a Jewish state, we have power, both in Israel and the United States, that they could only have dreamed of. But with that power comes another struggle, every bit as momentous: not a struggle for Jewish survival, but a struggle for Jewish honor. A struggle to show that we can wield power and still keep faith with the teachings of the Prophets, a struggle to show that, despite everything, the Jewish people still has an ethical message for the world.
We have won the land, but we have forgotten what Rabbi Heschel taught, that “The holiness of the land of Israel is derived from the holiness of the people of Israel. The land was not holy at the time of Terah, or even at the time of the Patriarchs. It was sanctified by the people when they entered the land.” And so now, our task, in solidarity with the Israelis and Palestinians risking their lives in places like Sheikh Jarrah and Al-Arakib and Bil’in is to resanctify the land. Because if the land was not holy in the time of Terah, the idol-maker, neither can it be holy in the time of Lieberman and Netanyahu and Ovadiah Yosef.
When we ensure that no more Palestinians are evicted from their homes, and no more Bedouin villages are bulldozed and no more elderly Palestinians die waiting at checkpoints and no more Palestinian children wade in sewage on the beaches of Gaza, and when we ensure that a Jewish woman can safely carry a Sefer Torah to the Kotel, knowing that it is as much her birthright as it is the birthright of the chief rabbi of Israel, then we will have resanctified the land.
When the great progressive Zionist rabbi Stephen Wise, in the final months of his life, was told of the creation of the state of Israel, he said, “I have lived to see the Jewish state. I am too small for the greatness of the mercy which God has shown us.”
I look forward to the day when I can take my five year old son and my three year old daughter--and we can all take our children and grandchildren--to a vibrant, liberal democratic Israel—an Israel that extends the right of citizenship to everyone under its domain, an Israel that not only safeguards the Jewish people, but inspires the world. And on that day, we too will be able to say, with wonder and joy, “I have lived to see the Jewish state. I am too small for the greatness of the mercy which God has shown us.” Thank you.
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