I am posting this on behalf of Moriel Rothman, a junior at Middlebury College in Vermont whom I was pleased to meet at the J Street U and J Street conferences last week. Moriel’s full bio is below these reflections following those meetings.— Ron
Having just returned from the J Street conference, I want to add my voice to the media controversy surrounding the new Pro Israel Pro Peace organization and its first conference in DC. I am writing from the perspective of a student, a connected Jew, a liberal, an Israeli citizen, and an American citizen when I say “finally.” Finally, a Pro Israel organization that does not deny or turn a blind eye to the immense suffering of the Palestinian people and the deep legitimacy of their narrative. Finally, a Pro Peace organization that does not demonize Israel and grossly oversimplify the situation with labels like colonialism and apartheid. Finally, an organization that proudly declares its support for Israel as a Jewish State, and that proudly emphasizes the need for the creation of a viable Palestinian State. Finally.
J Street, through its programming, platforms and sheer energy, has shown its ability to provide an organizational voice to people like myself, people who love and are deeply connected to Israel, and who are immensely frustrated with and critical of many Israeli policies. Moreover, J Street represents a chance for people like myself to reclaim Zionism. The word Zionism has taken on such a pejorative connotation in the liberal world that many have been hesitant to use it to self-describe. This hesitance has been compounded by the fact that many of those loudly proclaiming to be “Zionist” are from the expansionist, extremist settler movement, which cares nothing about the plight or rights of the Palestinian people. I vehemently disagree with the latter group, but I am a Zionist. I believe in Israel, and I believe in Israel as a Jewish state. I believe in a Jewish state based on the best ideals Judaism has to offer, ideals of justice and repairing the world, ideals of tolerance and equality, ideals of hope. I believe in a Jewish state that acts as a “light unto the nations.”
Do I see the Israel of today as embodying the best ideals of Judaism, as acting a light unto the nations? No, I do not. But that does not mean that I should abandon my ideals, my goals and my dreams as to what the Jewish State should and indeed could be.
Does the fact that the American system has left so many disenfranchised and suffering mean that we should give up on America and American democracy, or that we should work to change and better America, bringing it closer to its foundational ideals?
Returning to the subject of what Zionism means, the spirit of the J Street conference reemphasized something that I have always believed: Zionism, while clearly a Jewish movement, has profoundly universalist implications. Zionism was a movement formed from communal longing, from religious and cultural dedication, from historical roots and from the desire that Jewish people be safe, secure and able to flourish. Thus, it is in fact through the very lens of Zionism that I am best able to understand the Palestinians’ desire for independence, for national self-determination and for freedom from the oppression and repression they have suffered throughout history. As such, it is through this reclaimed paradigm of Zionism that I aim to struggle for two viable and independent states, for the sake of the Jewish state and the Jewish people, and for the sake of Palestine and the Palestinians.
Finally, the J Street conference reaffirmed that the struggle to make Israel the type of Jewish state that I –and many others– long for cannot be through silence nor reactionary defensiveness. As a Jew, a liberal, a student, an American, an Israeli and a Zionist it is crucial that I actively support Israel when it does what I see as right, and speak out, loudly, strongly and with conviction when the Israeli state carries out unjust and immoral policies and actions. For indeed, such policies (the continuation of the Occupation, for example) are, in a sense, anti-Zionist, both in their negative effects on the possibility of a democratic, Jewish state and in their inconsistency with core Jewish and Zionist values.
Moriel Rothman is a junior at Middlebury College, in Vermont. He was born in Jerusalem, Israel, studies political science and Arabic, and is co-president of Middlebury’s Hillel.