On Monday, J Street U at UCLA kicked off the quarter with a discussion with Jeremy Ben-Ami — former presidential adviser and president of J Street. The presentation consisted of a summary of J Street’s policies and a Q&A session with students, staff, and faculty.
Ben-Ami, who has familial ties to Israel and has lived there himself in the past, articulated J Street’s pro-Zionist, pro-peace position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Commenting on the tendency of American Zionists to “check liberal values at the door,” he argued for a Zionism based upon humanist values.
Ben-Ami’s recommendations come at a time when, he says, “time is running out.” He explained that Israel currently needs to make a “terrible choice” between democracy and Jewishness. If a two-state solution is not achieved soon, Israel would find herself in a situation in which a minority of Jews rules over a majority of non-Jews. Israel would then have to either preserve its Jewish character at the expense of its democracy, or embrace democracy at the expense of its status as a Jewish State. To avoid this paralyzing crossroads, Israel’s best option is to solidify her borders based on 1967 lines. The creation of a Palestinian state would allow Israel to preserve her Jewish majority and her democratic values, avoiding the “one-state nightmare.”
The urgency of Israel’s responsibility is accentuated by the ongoing Arab uprisings. Israel, along with her neighbors, must take the opinions of the people into account. Israel’s security is no longer guaranteed simply by signing treaties with heads of neighboring states. The voice of the people has become a force in the region to which Israel will now have to answer.
The American Jewish community, Ben-Ami said, needs new rules of engagement. Responding to a question about how pro-Israel UCLA students should address anti-Israel rhetoric at the annual Palestine Awareness Week, Ben-Ami asserted that antagonistic advocacy on the part of Jewish students is useless. Students should not be afraid to be vocal about their support for the two-state solution, which is currently (officially) endorsed by both Israeli and American policy. Jewish students seeking to engage productively with Israel’s detractors should replace the impulsive “No” with “Yes, but…”
Touching on the responsibility of American Zionists and pro-Israel students, Ben-Ami expressed disapproval of the convergence of Zionism and hawkishness. According to him, Republican presidential candidates and others are under the false assumption that only the most absolutists defenses of Israel will appeal to Jewish voters. The existence of J Street and its growing popularity and success in Washington illustrate that the “tent” within which viable Jewish political positions are included is broader than many American Zionists are aware.