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October 28, 2011

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PAGE 20A HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, OCTOBER 28, 2011 J Street head warns Israel it is running out of options Steve Chernela Jeremy Ben-Ami outlines his poo;ion on Israel at the opening event of the Varied Voices program. gradually decide to sacrifice its democratic character and the very values of our people in order to maintain control of the territory won in 1967," said Ben-Ami. He acknowledged that the Palestinian leadership leaves much to be desired, but he was emphatic that President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayad rep- resent "the best Palestinian leadership we'll ever know." Losing the opportunities available now would under- mine moderates, empower groups like Hamas and Hez- bollah, and lead to far greater world isolation, he said. Ben-Ami also emphasized J Street's approach that "Israel's supporters have not only the right but the obligation to speak out when we think the policies or actions of the Israeli government are hurt- ing Israel or harming the long-term 'interests of the Jewish people." "We do not revel in criticiz- ing the Israeli governnent," he said. "We do it with aleavy heart." He lamented hat a number of Jewish goups have declined opportuniLies to debate J Street, while others have attacked it as anti-Israel and worse. "The right way to contend with ideas that you do not like is with better ideas, not by refusing to debate," h e said. Invited to play the role of "responder"to Ben-Ami's pre- sentation, New Jersey Jewish News editor-in-chief Andrew Silow-Carroll said he shared Ben-Ami's belief in a two-state solution and in the need for broad communal conversa- tion. He did respond, however, with what he called a "few of the tougher questions I know you may have heard before." Silow-Carroll asked if J Street had been strict enough in differentiating between those who criticize Israeli pol- icy and those who challenge the legitimacy of Israel itself, especially within the boycott and divestment movement. Ben-Ami said the "red line" defining acceptable criticism was that it comes from people who accept and support the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own, and their right to effectively defend it, He also drew a distinction between proponents of a one-state solution who call for a boycott on all economic activity with Israel, and Israeli and Jewish activists who call for labeling products made in the settlements. Silow-Carroll also asked how J Street's criticism of the role of pro-Israel money and political influence differs from that of critics, like Philip Giraldi or Stephen Walt, who insist that a vast "Israel lobby" coordinates efforts to skew American policy or shut down political debate. By Elaine Durbach New Jersey Jewish News Rabbi Douglas Sagal doesn't regard civil discourse on the topic of Israel as merely an intellectual exercise; he sees it as an antidote to an "existential danger." Just how difficult it is to keep that discourse cordial was evident at the opening session of Temple Emanu-El's new Varied Voices program, on Oct. 16. Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder and president of J Street, was the featured speaker, and vir- tually every audience member who spoke out described his views as naive, wrong, or outright harmful to Israel and the Jewish people. In response, he calmly acknowledged the differences in opinion, but maintained his view that, for all the danger involved, if Israel doesn't seize what opportunities it has now to negotiate a peace agree- ment, it risks exchanging "a bad scenario for an even worse scenario." Ben-Ami described his own background; he is the son of Yitshaq Ben-Ami, an Israeli follower of the right-wing Zi- onist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky. The eider Ben-Ami later joined the Bergson Group, whose members made an aggressive effort to rescue Jews during the Holocaust. Ben-Ami went on to de- scribe his own credentials as a supporter of Israel and those of the organization he started three years ago. With regard to Israel's conflict with the Palestinians, J Street insists that without a negoti- ated two-state solution with land swaps, Israel will lose its democratic character and Jewish majority. "I am very afraid, however, that we are watching Israel Elaine Durbach Continuing the debate about Israel, Jeremy Ben-Ami chats with audience members at the program at Temple Emanu-E1 in Westfield, N.J. As he does in his new book, "A New Voice for Israel," Ben- Ami criticized those whose criticism of Jewish political in- volvement "feeds into histori- cal tropes about Jews" or who say Jews control the media or policy. He said there is noth- ing conspiratorial or insidious about the pro-Israel lobby; rather, the American-Jewish community knows how to "play by the rules" of political involvement extremely well. But he also disputed the idea that Israel doesn't get "a fair shake" from the media, saying the problem is often its government policies, es- pecially in expanding West Bank settlements. When Sagai invited questions and comments from the audi- ence, hands shot up all around the room. Many more wanted to speak than got a chance in the two-hour program. One woman, visibly angry, said, "Unity is strength," add- ing that the Jewish community is weakenedwhen groups like J Streetpromote"factionalism." Ben-Ami responded that there is unity on basic principles--of Israel's right to exist and for a strong alliance between Israel and the United States--but if large numbers of American Jews find their views ignored "they walk away--and that weakens us." When another speaker objected to the way Ben-Ami characterized Israel's behav- ior toward Palestinians, Ben- Ami acknowledged that what he had to say "is hard to say and hard to hear." Contrary "to the mythology taught to the American-Jewish com- munity over decades," he went on, millions of Arabs in areas occupied by Israel do not enjoy full citizenship--and "those violations of human rights are being done in your name." Toward the end of the pro- gram, Ben-Ami surmised that the audience was split "about 60-40," with the majority critical of his positions. Sagal, Emanu-El's religious leader, said the program is part of the Reform congre- gation's bid to generate a respectful exchange of views on the subject of Israel, and possibly create a model that other groups might use. In De- cember, the series will feature a presentation by a represen- tative of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, whose views--especially on the United States' role in bro- kering apeace deal--are often seen as at odds with J Street's. Elaine Durbach is a staff writer for the New Jersey Jewish News, from which this article was reprinted by permission. In Hungary, focus is on internal issues, not Israel ByAiex Weisler "All of their energy is a statement, but it didn't at- BUDAPEST, Hungary (JTA)--There have been no rallies, no ad campaigns, no testy community discus- sions here on the Palestin- ians' bid for statehood. On an issue that roused Jews elsewhere in the world, both pro and con, Hun- gary's Jewish community has stayed mostly silent. The year-old Israeli Cultural Institute held a lecture on Palestinian statehood about three weeks ago, but nothing else was planned. Adam Schonberger, the 30-year-old executive direc- tor of the Conservative youth group Marom Budapest, said the community just isn't focused on Israel. "I think the whole ques- tion is based on the very limited influence of Hungar- ian Jews," he said. "Although there are many groups and many aims, it's still a very limited community. They are not dealing with any kind of Jewish issue, except if the far right-wing parties are harming the interests of the Jews. That's it." Janos Gado, the editor of Szombat, a monthly Jewish ne,magazine based in Buda- pest, says it's not that Hungar- ian Jews don't love Israel--it's just that they're too busy fihting among themselves. consumed by infighting," he said. The muted response is a function of a Jewish com- munity in a deep struggle over its own identity and leadership, as well as a reflection of the extent to which Hungarian Jews are assimilated. Though Hungary's 100,000 Jews make up Eu- rope's fourth-largest Jewish community--after France, Britain and Germany, re- spectively-they are un- usually splintered. Buda- pest alone has 20 religious communities from four denominations, according to a study released in mid- September by the London- based Institute for Jewish Policy Research. Since the fall of com- munism in 1991, Hungary's Jewish community has seen significant changes, The pro- liferation of younger, more grassroots-oriented Jewish groups over the last decade has challenged the commu- nity's historical leadership structure. Schonberger blames the community's fragmenta- tion for the relative silence on Palestinian statehood. A handful of Zionist groups, operating under the um- brella of the Hungarian Zionist Federation, released tract much attention. That's because, he said, it didn't have the backing of Hungary's main Jewish organization, the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary, known by its Hun- garian acronym, Maszihisz. Maszihisz president Peter Feldmajer said he met with Hungary's prime minister and foreign minister to ex- press the Hungarian Jewish community's position on the Palestinian push for statehood. That position, he said, is that of the European Jewish Congress: "Any uni- lateral steps are bad steps, and we will be further from real peace." Feldmajer said ordinary Hungarian Jews aren't that concerned with Israel. "For the Hungarian Jew- ish community, it's not in the spotlight. Most of the Jewish people have a special connection with Israel, but there's no direct opinion on the details," Feldmajer said. "In Hungary, I suppose it's not good to make a rally in the streets." Gado says Hungarian Jews are quite assimilated, and Jews on the grassroots level aren't drawn to Zionism. "The word Zionism is a harsh word in our contem- porary, liberal, left-wing, human rights-ist world. It's Alex Weisler The Israeli Cultural Institute hosts many Israel cultural events, like the kicltoff party for the Hanoar Hatzioni Zionist youth group seen here, but it mostly steered clear of the fray on the Palestinians" U.N. statehood bid. rather a negative word, an in- suit," he said. "The organized Jews, yes, they are officially committed to Israel." But "the average Jew," he said, "is much more commit- ted to left, liberal, minority, human-rights values than Zionism." Certain events can stir the community to take more public action, Feldmajer said. During the last Gaza war, Maszihisz officials wrote Op-Eds and helped organize a rally near Budapest's Israeli Embassy. "But it was a very clear thing--there were missiles from Gaza and Israel should defend herself," Feldmajer said. "It was a clear situation and we could communicate to the Hungarian people that Israel had a right to defend." Gado says Israel isn't inter- twined with Jewish identity in Hungary in the same way it is in the United States. "Hungarian Jews are just like Hungary itself, fo- cused on themselves," Gado said. "Israel and Palestinian membership in the U.N., it remains something very dis- tant and not very important."