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Finding a Place for Passionate Debate on the State of Israel

March 24, 2011 By:
Rabbi Anna Boswell-Levy
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Rabbi Anna Boswell-Levy

As a congregational rabbi, I have witnessed firsthand the gap in our community when it comes to discussing and advocating for Israel's future.

Indeed, there is a sizable portion of our community comprised of American Jews who believe that we need a more constructive dialogue -- one that reflects our aspirations to finally secure the dream of a Jewish, democratic homeland, but also that embodies our values as a people committed to democracy, justice and peace.

Recently, J Street held its second annual conference "Giving Voice to Our Values" in Washington, D.C. I am most heartened that J Street helped to facilitate these crucial conversations about Israel in a space where participants could fully express our love for the Jewish state and simultaneously address the hard work that is required to secure its future as a democracy.

In fact, quite contrary to the portrait painted in the March 4 report by Uriel Heilman/JTA in the Jewish Exponent, "For J Street, Pro-Palestinian Is Pro-Israel," I found it to be one of the most moving and exciting conferences I have ever attended.

In evaluating what motivates more than 2,000 people to travel to Washington to hold difficult conversations about Israel -- 500 more than at J Street's founding conference -- we should look at the message being delivered by its leadership and positions.

In J Street's statements -- all of which can be found on its website (www. jstreet.org) -- we find a pragmatic, forward-thinking organization that applies the values of our community to inspire our work to advance a two-state solution. Yes, a two-state solution is good for the Palestinians who have their own national aspirations. But we fight urgently for a two-state solution because it is the best -- and perhaps only -- way to ensure a viable and democratic Jewish state for generations to come.

There are certainly others in our community who may feel threatened that J Street is open to debating the challenging issues of our time when it comes to Israel, whether that includes voices from the right or the left.

I think J Street's leadership is truly courageous in supporting an honest and open conversation right in the heart of Washington, D.C. -- the place where every American so poignantly has a stake, and also has the opportunity to make his or her voice heard. This open debate is healthy for our community, expands the base of support for Israel, and ultimately leads to more honest and effective decision-making.

I stayed for Lobby Day, which for me was a highlight of the conference.

More than 600 J Street supporters visited their elected representatives and asked them to support a letter by U.S. Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) that called upon President Barack Obama not to cut any foreign aid to Israel or the Palestinian Authority.

As we explained to our elected officials, cutting this aid would only strengthen Hamas and undermine America's ability to boldly advocate for a two-state solution and to broker a lasting peace in the region.

With the many changes currently taking place in the Middle East, this is not a time to reduce our investment in the region, and it is an especially bad time to abandon our support for Israel and its prospects for a negotiated peace.

We have all witnessed many Jews, especially young people, who have become alienated from engagement with Israel, and it just breaks my heart.

The young people I met at the conference, however, inspired me to return home to my congregation with a renewed sense of hope -- both for the American Jewish community's ability to speak lovingly and truthfully about Israel, and for Israel itself, a place where I have lived and which inspired me to become a rabbi.

We cannot allow ourselves to feel intimated and threatened by tough questions. Rather, we need to be able to speak openly and honestly if we want to secure an Israel that reflects our values as Jews. J Street is becoming a critical address for dialogue, debate and nuanced exploration of issues related to Israel.

I support their vision wholeheartedly.

Rabbi Anna Boswell-Levy is the religious leader of Tzedek v'Shalom, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Newtown.

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