Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry stood before the American Jewish Committee’s Global Forum to deliver one of the more passionate speeches of his career. His address did not garner the media attention it deserved, but it was a speech directed at us, the American Jewish community, which has always stood in support of Israel.
Kerry spoke of his personal connections to Israel, his many visits there over the decades, some that left lasting impressions on him, and of his brother Cameron, now acting Secretary of Commerce, who is a convert to Judaism. Indeed, his shuttle diplomacy since President Obama’s trip in March signals just how important his peace initiative is to him.
Kerry’s message can be summarized in five points, the first three about the prognosis for Israel’s future absent an agreement: that without a two-state solution to the conflict, Israel’s future as a democratic Jewish homeland is endangered; that the status quo is unsustainable; that we now have a brief window of opportunity within which we can achieve an agreement, but failure to do so spells disaster.
In his final two points, Kerry spoke to us as American Jews: asking that we reject cynicism and seize the moment for peace, to look past the tempting arguments that the time is not right; and that we have a critical role to play in the success of his efforts.
It may seem strange for Kerry to speak of cynicism in the American Jewish community when better than 70% of American Jews support a two-state solution. But American Jewish life finds many who are invested in sowing the seeds of cynicism, leaving a silent majority who fear recriminations for raising their voices. An extreme example surfaced last week after the death of Senator Frank Lautenberg, a man whose pro-Israel bona fides should have never been called to question in the first place. Organizations who expressed condolences were reminded by at least one columnist that his support of Israel was weak because he signed a letter criticizing policies of Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir in 1988, and because of his vote to approve Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense this year!
There are plenty of valid factors for cynicism flowing both from Palestinian and Israeli actions. But let us admit that one source of the cynicism of American Jews is misinformation about the true state of affairs in Israel and the Palestinian territories, thanks to continuous obfuscation of facts and resorting to myths and fallacies. A confused community is less likely to argue against a well funded army of polished propagandists. We must recognize our community’s responsibility for the morass in our corner of the middle east, and make a conscious effort to get ourselves out of it.
Engage in this conversation, and you are likely to hear at least some part of a litany of half truths that are taken as gospel. The false claim that the Palestinian Authority rejected Ehud Barak’s offer in 2000 because they had no interest in making peace; the likewise erroneous claim that the PA walked away from Olmert’s offer in 2008. In either case, the reality is far too nuanced, and truth conveniently ignored. (In 2000, Barak set the rules for the summit that left no room for Arafat to either negotiate or seek political cover with allies. In 2008, Olmert’s indictment brought an end to the negotiations when they were nearing completion.) One will hear about Gaza and Lebanon, that when Israel pulled out, they got rockets in return. What you won’t hear is that both withdrawals were done unilaterally, meaning in the absence of the kind of cooperation between Israeli and PA security forces that has in other instances been highly effective in preventing terrorism and other violence. What you won’t hear is about the high level of cooperation between Israeli and PA security forces, efforts by the PA to maintain order, to prevent terrorism, to end corruption and promote economic growth through partnerships with Israelis. These inconvenient truths are hidden, often by those who don’t know better, but sometimes by those who have no interest in peace.
None of this is to say that the Palestinian Authority is free of culpability in the failure to reaching a settlement until now. There is much that the PA can and should do to create a better environment for peaceful coexistence. But playing blame games is sure to lead nowhere except to maintain a status quo that is anything but static or benign.
What John Kerry asks of those of us who love Israel is to say what needs to be said, to our communal leaders who represent a can’t-do attitude, to our elected officials who are often cowed by those communal leaders who claim to speak for all Jews, and to Israelis, both elected officials and its citizens. We need all to know that while we have always rallied behind Israel in times of war, we must urge Israel to make an earnest bid for peace. We must not assume that this effort will fail, we cannot wait for a more convenient moment, we should not hide behind blame. For failure will further isolate Israel in the world. Failure will embolden extremists. Failure will lead to perpetual conflict.
Israel has a bright future ahead of it; but it needs us as partners in the real pursuit of peace.
Kerry’s speech can be viewed or read at http://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2013/06/210236.htm.
(This article appeared in a short form in the Jewish Journal, 6.13.13)
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