Cheltenham, PA - Tonight I heard a full throated debate between Jonathan Tobin, Executive Editor of Commentary Magazine and Steve Masters, Chair of the National Advisory Board of J Street Local at the Melrose B'nai Israel Emanu-El Synagogue in Cheltenham, suburban Philadelphia. The program was moderated by Burt Siegal, former Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council and self described friend of both speakers.
After brief introductions, Mr. Siegal laid out the ground rules which involved six, actually seven minute statements by each followed by discussion between the speakers and then a series of questions including cards collected from the audience of about a hundred brave and crazy souls. Mr. Tobin began with a joke/analogy about a goat. The punch line was that even though the goat eventually died from the Rabbi's suggestions, the Rabbi was sorry because he had more advice:
"The allusion that any of us here are going to come up with a solution that the Israelis haven't tried is absurd." "Even people on the right believe the land will be divided," he said. He then went on to state that; "What's under debate now, what's at stake is the legitimacy of Israel and Zionism itself. The enemy of Israel is the deligitimization of Israel itself. There's a threat from Iran and a threat from anti-Zionism, "Tobin said.
Mr. Masters began by laying out four things; "About myself," (to identify his own credibility), "what motivates J Street, consensus and where the mainstream is." He spoke about his involvement in Zionist youth camps, activity as an AIPAC Rep at Yale and his "life changing year in Israel," that focused him on "guaranteeing Israel's survival."
He spoke about "the fierce urgency of now!" He went on to sketch out the demographic argument with Israel losing its slim majority by 2020 if it didn't divide the pie effectively creating a two-state solution. He also noted that the two-state solution has been "American policy for four administrations."
Masters then reiterated components of the Clinton/Taba parameters; "A demilitarized Palestine, a multilayered military, Palestinian refugees returning to Palestine and Jerusalem as the capital for both." He then said; "82% of Jews in the United States support the US playing an active role. He said the even more important figure was "that 73% support an active role even if the US disagrees with Israel and Palestine,"
Tobin brushed it aside saying; "J Street is a partisan supporter for Obama." He said; "I agree Israel needs a two-state solution. The problem is to create a Middle East peace process beyond Jews on the left and the right is that the people on the other side have to agree." The audience full of partisans in their own right began to make some comments and respond vocally to the speakers. It wasn't many, but you could hear a growing din.
Tobin reviewed the history of Yasser Arafat at Camp David and his resultant "no," followed by the Second Intifada. He added Ehud Olmert's even more generous offer to Mahmoud Abbas after Annapolis and the Abbass answer; "No." He then went on to say an interesting thing: "I've met Palestinians who long for peace, but Palestinian nationalism has grown in response to Zionism."
What we're talking about," he said, "is a three state solution with Hamasistan. The broad concern in Israel is that anything else they agree to will wind up like Gaza." Israelis would like there to be peace, but we cannot make the other side want peace. We can hope," he said.
"The extent that we have the hubris to dictate to Israel, most American Jews think is illegitimate."
It was then Mr. Masters turn: "Can we sustain a state in Israel? Militant settlers are a threat although most settlers are decent people. The Arab peace initiative has been sitting on the table for years. There is a broad consensus that exists in Israel."
Then he asked Mr. Tobin about East Jerusalem and mentioned a full page advertisement recently placed in the New York Times by the Council of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations quoting Yitzhak Rabin, ("My Jerusalem"), and stating his unadulterated approval for an undivided Jerusalem. He said that was not the opinion of Rabin at the end of his life.
Jonathan Tobin was happy to respond to this question: "I interviewed him at the Waldorf Astoria two weeks before he died on his last trip to America and he told me"; "There will be no division of Jerusalem."
Before anyone knew it, it was time for questions starting with the moderator: "Why is the tone of the debate, (in the American Jewish community), so ugly?"
Mr. Tobin answered first: "American Jews have always disagreed on Israel. The J Street position; pressure Israel, would have made more sense before Oslo"."
Then Mr. Masters responded: "A difficult time. People care a lot! It's hard to hear someone who you think doesn't get it. It makes people uncomfortable." He went on to say that Prime Minister Netanyahu is involved in the Proximity Talks: "We have to support Israel when it takes risks for peace."
1 | 2