Jeremy Ben-Ami is president of J Street, a Washington-based organization that advocates a diplomatic resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In recent days, attacks on Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) over his attitudes toward Jews and Israel have picked up steam. Running for chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee, Ellison is but the latest public figure with pro-Israel views that depart from the hawkish dogma of the traditional pro-Israel establishment to find his personal credibility and qualification for high office under fire.
Let’s be clear: Like all of us, Ellison has made mistakes for which he has apologized. But if the goal of pro-Israel advocacy is to educate and change minds, then wouldn’t it be cause for celebration that a public figure who at one time defended the Nation of Islam has come to believe in the state of Israel’s right to exist and defend itself?
I personally have talked at length with Ellison about Israel and the Middle East. I’ve traveled with him to the region, where we met Israeli and Palestinian officials, activists and civilians. I — and all those who’ve taken the time to get to know him — have always found him to be deeply thoughtful and well-informed. While my organization and I do not comment on internal Democratic deliberations and make no endorsement for the position of chair, it is absolutely clear that Ellison is qualified for the position and, like other candidates, worthy of serious consideration.
He is a strong supporter of the two-state solution, believing both the Palestinian and the Jewish people have the right to self-determination. He believes concessions and compromise on sensitive issues are the only way to bring a peaceful end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and secure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state.
These views are entirely consistent with those of the large majority of Jewish Americans and, in fact, a great deal of the Israeli security establishment. Like him, they oppose actions by both sides, such as settlement expansion and incitement to violence, that make resolving the conflict more difficult. Like him, they support the Iran nuclear agreement for its success in defanging Iran’s nuclear program through diplomacy, without firing a shot.
Unfortunately, some American Jewish leaders choose to define “pro-Israel” not in terms of one’s concern for Israel’s future, but by lockstep adherence to the positions taken by the sitting Israeli government. For years, there have been efforts to silence or delegitimize voices in our politics and our community who speak out about the strategic and moral dangers of the ongoing occupation of the West Bank, its devastating impact on Palestinians and its dangerous implications for the country going forward.
Rather than engage in meaningful and substantive debate, some of these voices prefer to simply label those with whom they disagree as “anti-Israel,” or even worse, “anti-Semitic.” As in Ellison’s case, they unearth regrettable or poorly chosen words uttered years ago, take them out of context and use them as a weapon.
These tactics greatly hurt our national discourse on Israel and the Middle East. They limit open and honest debate over the best ways to help Israelis and Palestinians advance peace and democracy in the region. They force to the sidelines or silence many with critical views.
They create the false impression that American Jews are monolithically hawkish, and that we applaud and endorse shortsighted and self-destructive policies advanced by the current Israeli government.
Moreover, at a time when incidents of genuine anti-Semitism and xenophobic hatred are on the rise across the country and white nationalists are crawling out from under their rocks — with cover from some aides to the president-elect — campaigns such as the one directed at Ellison shamefully misdirect ire toward people who agree with the Jewish community’s values of tolerance and respect.
Recent polling makes clear that Ellison represents the policy views of the significant majority of Democrats and of Jewish Americans. Leaders with similar views and values are going to be the future of the Democratic Party, of our country and of the American Jewish community.
It is time for those who disagree to halt the personal attacks and smears. These tactics do not win friends for the Jewish community or help ensure that American policy will be pro-Israel in the long run. Frankly, they may have the opposite effect.
Enough is enough. Disagreements over policy should be welcome and encouraged in a healthy democracy. Campaigns grounded in name-calling and character assassination aimed at silencing dissent are unacceptable and need to stop.
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