J Street event: an important message

As a pro-Israel, pro-peace American and an active member of the St. Louis Jewish community, I am proud of the event that was held on Nov. 13with members of the group Breaking the Silence. Co-sponsored by J Street – St. Louis and the New Israel Fund, the event was held at Congregation B’nai Amoona and moderated by Rabbi Daniel Bogard of Central Reform Congregation. Rabbi Carnie Rose welcomed us to B’nai Amoona in the spirit of pluralism and open dialogue, where we heard from three American-born members of the Jewish community and one native Israeli who all proudly served in the Israel Defense Forces.

These IDF soldiers have a unique, powerful and important perspective on the occupation, on how Israeli government policies are carried out by soldiers, and their impact — on Israeli security and democracy, on Palestinians and on IDF soldiers themselves. Because they are soldiers raised in American Jewish communities, we have a responsibility to hear their experiences and better understand the reality they went to uphold.

Breaking the Silence was founded in 2004 by a group of veterans who have since collected and published more than 1,200 testimonials from soldiers who served in the West Bank and Gaza since the start of the second intifada. The organization aims to raise awareness about the reality of everyday life in the occupied territories and to stimulate public debate on the issues.

The event brought a challenging, contentious and much-needed discussion and perspective into our community and helped to make clear that there is more than one way to love Israel and to work to secure its future. 

The young people who stood up to break their silence are to be commended. Malicious attacks from the American Jewish right have become an expected part of the work that they, and many who support Palestinian human rights and even a two-state solution, are forced to deal with regularly. That’s why it’s so encouraging and important that our community provided these brave and inspiring young people with a platform, despite facing this pressure.

They spoke compellingly and knowledgeably about how the permanent policing and control of millions of West Bank Palestinians is unsustainable and how it exacerbates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, undermining Israel’s long-term peace and security.

These may not be messages or perspectives that many in our community are used to hearing, but they are commonplace in Israeli politics and among the Israeli security establishment. Similar messages were recently shared at the J Street conference in Washington by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former Shin Bet director Ami Ayalon. It’s valuable and important that the St. Louis Jewish community has the opportunity to hear these messages and perspectives to form their own opinions.

Of course, these opinions and positions are unpopular and controversial for some — and the event last Wednesday night provided plenty of space for those who disagree to share their perspectives and criticism. Sadly, not all participants showed respect for the speakers, some even calling them “traitors,” a term which is not only completely false, but which also carries significant weight and meaning beyond mere name-calling. The majority of the audience did show respect, and benefited from the robust, open dialogue. The speakers, Rabbi Bogard as moderator and Rabbi Rose, who opened the evening with a prayer for peace and manned the microphone during the question and answer session, deserve tremendous credit for responding to all questions and critiques with poise, honesty and respect. 

They set a wonderful model for how all of us who care about Israel can and should discuss these deeply personal and deeply significant questions about Israel’s policies, politics and future. Through it all, we were able to find some common ground — we all share a deep love for Israel and its future, we all support the men and women of the IDF and we believe that a two-state solution, while not imminently at hand, is the way to achieve a just and lasting peace in the region.

I’m excited to work with my friends and colleagues at J Street — St. Louis and the New Israel Fund on these issues. We will continue to promote open dialogue and a two-state solution and to advance Israel’s future as a secure, democratic homeland for the Jewish people.

Neil Jaffe is the Chair of J Street – St. Louis, a Board Member of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis and a longtime member of Central Reform Congregation.