Editor’s Note: Jeremy Ben-Ami is the president and founder of J Street, the political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement.
Jeremy Ben-Ami: John Kerry used the word apartheid about Israel, setting off a firestorm
He says we need that passion devoted to policies to protect Israel's Jewish democracy
Ben-Ami: Non-Jews will outnumber Jews, which will hurt Israel without two-state solution
He says the word apartheid has been used by Israeli politicians: Kerry is a friend to Israel
Pro-Israel advocates and politicians, breathe easy.
Israel is safe once more from the threat of “apartheid” – the word, that is. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has clarified comments made in a closed-door meeting last week, and he stated clearly that Israel is not an apartheid state.
But Kerry’s dire warning, and the future the secretary was predicting for Israel, lingers. That point seems lost amid this week’s onslaught against Kerry, as members of Congress and Israel advocates raced to prove their pro-Israel credentials with their outrage.
The histrionics over the secretary’s remarks are yet one more sign of how fundamentally broken American politics are when it comes to Israel. Vast energy is poured into defending Israel from an inappropriate word. Yet nowhere near enough energy is devoted to promoting policies that will actually protect and save Israel’s Jewish democracy in the long run.
Labels aside, Israel is maintaining the longest military occupation in the world. In the territory occupied in 1967, Jewish residents enjoy all of the benefits of Israeli democracy, while Palestinian residents in the same territory lack basic rights of citizenship.
Many predict the number of non-Jews in the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River soon will be greater than the number of Jews, and everyone from President Barack Obama to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come to understand what this means.
Without a two-state solution to this conflict, Israel draws ever closer to an unfathomable choice: Forsake its democracy by establishing rule of a Jewish minority over a non-Jewish majority, or forsake its Jewish character by granting equal rights to all residents under its control.
That’s the future that former Israeli Prime Ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak warned about when they invoked the specter of apartheid, and it’s that future that Kerry has been working tirelessly to avert with his Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative. It’s a choice that draws sadly closer, now that Kerry’s efforts have passed their initial nine-month deadline, and the parties have resumed the familiar cycle of provocation and retaliation.
To question Kerry’s commitment to Israel over a word, after everything that he’s done to help Israel, is absurd. No U.S. leader has done more to help Israel gain acceptance in the international community and ensure its long-term peace and security.
What friends of Israel should really be asking themselves is not whether they are doing everything they can to protect Israel from being called certain names, but whether they are doing everything possible to secure its future as the democratic home of the Jewish people by bringing about a two-state peace.
Sadly, this question is conspicuously absent from our politics.
Many politicians’ reflexive defense posture at times like this allows our friends and family in Israel to continue believing that the root of their problems is anti-Israel bias rather than the expansionist policies a right-wing minority is foisting on their country. They need to hear that the policies of that minority are out of sync with the values and the interests of the United States, and that staying the present course risks the foundations of the relationship between the two countries.
Shooting the messenger does Israel no favors.
Friends of Israel should start by thanking Kerry for his commitment to Israel and supporting him as he seeks to break the present impasse in negotiations.
And if we can channel as much passion and energy into ending the conflict as we do into protecting Israel from painful words, Israel may yet stand a chance.
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