Why I invited J Street’s leader to St. Louis

Rabbi James M. Bennett serves Congregation Shaare Emeth. 


When you truly love someone, you have the right, perhaps even the obligation, to help them live up to their highest values and aspirations. Many of us who love Israel know that one important way to express our love is to lovingly urge Israel to live up to her highest national aspirations.

Seventy years ago, on May 14, 1948, the founders of the State of Israel issued a Declaration of Independence affirming the establishment of a Jewish State based on democratic principles. The founders stated explicitly: 

“The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

I love Israel and long for Israel to live up to these lofty goals. I believe that most of my fellow American Jews do, too. When I see Israel falling short of this vision, I have no choice but to speak out and work for change.

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The current Israeli government has seemingly abandoned many of these aspirations. Freedom, justice, peace, and equal social and political rights for all the inhabitants of Israel and the occupied territories are all distant dreams. The reality is that Israel, like our nation and all nations, has much work to do to overcome its social, economic and cultural failings. Turning a blind eye or deaf ear doesn’t make them go away.

A two-state solution, with a democratic Jewish state side by side with a democratic Palestinian state, is one of the best ways to help Israel achieve these goals in peace. Those who deny this inevitability seem willing to risk an Israel that is either not democratic or not Jewish, and reject the rights of the Palestinian people to fulfill their own national aspirations while we fulfill our own.

There are those who believe that Jews must support the government of Israel no matter what. Some claim that Jews should never criticize Israel, never offer our insights or opinions or hopes or dreams when we see the government of Israel failing to meet the moral and ethical demands of our own Jewish values. 

This is absurdly non-Jewish! Throughout the long history of our people, one of the hallmarks of our faith and culture has been the demand that we not remain indifferent when we see injustice, that we not stand idly by when we see failures of morality, that we act even when we must argue with, reproach or condemn the behavior of one another.

Some people jump to conclusions about J Street and what it believes without listening to what it promotes. I invited J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami to speak directly to our community and to share J Street’s five basic principles:

• We are committed to and support the people and the State of Israel.

• The future of Israel depends on achieving a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinian people.

• Israel’s supporters have the right and the obligation to speak out when the policies or the actions of the Israeli government are hurting the long-term interests of Israel and the Jewish people.

• Vibrant but respectful debate about Israel benefits the American Jewish community and Israel.

• Our work is grounded in the Jewish and democratic values on which we were raised.

I was thrilled to welcome J Street to St. Louis. Apparently, most of the more than 300 members of our community who came to hear Jeremy Ben-Ami were as well. Despite the efforts of those who would silence it, the voice of conscience and the highest aspirations of our Jewish people resonate with many of us. 

Like J Street, I am proudly pro-Israel and pro-peace. I invite others who love Israel and love peace to join and work together to attain these goals for Israel, for the Palestinians and for all the world.

Rabbi James Bennett serves Congregation Shaare Emeth.