Many of you know that several weeks ago, several dozen students at a University of California campus repeatedly and brutally interrupted my lecture in an attempt to undermine the freedom of expression and delegitimize the Israeli State. I did not give in—I finished my speech—but neither did I applaud, as did many others in the audience, when the protesters were arrested and led out of the hall.
I had come to that university specifically to engage with those students, to exchange ideas—complex and controversial as those ideas may be—and not only to speak but to listen. I did not exalt in their arrest; rather, I was saddened. Civility is a sine qua non of a democratic, pluralistic society—indeed of any society accepting of differences and seeking to grow. And it is fitting that civility be one of the themes of this year's JCPA Plenum. And it is no coincidence that the flagrant abuse of civility perpetrated by the student protesters was inextricably linked to JCPA's other theme—the global attempt to delegitimize Israel.
Indeed, civility—the ability to hear others' opinions and be heard—is an essential weapon in Israel's defense. We have a case to be made—an extraordinary, three thousand year-old narrative—and we must never let it be silenced. We ask for civility from our adversaries, but we must also demand it of ourselves.
We are a people of a vast number of voices—vaster, it sometimes seems, than the actual number of Jews. And the ability to hear and listen to one another—civility—has been a primary reason for our survival as a people. Our diversity, though often loud, has enabled us to thrive while quieter, more monolithic peoples—the ancient Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians—have disappeared. Civility is hardwired into our holy books, in the labyrinthine debates of the Talmud, and the discourse of our Pessach seders. A robust and rambunctious civility was also seminal to the evolution of Israel's democracy—arising not out of a centuries' long legacy of parliamentary rule, as in England and the United States, but out of the practical need to govern a society comprised of multiple movements, none of which could claim a majority.
Therefore it is tragic that now, when Israel and the Jewish people face challenges as daunting as any in our history, and potentially existential threats, our civility is in danger of breaking down. The seismic events of recent decades have opened rifts in our people's unity, and left us vulnerable to reliving our history's most painful tragedies.
In Israel, we were rocked by the First Lebanon War, which for many Israelis dispelled the belief that peace could be obtained by purely military means, and then by the First Intifada, which led many Israelis to conclude that the whole land of Israel could not be preserved by non-military means and that another people also inhabited that land.
Then, in the 90s, many Israelis ardently believed that peace was at hand, but others did not, and a breakdown in civility culminated with the assassination of our own prime minister by a fellow Jew. And that trauma was followed by another: though Israel was willing to give up Gaza and almost all of the West Bank and even to share its eternal capital, it received not peace but violence—an entire decade of suicide bombings.
Almost the same majority that once believed that the return of territories captured in the Six-Day War would bring us peace became convinced that the conflict was never about territory but about the existence of an independent Jewish state in the Middle East—not about 1967 but about 1948. In desperation, we turned to unilateralism, withdrawing from Lebanon in 2000 and then, in 2005, from the Gaza Strip—in the latter case, uprooting thousands of our fellow citizens and all in the hope of generating conditions conducive to peace. Instead we received war—thousands of rockets rained down on our cities, towns, and farms.
Still, amazingly, in spite of our doubts and traumas, a majority of Israelis persisted in supporting a two-state solution but only if that future Palestinian state could not threaten their state and would not withhold legitimacy from us as the nation state of the Jewish people. Politically, inexorably, a disillusioned Israel turned centerward and rightward.
By the 21st century, Israel had become the world's largest Jewish community, six million strong, but it was also moving away from the segments of the community it had surpassed, the Jews of the United States.
Recent decades had seen a rising rate of assimilation among American Jews, of intermarriage, and a dwindling role for Israel in their Jewish identity. Younger generations of American Jews arose who did not have personal memories of the Holocaust and Israel's miraculous creation, of the victories of 1967 and 1973, and of the historic peace agreement with Egypt.
Instead, they were pummelled by media images of Israeli tanks rumbling through the streets of Ramallah, Gaza, and Beirut. In their classrooms, they learned that Zionism was not the national liberation movement of the Jewish people but rather a racist ideology indistinguishable from colonialism and imperialism. Though Jews for two thousand years had yearned to return to their ancient homeland in Judea and Samaria, their tribal lands, a portion of the American Jewish community questioned not only the practicality of that return but also the morality and the right.
American Jews were becoming more diverse, more embracing of new expressions and interpretations of Jewish identity. And while Israelis turned politically center and right, American Jews gravitated in the other direction, casting an estimated 80% of their ballots for Barack Obama.
Meanwhile, long-simmering issues in the relations between American and Israeli Jewry—conversion, prayer at the Kotel, the future of Eretz Yisrael—roiled. The unparalleled accomplishments of the Jewish state—the high-tech economy, the flourishing Hebrew culture, the astounding aliya of Ethiopian and Eastern European Jewry, the Nobel Prize-winning scientists and the soldiers who fought selflessly, morally, against cowardly, bloodthirsty enemies—much of that was obscured.
The question then arose: would American Jews unite around Israel as it faced some of its most perilous challenges?
The first of those challenges is the challenge of peace. Of course, peace is a vision that we all share, of Israel living with its neighbors in an environment of permanent and genuine peace.
That was the vision set out by Prime Minister Netanyahu in his Bar Ilan University speech in 2009. Our vision is that of two states—Jewish and Palestinian—living side-by-side free of the fear of violence and further territorial claims.
As such, the Prime Minister's vision provided for the effective demilitarization of the Palestinian state. It would not have rockets that could rain down on our cities or warplanes that could shoot down airliners landing at Ben-Gurion Airport. And the Prime Minister's vision called for the reciprocal and mutual recognition between the two states. Just as we would recognize that the Palestinians are a people with an inalienable right to self-determination in their homeland, so, too, would the Palestinians have to recognize the Jewish people as a people with the right to self-government in their homeland, the Land of Israel. Only then will there be an end of all claims and a true end to the conflict.
The danger, though, exists that the Palestinian state would not be effectively demilitarized—that thousands of Iranian-supplied rockets would again rain down on Israel, and not in the sparsely populated Negev and Galilee, but in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv; that Syrian-supplied missiles could shoot down civilian airliners landing and taking off at Ben-Gurion airport. The danger exists that the Palestinian state would not recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people would see the two-state solution as a two-stage solution in which the final stage is Israel's dissolution.
Most tragically of all, the creation of a Palestinian state could widen the rifts between those of our people who insisted that we conceded too little and those protesting that we sacrificed too much. The creation of the Palestinian state could tear our state—from both the right and the left—asunder.
The next challenge is one you know too well. It is the systematic attempt to deny Israel's legitimacy.
We are all familiar with the Goldstone report, the charge-sheet compiled by a UN council that has condemned Israel more frequently than all other countries—Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Libya—combined; that found Israel guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity even before it began its deliberations; whose so-called judges included one who had previously denounced Israel's efforts to defend itself from Hamas rocket attacks and another who claimed that Hamas had only fired "one or two rockets" into Israel and that British foreign policy was dominated by the Jews.
But Goldstone is only one component of the global and richly funded campaign to boycott Israel economically, politically, and academically; to force countries and public institutions to divest from Israel, and to sanction Israel financially.
Together with these efforts, which we now know by their initials BDS, are the attempts to arrest Israeli political and military leaders for war crimes in various European countries. There are the attempts to portray Israel as an apartheid state and to portray American support for Israel as the product of an invidious Israel lobby. And there are the attempts to deny Israeli representatives the right to speak on campuses.
BDS also has military ramifications as well. Internalizing the lessons of Goldstone, Hizbollah has now deployed its 42,000 missiles—three times as many as it had in 2006, many with five times the payload—under homes, schools, and hospitals, safe in the knowledge that they can be fired at Israel with impunity. For if Israel tries to defend itself, it will again be condemned for war crimes.
Here, too, the danger is not only external but first and foremost within the Jewish people, that we will be too divided over theological and political issues, that some might minimize the threat of BDS or be less than unequivocal in its condemnation. Israel could be strangled economically and isolated internationally as a pariah state while the Jewish people failed to mount an effective defense.
Every attempt to annihilate us as a people and a state has been preceded by a campaign to dehumanize us. And dehumanized, Israel could be rendered vulnerable to the most ominous challenge of all.
This is the challenge of a rapidly nuclearizing Iran. An Iran that, if it acquires military nuclear capabilities, presents Israel with not one but multiple threats. There is the threat that Iran can place a nuclear warhead atop one of the many missiles it possesses capable of hitting every Israeli city. Iran can convey military nuclear capabilities to its terrorist proxies and Iran can trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, transforming the entire region into a tinderbox.
Again, I don't have to emphasize the immensity of these threats to this audience and the American Jewish community is overwhelmingly supportive of Congressional sanction legislation against the Iranian nuclear program. But again the danger is not necessarily a lack of awareness but rather a lack of determination to rally publicly against Iranian nuclearization.
Though vocal on many issues relating to Israel, American Jews have yet to unite demonstrably, massively, to defend Israel—indeed, to defend themselves—from a nuclear-armed Iran.
This is not 1938. Today we have a strong and courageous State of Israel with a seasoned citizens' army. Today, the State of Israel is allied with the most powerful country on earth.
But the fear remains—and I must confess that this is my deepest fear—that catastrophes may still befall us not only because of the magnitude of the challenges confronting us, but because of our failure to unite in meeting them. My fear is not only of a repetition of the sinat hinam—the internecine disputes—that led to our two-thousand-year exile but also of the silence that characterized this community's reaction to the murder of six million of our people.
Israel has achieved the seeming impossible. From a country of a mere 600,000 Jews, armed with handguns and attacked by six Arab armies with hundreds of warplanes and tanks—a country without an economy or allies abroad; from a country which, in 1967, again faced overwhelming enemy forces and again faced them alone without resources and friends—we have become today an economic dynamo with excellent relations with the former Soviet bloc countries, with China and India, with peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt, and an historic alliance with the United States.
We have accomplished all this but we have not accomplished it alone. We have accomplished it together with you, the extraordinary Jewish community of America.
Israel is again at a crucial crossroads and once again we call on you. The people of Israel have repeatedly proven their willingness to make excruciating sacrifices and take far-reaching risks for real peace. We did it with Anwar Sadat and King Hussein. Support us if once again we have to make those sacrifices and take those risks—and support us, too, if we decide that the chances for real peace do not warrant those sacrifices and risks.
Join us in fighting for Israel's right to defend itself and Israel's right to exist. Join us in making that the fight of all Jews everywhere and in reaching out to other communities—African-American, Hispanic—in making it their fight as well.
And join us as you once did at the time of Israel's creation and in the struggle to free Soviet Jewry, join us in heightening awareness of the enormity of the Iranian threat. Alongside the banners in your synagogues and community centers demanding an end to the genocide in Darfur and help for AIDS victims in Africa, hang banners proclaiming "support the sanctions" and "stop the Iranian bomb."
Join us on the core issues of the peace process, on BDS, and Iranian nuclearization--the weightiest issues of our times, in spite of the differences that sometimes divide you. And in spite of any differences you may have with our decisions, respect them, for they have been made by the majority of Israelis through one of the world's most resilient democracies, and that community will bear the greatest responsibility for those decisions.
Join us with hibat Tzion—Dedication to Israel--and a commitment to klal yisrael, to the Jewish people. Join us with diversity, yes, but also with unity. With civility, activism, and love.