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Jaeger ’14 and Samuels ’13: A Frank conversation about Israel on Capitol Hill

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In the summer of 2009, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., wrote in a letter to President Obama: “I believe it is very important for the Israeli public to know that there is strong disagreement within the United States ­— not just within our government ­— over exactly how to deal with the question of settlements in the West Bank … I think it would be a denial of an important principle of democracy for the Israeli electorate not to know what the state of American opinion is regarding the settlements.” Frank echoed this sentiment in his Oct. 18 lecture, calling for an open and honest discussion of Israel and Israeli policy on Capitol Hill.

Within communities and constituencies across the U.S. ­— both Jewish and otherwise — there exists a huge diversity of opinion on Israel. The same is true here, where students and faculty come from over 100 different countries and from all 50 U.S. states. Among the hundreds of student groups, four deal explicitly and exclusively with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As members of Puzzle Peace, Brown’s Hillel-affiliated J Street U group, we seek to de-polarize the discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, particularly within the Jewish community, and to advance a vision of a peaceful future where Israelis and Palestinians live side-by-side in two sovereign, independent states. To this end, we often disagree with and criticize the policies of the Israeli government. We firmly believe that this makes us no more or less Jewish or pro-Israel than any established Jewish institutions.

But the sad truth is that U.S. political discourse about Israel rarely lives up to the standard of open debate that Frank calls for. American elected officials have foregone fair and open discussion in favor of a competition to show the most unwavering support for Israel. Take the recent special election in New York’s ninth district, in which a Republican and Democrat basically attempted to out-Zionist each other in order to secure the support of the district’s Jewish constituency. In such a political context, anyone who questions the actions of the Israeli government is quickly branded as anti-Israel and anti-Jewish, despite the obvious falsity of these labels — especially given a long Jewish history of open debate on difficult issues. A quick Google search reveals that Frank himself has been called a “self-hating Jew” for criticism of Israel’s 2010 raid on the Gaza Aid Flotilla. Such labels can effectively blacklist politicians, academics and clergy in many U.S. Jewish institutions. What’s more, they contribute to a stifled discourse on Capitol Hill and to a politics of intimidation that undermines the democratic value of open discussion.

J Street, an emerging pro-Israel Political Action Committee in the U.S., has shown itself capable of opening up a difficult conversation even in the context of the occasionally cutthroat political process. As an affiliate group of J Street’s college campus arm, J Street U, we realize that we can only be pro-Israel activists if we also seek out a strong and lasting peace in the region. Such a peace cannot be achieved through unconditional support of any and all of Israel’s policies, but only through open dialogue and strong diplomatic engagement. This will not be possible until we can change the current close-minded approach to the U.S.-Israel relationship in our political discourse. We must be open to a new conversation, and we must be open to a peaceful resolution.

We applaud Frank’s courage in speaking out against Israeli settlements, but this is just one of many steps needed to help the dialogue in Congress better reflect the diversity of opinions across the U.S. If we treat that diversity as an opportunity for mutual growth and learning, rather than as a threat, we can work together to produce real change for those involved in the conflict, be it Israelis living with the daily threat of terror and violence or Palestinians living under a seemingly endless occupation. It’s time for our politicians to truly represent the diversity of their constituents’ opinions. The magnitude of this conflict demands nothing less.

Harpo Jaeger ’14 and Harry Samuels ’13 can be found on J Street, which is code for Wilson 303, every Tuesday at 8 p.m. They thank other members of Puzzle Peace for their brilliant — and always nuanced — insights.