THE BLOG

Jewish Diaspora Must Stand Up for Peace

07/20/2014 10:54 EDT | Updated 09/19/2014 05:59 EDT

My heart has ached for well over a month. The kidnapping and subsequent murder of three Israeli teenagers and the murder of a 17-year-old Palestinian boy in East Jerusalem unpeeled the shallow layer of normality upon which Israelis and Palestinians had enjoyed nearly two years of relative quiet -- a time when Israelis could turn their attention to the pressing domestic challenges they face, economic, social, and spiritual in scope.

All the while Hamas and other jihadist operatives were procuring more advanced missiles and digging tunnels with the goal of entering Israeli territory in order to attack innocent civilians.

The first days of July were also shattering for Jews like me who traditionally found comfort in the notion that 'we' the People of the Book could not resign ourselves to extremist thuggery. But now Israel is in a war against Hamas in Gaza, and as Jews are being reminded once again of Hamas' disregard for the lives of innocent civilians, our communities have come together with unity that seemed irretrievable following the murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir by our fellow Jews.

Operation Protective Edge is a war -- not one between Israelis and Palestinians, but rather between Israel and Hamas militants backed by Iran. What began as a campaign of targeted airstrikes and a ground operation aimed at dismantling terrorist tunnels has proven more complex than many anticipated.

When I learned that 13 soldiers from Israel's Golani Brigade were killed on Sunday, my mind flashed to the blissful summer of 2009, during which I and a group of North American Jewish youth had the opportunity to deliver chocolates, along with our deepest appreciation, to these chayalim (soldiers), most of whom were our own age, 18-20. May the memory of these and all other fallen soldiers be for a blessing.

It is difficult to conceptualize an endgame, though the presence of United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and United States Secretary of State John Kerry, who arrive in Israel on Tuesday, will hopefully lend a measure of credibility to viable ceasefire proposals, the current proposals by Egypt and Qatar having been dismissed as unacceptable by Hamas and Israel, respectively. Hamas, meanwhile, continues to erode its own international legitimacy after having rejected a ceasefire proposal and broken a UN-endorsed humanitarian truce.

I am grateful to be able to say my focus remains on imagining the possibilities for a resumption of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. I have the privilege of maintaining, with relative ease, a personal sense of hope with respect to a two-state solution. My peers in Israel, meanwhile, are consumed by the daily threat of missile attacks and the Israeli initiative to constrain Hamas' capabilities. The people of Israel have become dependent on the undependable -- that is, on the U.S.-funded Iron Dome missile defence system.

While impressive, it is hardly a substitute for the divine "Pillar of Cloud" that according to the Old Testament protected the Jewish people during their 40 years of wandering in the desert after escaping brutal slavery in Egypt. I imagine that for many Israelis, especially the younger generation whose buy-in is so crucial to building a stable future for the region, a resumption of peace negotiations seems ever faint.

I may be on to something. There is a longstanding debate about the role of diaspora Jewish communities around the world vis-à-vis Israel, a debate that becomes further polarized during grave times such as these.

Is our role to provide material and rhetorical support for the State of Israel as it exercises its fundamental obligation to protect its citizens, Jews and non-Jews alike? Absolutely. Are we responsible for putting out fires at home, just as Jewish communities in cities like Paris and Turkey have faced the tremendous challenge of responding to violent anti-Israel protests that have often featured chants of "Death to the Jews." Certainly. And can we contribute meaningfully to efforts to mourn the civilian and military casualties, each one an overwhelming tragedy? Without a doubt.

Jewish communities are reasonably well prepared to fulfill the aforementioned responsibilities. Lay leaders and staff have learned from previous mistakes and have worked hard to more effectively support and advocate for Israel on home turf. We participate in endless training sessions to allow us to convey our community's support for Israel and its desire for a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. We develop and nurture relationships across the political and religious spectrum.

We also continue to send our children to organized Jewish programs, including transformative (and heavily subsidized) trips to Israel, to enable them to connect with the land and people of Israel. We invest as such so that when Israel needs their support, a generation of proud young people is ready to stand up -- tactfully -- for the Jewish state. They may not have experienced anti-Semitism in their own lives, but they know very well why our people needs such a state, and why it must be located in the holy land of Israel.

But we can do more. Our physical distance from the current threat environment means we can generally sleep comfortably without a bomb shelter to which we would have 15 or 90 seconds to run in the event of an attack. Distance also permits us to maintain a long-term perspective. We can remind our brothers and sisters in Israel that, while they operate on the frontlines of a global struggle against Islamist terrorism, we in the diaspora continue to pray for a return to negotiations and for a change to the status quo that would bolster security, stability, prosperity, and sustainability for everyone in the region.

Jews all around the world bicker over the next steps forward, but we continue to long for peace today just as we have for over three thousand years. The #FastForPeace initiative, which brought together Muslim and Jewish youth in common cause on the day of the Fast of Tammuz (which overlapped with Ramadan), provides an inspiring example of what we can achieve when we interact in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

But whereas we are well-equipped to respond to recent events through hasbara (advocacy) and through direct support, from fundraising to prayer, I am not confident that we have sufficiently fulfilled our role in cheerleading peace. We must because we can. But first we should ensure our communities allow space for inclusive conversations on community members' relationships to Israel during this painful period. Encounter's "Pressing Pause" initiative is an important model for intra-communal dialogue.

I truly hope that those who advocate on behalf of Palestinians -- and I count myself in that community -- are similarly committed to reminding the Palestinians of their support for a just and lasting peace and an independent Palestinian state. This also means providing encouragement to Palestinians who demonstrate a willingness to work collaboratively to improve human security.

It is incumbent upon Palestinian rights activists to stand up for good governance and to do whatever they can to nurture real leaders -- in this case, leaders who serve the people of Gaza rather than use them as disposable pawns to protect an illicit weapons arsenal deployed against civilians. Leaders who are committed to respecting international humanitarian law. And yes, leaders who will recognize the right of the Jewish people to live peacefully in a state of their own.

I am proud to be part of a Jewish community that is engaged -- locally, nationally, and globally -- not just in expressing solidarity with the Jewish state but also in mourning all innocent lives lost. Yet we must also maintain a razor-sharp focus on the enduring need for a just and lasting peace. This requires strength and courage, attributes I know we as diaspora Jews have within ourselves.