Hoping to break barriers and promote discussion among Israel supporters of all stripes, J Street Portland worked with local Jewish organizations to bring Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg to speak on Feb. 16 at Congregation Neveh Shalom. The American-born Orthodox Jew’s recent book The Unmaking of Israel has received wide critical acclaim. Arriving jet-lagged from the east coast, where he is visiting professor at the College of Charleston Jewish Studies Department, he sat down to talk with us before the event. We asked about the feasibility of his controversial prescrip- tion for Middle East peace and how Portlanders can contribute to the debate.
Gorenberg’s hopes for Israel’s future include three main points: 1) End the settlements, end the occupation, and find a peaceful way to partition the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean; 2) Separate synagogue and state; and 3) Along with continuing to have a Jewish majority and predomi- nant culture, guarantee the equality of non-Jews, particularly the Palestinian minority.
He believes many settlers would accept compensation to leave the occupied territories and dismisses the notion that enforcing his ideas would incite an Israeli civil war. “There’s a difference between internal conflict and civil war,” he said, noting the Jewish Terror Underground of the 1980s fight against the Sinai agreement included bombings and murder. He argues opinions change and points to the United States election of an African American president and the increasing acceptance of gay marriage as examples. “In a 1976 [Israeli] poll, they asked, ‘Do you think that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat is sincere in wanting peace?’” he said. “About 15% thought Sadat was sincere. After Sadat’s visit to Israel, 85% thought Sadat was sincere. Politics is not geology.”
Gorenberg argues that threats of violence must not hold democracies hostage. “Deep in the territory, people won’t even think about a two-state agreement,” he said. “I’ve proposed research projects looking into how the state could reduce opposition by the most radical settlers. But, if we can’t reach a two-state solution because there could be violence, then we’ve turned over the county to the most radical groups.”
Born in St. Louis, MO, Gorenberg is a dual American-Israeli national and lives with his family in Jerusalem. He emphasizes his views spring from concern for Israel’s future viability and that being pro-Israel but against current political policies is not a contradiction.
“Organizations perceived as speaking for American Jewry have taken positions on Israeli politics in line with, or more hawkish than, the Israeli government,” he said. “If American Jews say nothing, they end up, like it or not, making a statement because someone else is speaking for them. People who believe that Israel’s future depends on a two-state solution have to speak out or their congressperson will think they are in the other camp. You have a vote, and you may as well control that vote.” Controlling that vote also means discussing the subject dispassionately and avoiding shouting matches, Gorenberg added. J Street Portland activist Ed Kraus agrees.
“This is the first time we have gone to this much effort to find partners to bring a guest,” Kraus said. “We’ve been doing a large outreach effort to explain that J Street is a moderate and pragmatic force. My biggest gripe is when the right wing calls their events successful when only people who are predisposed show up. Likewise, peace groups blame Israel and only people to the left turn out. There’s no conversation breaking down those barriers. I hope this event will be a catalyst for more like it.”
Portland J Street: facebook.com/jstreetportland