I had the chance to spend lunchtime with several New York area rabbis to hear the thoughts of J-Street leader Jeremy Ben-Ami and Israeli Ami Ayalon, who has a highly decorated career of naval service to the Jewish state.
I'd summarize the conversation as an open and important opportunity for rabbis to speak on behalf of their various communities and for J-Street to articulate it's message and response to the recent events in Israel and Gaza.
J-Street's position remains that the events were a tragic error; that the blockade of Gaza is not helping the situation--that more arms have entered Gaza through tunnels in Egypt than were present before Operation Cast Lead--and the blockade should be lifted. Therefore, with that logic, the commando raid on the flotiilla never should have occurred.
Ayalon said the action was mistake and that the error was in the Israeli Cabinet to order the raid; and that once the order came down the chain of command, the soldiers had no choice but to obey the command. And tragedy ensued with a grave embarrassment to an elite unit of the IDF and a loss of life for those involved. Ayalon said that he had proposed on Israeli radio that the Navy should have sent sailboats with signs calling for Gilad Shalit to be freed and sailed with the vessels directly to Gaza and demanded Shalit's release along with the delivery of humanitarian aid. Interesting, utopian idea. Certainly would have been less tragic.
Ayalon also said one needs to wait until Friday to see how things truly unfold. That as the Muslim world responds following its prayers this week, we'll begin to understand what to expect from the Arab world. In addition, as each society grows increasingly polarized, there is little room for a center to forge a strategy for peace, and this development is cause for great alarm--though to be sure, Ayalon continually emphasized the need to an opportunity for peace, even in the face of tragedy.
The other thing that Ayalon said that I really took to heart was conveying that Obama really needs to visit Israel. That Israelis are feeling completely abandoned at this stage and that it is upon him to assure them that as we move toward peace, it's on Obama's shoulders to visit Jerusalem and hold Israel's hand while he wrings concessions from them.
I have to admit to a feeling of powerlessness coming from Washington--a feeling of oddly orchestrated events--first a foot on Netanyahu's neck; then back-tracking with Netanyahu gloating; Wiesel's visit to the White House; the celebration of Jewish culture at the White House to show off his love for the Jewish people, which felt both genuine and manipulative; and now the debacle off the coast of Gaza, with no seeming ability to gain control over a terrible situation.
One rabbi present made a very wise remark. He said in his observation of watching Netanyahu and Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren speak recently, both espoused the classic Jewish narrative of us against them and this rabbi asked, "Is it possible the narrative is hurting more than it's helping? And if so, what might a new narrative be?"
Everyone nodded their heads around the table but it remains unclear what that new narrative ought to be. Is it any better than what the Sages came up at the time the 2nd Temple was destroyed? And can it any longer be the narrative articulated by early Zionist thinkers from more than a century ago? One can't exactly go out and get a new narrative!
As I left the midtown building, I could only be uplifted by the idea that at critical junctures in our history as a people, when the times demand, we create a new story to move us along life's path as the Jewish people. The question is: are we there? And what will that narrative be?
Questions to contemplate as we face a frightening and challenging set of crises in the days and weeks ahead.