J Street Honoree Makes The Group’s Mission Clear

By Eli Clifton

J Street’s inaugural conference ended last night with a show-stopping speech by Victor Kovner.

Kovner is a New York attorney, one of J Street’s initial backers and the recipient of the new group’s ‘’Pursuer of Peace’’ award.

His unequivocal condemnation of the settlements in the Occupied Territories, his sense of urgency in creating a sovereign Palestine, and his clear denunciation of J Street’s right-wing critics brought the audience to its feet.

The speech, which follows, is well worth the read:

Remarks of Victor A. Kovner
Recipient of the Tzedek V’Shalom Award
at the J Street Gala – October 28, 2009

It is hard to follow such a spectacular conference these last three days and the invaluable remarks this evening but, one of the highlights of this week, which was attended by only a few of you, was
the remarkable gathering of J Street and the Arab-American Institute on Sunday afternoon. I have been working on Middle East peace efforts for more than two decades and at multiple gatherings of concerned Arab-Americans and Jewish-Americans, but I have never witnessed such a sense of reciprocal concern and trust as we saw on Sunday afternoon. In the Arab-American community, J Street has true partners for these peace efforts, and I want to salute Jeremy Ben-Ami and Jim Zogby for making that happen.

Sarah and I want to express our appreciation to so many of our friends and colleagues – members of our family, including from Israel – who have joined us this evening. As many of you know, there are those who preferred that you not attend. Indeed, some of you have been subjected to pressure, and worse, if you decided to celebrate this occasion with us. And to our critics, I say Mazel Tov. We are pleased that you have been listening to what J Street has to say. It would have been terrible not to be noticed.

And, yes, each of you should assume that what has been said at the conference this week and especially this evening will not only be noticed, but taken down and possibly recorded for further reference.

So for my colleagues at J Street, for the many members of the Senate and House who could withstand the pressure, and for our persistent critics, I have a few thoughts I would like to share for they reflect some of my deepest views and values.

I begin with our love for the State of Israel – and our irrevocable commitment to its independence, security and survival. In my view, its very existence contributes mightily to the essential freedoms of Diaspora Jewry, including for those of us in the United States. It is one of the few democracies in the region, and has human
values we treasure, even if they become somewhat obscured from time to time.

But our nation’s commitment is to the State of Israel. And, ladies and gentlemen, to restate the obvious, the “settlements” are not within the State of Israel. The so-called settlers may be citizens of Israel, may pay taxes in Israel, may vote in Israel – and they certainly do vote – but they do not reside in Israel. They live in another land. And the name of that land is Palestine.

Yes, we all look forward to a territorial compromise, nearly reached over the years in which a few large settlement blocs near the Green Line – west of the wall – and portions of East Jerusalem would become part of the State of Israel and portions of Israeli land – acre for acre – now within the Green Line will become part of Palestine. But until that day, the State of Israel recognized by our nation – and most nations throughout the world – lies within the Green Line.

And Israel will have to deal with those Israelis who live beyond its borders. That is not to say that once the two state solution has been realized that Jews should not be allowed to live in Palestine, as long as they recognize Palestine sovereignty. But the world has had enough zealots turn into martyrs, and no responsible Israeli government can avoid removing the zealots of its own society from Palestinian territory.

We have had enough of extremists on all sides. We have had enough of the zealots who flout Israeli law daily by creating “outposts” under claims of divine authority confronting and abusing the young men and women of the IDF, who are there to protect them and prevent acts of provocation, assault and worse inflicted upon their Palestinian neighbors. As Yitzhak Rabin said on the White House Lawn – only a few blocks from here – we have had enough of blood and tears. Those of us in the Jewish community and my friends in the Palestinian and Arab
community here in the United States can make a real contribution by speaking out against extremism on all sides. And I am so proud that that is what we – and what so many Arab-Americans – are doing this week.

We need to speak out for the core values of the Jewish people as they are put into practice in the State of Israel. The issue is not whether we label Israel a Jewish state – as the current government demands in order to throw one more roadblock on the path to peace. But whether it acts as a state in accordance with Jewish values and principles.

The fair and just application of the rule of law to all citizens is a fundamental democratic value and it is a fundamental Jewish value as well.

In America, we live in a society that has adopted certain basic principles, which we hold to be self-evident:

+ That all men (and women) are created equal;
+ That they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and
+ among those rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

And the source of our commitments is not limited to documents some characterize as merely secular. There are other authorities. The Jewish community must remember that we aspire to be “a light unto the nations”. And what American Jews owe to Israel is surely not reflexive support for every policy of any current government. What we owe our friends and families in Israel is our best advice – what we really believe. Though Israelis must ultimately make their own judgments about what is best for them, so must we as Americans.

And, deep as our commitments are to Israel, we have other commitments that must be weighed. We have, for example, commitments to the women and men risking their lives for us in Iraq and Afghanistan. Doing everything we can to make a two-state solution a reality is in their interest and our interest as a nation.

Those of us at J Street hope that at this conference and in this movement we have found a new voice that will permanently change the relationship of the American Jewish community to the future of Israel and Palestine.

Never Again will we remain silent while, for example, Israel selects as a Foreign Minister an official whose based his campaign on a platform of racist statements we cannot accept as a people. Never Again will our own public officials presume because we are active in the Jewish community that we automatically defer to every policy that emerges from an Israeli government.

And Never Again will members of Congress who support policies that balance the security needs of Israel with the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people be called “anti-Semitic” or “anti-Israel” without significant defense by J Street. It will be a defense for our Jewish and democratic values – and it will be strengthened with
serious resources. Never Again. We will not leave any President of the United States without the space he or she needs to make peace. President Obama, on the issue of Middle East peace, we have your back.

Thank you, J Street, for making those objectives a reality. And thank you for this profound honor.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Eli Clifton

Eli Clifton reports on money in politics and US foreign policy. He is a co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Eli previously reported for the American Independent News Network, ThinkProgress, and Inter Press Service.



  1. I feel bad for Mr. Kovner and all of you who support his views. All this talk of territorial compromise, etc. is pure pie in the sky. It’s rather like Roger Cohen being confronted with the question, “What would Hezbollah and Hamas do if they had weapons of mass destruction?” Of course he couldn’t answer, beyond saying “I don’t know.” But he does know; he’s too smart a guy.

    Your instincts are right — a thousand times so — but the other side isn’t interested in a two-state solution. They mean to either drive Israel into the sea or swamp it demographically. Unless by some miracle the other side’s attitude undegoes a radical change, you will never see a Jewish state living in peace and harmony with its neighbors.

    I can’t agree with Kovner that the existence of Israel contributes to the essential freedoms of Diaspora Jewry, “including in the United States.” Latent anti-semitism is building here as a result of the perception that Israel is hurting U.S. interests. And need I mention European attitudes? The new anti-semitism isn’t like the old; it’s the existence of Israel that’s causing it, fueling it.

    If American supporters of Israel adhere to the concept that all men and women are created equal, how can they support a Jewish state in Palestine — a state in which non-Jews are by definintion second-class citizens? Supporters of Israel, both hardliners and “liberals” like Mr. Kovner, are caught in a web of self-contradiction. For God’s sake give up the dream of Zion before it brings you to catastrophe!

  2. Well done J Street! The trillion dollar question is do the critiques of the Zionist policies towards Palestinians in the US, Jewish or not, form a silent majority or not. Let us hope they are.

  3. Sigh… Ms Clinton has agreed to compromise on the settlement issue… Hopefully, more people’s voices will be heard to support J street

  4. It is great to see that the Kovners, strong opponents of the Vietnam War, are still fighting the good fight.

Comments are closed.