By STUART KURLANDER & ALAN RONKIN
History matters. Facts matter. Both were tossed to the wind by Pauline Park in a recent op-ed in the Washington Blade, who assailed the American Jewish Committee and its signature Project Interchange program. Without any explanation, she asserted that AJC “is aggressive in its defense of the Israeli occupation of Palestine.”
Nonsense! AJC, of course, is a strong advocate for an Israel that thrives in peace and security, and continues to support a negotiated two-state solution to achieve sustainable Israeli-Palestinian peace. As a global advocacy organization, AJC has brought that message to the top leaders of many countries, including Arab nations.
But Park’s baseless accusation is the foundation for her criticizing American LGBT community leaders who participated in an educational visit to Israel and the West Bank with AJC’s Project Interchange. For over 30 years, more than 6,000 leaders from across the United States and 84 other countries have participated in Project Interchange’s unique, weeklong educational seminars in Israel.
Project Interchange’s success is rooted in its non-ideological approach. By introducing first-time visitors to a broad range of Israelis, who offer diverse narratives across the political, social and religious spectrum, seminar participants gain an appreciation for Israel as a dynamic diverse society. What’s more, AJC’s Project Interchange participants travel to the West Bank, where they meet with a range of Palestinian leaders, including at the highest levels of the Palestinian Authority.
Yes, Israel has challenges like other democratic nations, though Israel’s challenges have special significance given the history of the conflict and its neighborhood. Project Interchange is not afraid to show Israel in all its complexity, “warts and all.” What visitors find is a robust democratic nation, where, among other things, there are freedoms of speech, religion and sexual orientation. Indeed, Tel Aviv was named the No. 1 gay city in the world in a broad survey by GayCities.com and American Airlines.
The LGBT delegation that visited Israel in October fulfilled AJC’s desire to introduce this important segment of American society to Israel. When it comes to understanding Israel, there is simply no substitute for first-hand, on-the-ground experience. The group seized the opportunities to engage directly with Israelis and Palestinians in open conversations. As part of their program, the LGBT delegation visited Ramallah, as do other Project Interchange groups, to engage with Palestinian leaders. Regrettably, Palestinian LGBT groups rejected the opportunity to meet with their U.S. counterparts.
Park, however, as a member of the New York City Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, offers a preconceived, politically myopic view of Israel. One has to wonder whether she or any members of her delegation met with, or even expressed a desire to meet with, any mainstream Israelis on her 2012 visit to the region. Moreover, one cannot help but wonder whether her use of the term “occupation” refers to the period since June 1967, following Israel’s war of survival, or to 1948, when Israel was established as an independent country following a UN recommendation.
Let’s remember that a Palestinian state could have been established at the same time. The UN Partition Plan of 1947 divided the British Mandate into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. That was the original two-state solution. But the Arabs rejected that concept. Sixty-six years later the two-state solution is still on the table.
And, let’s recall Israel did not set out to govern the Palestinians. Israel came to rule over Gaza and the West Bank not by choice, but in a defensive war in June 1967, when neighboring Arab states — particularly Egypt and Syria — threatened time and again to overrun and destroy the young country.
Israel has tried relentlessly to find negotiating partners to exchange land for peace. Egypt and Jordan signed peace treaties in 1979 and 1994. But the Palestinian leadership rebuffed Israel’s substantial peace offers in 2000, in 2001 and again in 2008. These historical facts are ignored by Park, her organization and other supporters of the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanction) anti-Israel movement, which at its core dismisses Israel’s right to exist.
Our utmost hope is that the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, with the key assistance of the U.S., will yield an enduring agreement. Both peoples deserve to live in peace and security. Tellingly, Park and her organization don’t seem to share the same goals for one of those peoples.
Stuart Kurlander is a board member of AJC Washington; Alan Ronkin is executive director of AJC’s Washington regional office.
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