Originally published in the New Jersey Jewish News on March 9th, 2016.
Kenneth Bob was delighted to be speaking to students at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston on March 3. That’s because as the national president of Ameinu, a progressive Zionist organization, he said, it is “very irregular” to receive invitations to Orthodox schools or events sponsored by Orthodox bodies.
The invitation was unusual enough that head of school Rabbi Eliezer Rubin sent parents a letter explaining the reasoning behind launching a series presenting different approaches to Zionism with Ameinu.
“By engaging ideas that challenge students’ assumptions, students will have the opportunity to learn more about what they believe in,” wrote Rubin. “As such, they become better prepared to talk with people who do not share their values and their perspectives.”
The series will include Rabbi Yotav Eliach, principal of Rambam Mesivta High School in Lawrence, NY, who has coordinated pro-Israel events on college campuses and developed religious Zionist curricula; and Dr. Eric Mandel, founder and director of the Middle East Political and Information Network and northeast cochair of StandWithUs, an American hasbara organization.
If some students were troubled by Bob’s left-of-center perspective on Israel — and a group spent time challenging him after the talk — others were pleased to hear from someone outside the religious Zionist perspective.
In his talk Bob reported on a recent mission to Israel, and discussed what he learned in meetings with top Israeli military officers and Israeli policy makers, as well as Israeli intellectuals.
Bob’s organization, Ameinu, is a successor organization to the Labor Zionist Alliance, and as such strongly advocates for a two-state solution, at least in part because of what Bob called “simple math.” Over time, he said, the Arab population in Israel proper and the West Bank will overtake the Jewish population of Israel — leaving Israel the option of extending the vote to Palestinians in order to remain democratic or denying them the vote in order to maintain its Jewish identity. In other words, absent establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, Israel will be forced to choose between its Jewish character and status as a democracy.
Bob challenged the idea that the recent spate of Palestinian violence — both in the attacks on Jews in Israel and via rockets from the Gaza Strip — is being centrally orchestrated. Quoting the head of IDF military intelligence, with whom his group had an audience, he said, “The local Palestinian population, by and large, is not interested in engaging in violence…. This is really what they call lone wolf violence — a 13-year-old, a 15-year-old going out and stabbing somebody.” He continued, “The Palestinian police force, which is armed, is not participating in this violence. And lastly, by and large, the violence stems from frustration.”
According to the same military intelligence head, said Bob, “New proposals are surfacing from different political parties in the Center and on the Left, that even if peace can’t be accomplished right now, there are ways for Israel to lessen pressure on Palestinians — allowing them to do more building in areas where they have control, expanding the areas they control, allowing for movement of Palestinians on the West Bank.”
Regarding rocket attacks from Gaza, he said that according to the military intelligence official, Hamas is not behind them. “Hamas is trying to prevent the rockets, and it’s ISIS and other groups that have moved into Gaza that are actually shooting the rockets. What’s being discussed in the government [are] ways of perhaps building a port in Gaza to allow Gaza to have a better economy and thus not be interested in attacking.”
Discussing the anti-Israel boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, Bob reported that according to several members of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, “the most effective voice combatting attacks from the Left against Israel is the progressive voice.” Progressives like him and members of Ameinu, he continued, “can speak in the language of the Left, and we can pick apart the arguments that the Left makes against Israel.”
A few students critiqued Bob’s perspective on the necessity of a two-state solution both during the question-and-answer period as well as after the talk.
One student challenged his statement regarding ways the two-state solution would preserve democracy. “How would a two-state solution preserve democracy? Hamas is not democratic.” His question was met with applause. Afterward, Anna Kaplan of East Brunswick said, “The two-state solution hasn’t worked yet. It’s been offered numerous times since 1948,” she said, questioning the possibility of success now.
Several students appreciated hearing Bob’s views. Leora Wolkoff of East Brunswick told a visitor, “That was really good. It provided a different outlook. He made good points.”
Jonah Bash, also from East Brunswick, said that while he agreed with some things Bob said and disagreed with others, “It’s very important for the student body — because, in my opinion, they can be close minded — to hear a speaker like this.” Bash added that he was in an unusual position at this talk. “I’m more progressive than this school, but more conservative than this speaker. And that’s rare for me.”