Israel needs a better kind of friendship from U.S.

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Sometimes our best friends are the people who help us move from the easiest path to a more challenging road that will take us ultimately to a better place.

I accepted an invitation to watch the final presidential debate with a group of people who want the United States to be that kind of friend for Israel.

The viewing at The Royal Room in Seattle’s Columbia City neighborhood was organized by J Street, an organization that started in 2008 and has grown rapidly since then, championing the need for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Barbara Lahav told me she got involved because she wants to create a safe, democratic Jewish homeland. She’s the Pacific Northwest Regional Political Director of J Street, which calls itself “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans.”

The idea that for Israel to thrive, there has to be a resolution to its conflict with the Palestinians didn’t come up in the presidential debate. For a long time, what passes for political discussion of that situation has been politicians competing to see who can declare their loyalty to Israel most loudly.

But Israel’s long-term interests, and ours, would be served best if we could bring the parties together and help them build a lasting peace.

Polls show that’s what most Jewish Americans support, but before J Street, Lahav said, the dominant progressive Jewish-American view was not often represented in political discussions about the Middle East. (J is the missing letter in Washington D.C.’s street-naming scheme.)

Being hawkish about Israel to appeal to American Jews is a mistake, she said, “because most of the American Jewish community is progressive. Most of us are concerned with the same pocketbook issues as everyone else.”

At the debate viewing, she said: “We represent the 83 percent of American Jews who support U.S. leadership to resolve the Israeli/Palestinian conflict with a two-state solution.”

After Monday’s debate, J Street founder and national president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, spoke by phone to attendees of 50 such gatherings around the country. He began by noting that Israel was mentioned 36 times, “more than any country but Iran. Entire regions of the world were absent from the discussion,” he said. Israel remains important to American Jews but isn’t ranked as the top issue by more than a small percentage.

The political rhetoric is out of kilter.

“Sadly,” Ben-Ami said, “the broken politics around Israel in the United States have created a warped conversation in which it’s deemed to be an act of political necessity to mouth platitudes about standing with Israel, but never really addressing the problems that it faces.”

Lahav said those problems have to be faced. “All the work I do is because I believe in a democratic Jewish homeland.”

Lahav is a mother of two who grew up in Renton, then graduated from Seattle’s Franklin High School before going off to college in Israel.

Her parents fled Germany during the Holocaust and were staunch Zionists. Growing up, she heard the hushed conversations about relatives no longer alive, and saw the tears when her parents looked at family albums.

There needs to be a Jewish homeland, but what kind of country will it be?

Lahav lived in Israel for 16 years. “Little by little, I saw the erosion of personal freedom,” for citizens, she said, and she saw persecution.

She and her family moved back to Seattle in 1989. She tries to visit Israel every year and has been active in efforts to build peace for all of those years.

She believes J Street holds great promise to change the conversation in America for everyone’s benefit. It is “a strong organization that plays by the rules of the big boys,” she said. It has campus affiliates, rabbinical connections and a growing political footprint.

This election season it has raised $1.7 million so far for candidates it supports, Lahav said. J Street’s support, endorsements and contributions give elected officials room to work for peace without fear they will be labeled anti-Israel.

J Street seeks to redefine what being pro-Israel means because true friendship is more valuable than opportunistic rhetoric.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or Twitter: @jerrylarge.