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J Street Conference. New Avenue for Ideas or Dead End, Part 2

pro Israel pro Peace, but pointed right

pro Israel pro Peace, but pointed right

The J Street conference reminded me of two recent Torah readings. The first was Bereshit, in which the world is created (and then there was a helluva lot of work required afterwards). And the next is Lech Lecha, as mentioned by Rabbi Andy Bachman, a J Street plenary respondent, in which Abram leaves his comfort zone (Aipac?) for the new land (J Street?).

The conference, for me and for most participants, was a grand success. But now the real work has to begin for them and their effectiveness needs to be evaluated. But let me add this. On the last day of the conference, hundreds of conferees went to Capitol Hill and met with 210 Senatorial and Congressional offices. One hundred of these meetings were with the actual elected representative and not just a staffer. That is quite impressive for such a new group.

What I witnessed the most at the J Street conference were various levels of glee and passion, but also anguish and ambiguity.

Glee and passion was felt by conferees upon meeting like-minded others, and anguish was felt by some over whether their desires and dreams can be effectively communicated, channeled and brought to policy-making reality by this lobby group. While some saw it as a leftist community, others realized that it must be an effective lobby group with a defined agenda.

While the conference’s leaders kept reiterating their goals to support peace, security, and a regionally integrated, two-state, American (ie: Obama) -led (and not just facilitated) solution, time after time, in panels, there were attendees who were unsure what such a solution would entail and how they could effectively advocate in their local communities. Sure, there were those who passionately expressed how they could not say they are pro-Israel or even pro-American, since they are universal beings, but my feeling is that they in the minority and on the fringes and were not the core of the group’s supporters.

1500 conferees

1500 conferees

I believe many came to the conference and expected to find a group that was more leftist than they found. There were so many opinions on so many issues, that some were slightly disappointed by the group, but the core was happy to find that J Street‘s leaders are steering the group so that it can be realistic and effective.

A wrap up video from the conference can be seen at this youTube link

Over the two main days of the conference, there were panels on the West Bank settlements, Israeli Knesset politics, American Jewish community dynamics, using art and film to change attitudes, internal peace activism inside of Israel, Iran, college campuses, and more. But three highlights from the conference which can give you a flavor of the proceedings are:

(1) A panel that included Shlomo Ben Ami, a former Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs; Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein, the Jordanian Kingdom’s Ambassador to the US; and Peruvian diplomat and the UN’s former Chief Middle East Envoy, Alvaro de Soto, discussed why the Israel-Palestine conflict must be seen within the larger need for a comprehensive solution for all states in the region. Solving any single piece is futile, was the main theme of the panel. The session was so full that it had to be repeated. Conferees were sitting, and standing, but none, I think, were “lying.” And no, I learned, just cuz you are a progressive, does not mean that you give up your seat to the elderly.

Ambassador Al-Hussein, whose child attends the same school as the child of the J Street Director, remarked that Madrid and Oslo were like an awakening under the “El dopa” medication, which then lapsed into the currently catatonic period. Ben-Ami, who stated that a third Intifada is not inconceivable, since it could delay any peace making processes, stressed that bi-lateral peace negotiations will fail and will not reach a settlement for 1,000 years; and that only an international alliance led by the US and with the moderate Arab countries as members can put forward the bridging and binding proposals for regional peace and cooperation. Both Israeli and Palestinian political processes are dysfunctional, he said, and that no Israeli Prime Minister will pay the ultimate political price for an interim solution when it is the same price that will need to be paid for a final solution (final meaning the ultimate peace solution, not the WW2 final solution)

(2) On Monday, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the American Reform movement’s Union for Reform Judaism, had an open conversation with Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street‘s Executive Director. Rabbi Yoffie was an outspoken critic of J Street, and called it “morally deficient and appallingly naïve” in its attitude on Gaza earlier this year.

Yoffie, who leads the synagogue movement to which most American Jews are affiliated, who felt that J Street is out of step with mainstream Jewish opinions, also said that most American Jewish leaders “have their heads in the sand” in their understanding of the harm done by the West Bank settlements on the health of Israel. Yoffie also criticized the Goldstone report and was miffed that when Goldstone spoke with a group of American rabbis, he called his report flawed, but in general audiences, Goldstone would not criticize his UN report. “Richard Goldstone should be ashamed of himself,” Yoffie said, “the report is fatally flawed. Goldstone’s charges are an outrage. It is not thoughtful. It is a political report to be used as a sledgehammer against Israel… It has made the work of peace difficult”

Yoffie set out to give his definition of what it is to be pro-Israel. According to him, to be pro-Israel is to support the idea of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state with a Jewish majority where all those who reside there have equal rights. He felt that one must recognize Israel as the core of Jewish life, battle Israel’s enemies, never express contempt for Israel, but also be ready to speak the truth to Israel’s elected leaders. He added, that he gets irked that those groups that call for a Greater Israel and the expulsion of non-Jews from Israel are more welcome at some community tables than those who call for a two state solution.

The reality for Yoffie is that churches and community groups in America are turning against Israel, so the time is now to find solutions.

(3) Jonathan Chait, a Senior Editor of The New Republic, and critic of J Street, discussed what it means to be Pro-Israel with Matt Yglesias, a blogger for the Center for American Progress. Chait believes that to be pro Israel is to see Israel as the more sympathetic, but not blameless, player, and to believe that the US should not be even-handed, but be Israel’s ally. He called on J Street to distance itself from or exclude some of its supporters who in the past would not be considered pro Israel. JJ Goldberg, the moderator, said that perhaps one should say, “I love Israel and I am speaking out of my profound concerns for Israel when I say… [and then insert their statement here.]” Goldberg felt that the Jewish community needs boundaries for itself and can’t accept all ideas and still be effective policy lobbyists.

Finally, in a session on Jewish community dynamics, Rabbi Peter Knobel said that rabbis who initially supported civil rights in the American south were shunned by their congregants, and those who supported Breira in the 1970s were vilified. These ideas, however, are now accepted as mainstream He feels that J Street is similar. Perhaps he is right, but as I left DC on a Megabus and headed back to NYC, I thought of the New Israel Fund. After decades of existence, it has assets of about $32 million. This compares to the mainstream assets of the various United Israel Appeals that are valued in the hundreds of millions. J Street has a place at the table and will open up the debate in local Jewish communities and in some Congressional offices, but I do not yet see it as mobilizing the moderate Jewish middle or becoming the mainstream pro-Israel voice.

2 Comments

  1. Tom Morrissey

    10/30/2009 at 9:39 am

    Ben-Ami the elder’s viewpoint on the US role, as relayed here, is mainstream domestic liberal opinion. J Street can play a powerful role in providing Obama with Jewish cover and support, should he decide on a renewed aggressive approach toward Israel.

  2. Tom Morrissey

    10/30/2009 at 9:47 am

    …Oh, and the characterization that “churches” are “turning against Israel” displays an ignorance of what’s going on in US Christianity. Israel’s lucky that some “churches” support it to the hilt. Those that don’t have long been home to trendy left-liberalism. Much of mainline Protestantism, in particular, has long been uncomfortable with the Jewish state and will likely step up its anti-Israel activism (boycotts, etc.).

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