Impressions from the 1st full day at J Street conference

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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Apologies to readers for being AWOL. We’re at the J Street policy conference and it’s an exciting and historic event, as one of the panelists said tonight. There have been a lot of organizing conversations going on in the corners, about BDS and Jewish identity and Zionism and Gaza, which I’ll try and convey in days to come, but a few quick impressions at midnight.

The leadership of J Street is to the right of its base. The base is leftleaning. A lot of them are old Brit Tzedek types who are overjoyed to be in the mainstream at last (as Scott McConnell observed) but they don’t cheer when Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky of Illinois says she’s signed on to the Iran sanctions bill. That’s big, that they’re sitting on their hands. Also the young people are many of them weirded out by Israel. They’re openly uncomfortable, upset, and the big news tonight, the thing that excited us at dinner, was learning that the campus branch of the group has dropped the "pro-Israel" phrase from its slogan, "pro-Israel, pro-peace." This strikes me as a historic blow of non-Zionism, or anyway of Jewish discomfort with the ways of the Jewish state. (UPDATE: I’m told this is an unreliable report, by the Jerusalem Post, that J Street’s student wing, J Street U, has denied that it is dropping pro-Israel from its slogan)

The main tedium of the conference is having to listen to Jews handwringing about Israel at panel after panel. J Street feels at times like a halfway house for ardent Zionists. They’ve been hooked on Zionism for years and they come here to handwring in a comfortable space. I find this stuff boring and upsetting too. It’s like, how long do the Palestinians have to wait for you to figure out how you feel about the Jewish boot being on their necks? I thought you were the smartest people in the world. This doesn’t take a long time to figure out; they just murdered 300 Palestinian children in self-defense and are ethnically cleansing Jerusalem. But the people who handwring are in agony. They talk about the Jewish "transformational" piece– the identity piece– and how hard they worked on atrocities in Darfur, and how it didn’t jibe with their work on Israel/Palestine.

And they say they worry about their funders if they speak out. Yes let’s talk about money. They talk about excommunication, too. I’ll get you quotes in days to come.

A bunch of Jews are way past the handwringing. God bless J Street for having the full Eastern European skirt that we can get under. There’s a lot of us on the left here.

But the leadership is to the right. Or positioning itself to the right. Against BDS, and in love with Israel. Everyone who goes up to the podium starts out by declaring their love for Israel.

The best news moment of the conference was at tonight’s plenary when California congressman Bob Filner said that the Israel lobby is getting congressmen to vote in favor of a war over an issue that the actual people in a congressman’s district couldn’t care less about. It’s all about money, he said (echoing my description of the lobby as bribery and corruption); and about politicians’ terror over what happened to former Congresspeople Earl Hilliard and Cynthia McKinney, publicly fried by the lobby for speaking out for Palestinian human rights. Filner let loose in the context of Colorado congressman Jared Polis saying that we shouldn’t go in for conspiracy theories about Jewish influence, and the lobby is no different from a lot of other lobbies. That’s when Filner said, No it’s different, and said the lobby was engaged on a flashpoint issue for the stability of the world, and pushing congressmen to vote for war. I believe the plenary session is recorded on the J Street website. McConnell tells me Filner used the word "nuclear" in there. I have a video of the moment. I’ll post it in days to come. So: an attack on the Israel lobby, from the dais at a plenary. Pretty darn good.

For me the soul of the conference so far was a session I went to with Akiva Eldar and two other leftleaning Israelis talking about what their society has become. I found it deeply disturbing, more disturbing than these people are aware, even. I’ve spent all of ten days in Israel; though I’ve seen what they did to Gaza. Eldar described apartheid in the West Bank, and Hagai El-Ad, leader of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said that the Supreme Court of Israel has signalled that it is going to endorse separate roads for settlers and Palestinians as a legitimate function of the Jewish state. The panelists also spoke about the Nakba law being discussed in the Knesset that very day. To bar the teaching of the Nakba. An abuse not just of Palestinian minds, El-Ad said, but of Israeli minds too, Israelis who want to know their history. He spoke too of Palestinians being second-class citizens.

Hearing these valiant but puny Israelis, who are of this society, and struggling with it, I reflected, These people are lost. Their society has gone down the wrong road, and they are in turmoil. And what has American Jewry done for them? It has been profoundly irresponsible, it has given them license again and again and again, setting aside its own political experience in the name of ethnocentrism. But two Brit Tzedekish members of the audience for that session asked questions that were non-Zionist. One questioned the idea of a Jewish state. I was grateful to them.

I thought then that the gift that lib-left American Jews can give Israelis is to speak openly on the basis of our own experience and say, Guess what, in my heart I don’t believe in the idea of a Jewish democracy.

I mean only if you sincerely don’t believe that idea– if you voted for Barack Obama and know that in Israel the Arab parties are not even allowed to participate in the governing coalitions, no the Jews stick with the Jews, even liberal parties side with the religious rightwing, because they’re Jewish– well I think that you owe that expression to your brothers and sisters, as the Israelis were described by one speaker. You owe them your honesty. And expressing that disbelief now would be a great gift. Open your heart. Don’t lie that you love Israel if you don’t. Such honest expression would be potentially transformative, it might show the Israelis a doorway out of their condition, not to mention our own congress; and it would be a lot more interesting than the handwringing.  

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