I’ve finally reemerged from J Street. Although I intended to be posting throughout the conference, I never found the time. It was a packed few days, with energy bursting at the seams. Although usually subdued and rehearsed from the podium, the crowd was brimming with questions, challenges and a rebellious spirit.
My very initial impression was that If AIPAC feels like going to the Jewish Oscars, then J Street felt like a really fancy bar mitzvah. It was large and impressive, but did not have the ostentatious sense of stage production and drama that AIPAC displays, and I guess that’s to be expected. I don’t think it’s only a matter of resources (which I’m sure play a part), but also of mission. The AIPAC conference seems to say – sit and let us overwhelm you, with facts, with fear, with theater – while J Street was conscious from the beginning that it was more self-reflexive and open. AIPAC was focused of handing out marching orders, and J Street has taken on a more vexing, complicated and perhaps self-defeating mission – to be a vehicle for both social change and political change inside the American Jewish community.
This dual mission was seen from the very first event, a town hall-style plenary session called "Israel and 21st Century American Jewry." Jeremy Ben-Ami explained that this was to be "more than a policy conference," it was also part of breaking the isolation people felt in their communities. And it’s clear that breaking this isolation is what drew many people to the conference. As Phil pointed out earlier there was excessive handwringing across the three days of the conference as Jews struggled with breaking the vice grip of a pro-Israel orthodoxy in their community which says you must support Israeli expansionism and apartheid at all costs. The real energy at this conference came from the vast majority of the 1,500 attendees who said "no more!", and this was Ben-Ami’s most effective rallying cry. J Street is playing a tricky game at trying to harness the dissatisfaction and anger in the Jewish community towards its traditional gatekeepers without letting that energy run wild beyond its control. It’s telling that the only person booed at the conference, as far as I know, was Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the most representative member of that orthodoxy to address the conference. It seemed to be a slightly embarrassing moment for J Street as its conference goers where rebuking an honored guest, but after two days of being revved by talk of opening the debate and hearing all voices – what did they expect? Rabbi Brant Rosen, who I had the honor of finally meeting in person, observed that J Street has opened a Pandora’s box in promoting dissent while trying to manage it. He doubted it could be controlled once the box was opened.
This energy and questioning sprit (to borrow Dana Goldstein’s term) was seen in every single panel I attended. Although speakers presented dry presentations on the the two-state solution or the current debate in Washington, questions from the audience would inevitably veer off the map towards questions of historical justice for the Palestinians and the viability and desirably of a Jewish state. Several questioners made clear their discomfort trying to justify the contradiction between advocating for the Jewish-defined state in Israel/Palestine while enjoying the privileges of a minority in a multicultural democracy here in the United States. This was usually met with a response along the line of "there has always been a tension between universalism and particularism in Jewish life" or something like that, but the dodge wasn’t lost on anyone. The questions bubbling up in the Jewish community were beyond the pale for J Street, and for an organization that is supposed to represent a new discussion about the Middle East in Washington and the Jewish community, it already seemed woefully behind the times.
Jeremy Ben-Ami has said it himself that he sees the organization as a US equivalent of the Israeli Kadima party. J Street is looking to advance the two-state solution, and although there was plenty of sympathy, and perhaps empathy, for the Palestinian people, the motivating factor in building a Palestinian state is to protect a Jewish-majority state in Israel. This was said repeatedly by both Israeli and American Jewish speakers. For a liberal group there was a disturbing amount of time given to talking about "demographic threats" and head counts of Jews versus Palestinians in Israel/Palestine. It is a conversation that many there would denounce as racist if it were to happen here in the US regarding Latino or African-American US citizens, and I would say that there was ambivalent support for the conversation at J Street. If AIPAC attempts to motivate their base through the perennial fear of an impending holocaust, then J Street’s fear mongering takes a more ethno-nationalist approach that seems more in line with Lou Dobbs than the liberal heros that J Street attendees most likely adore. There were murmurs of dissatisfaction in the crowd over this, but I could see this discomfort growing by leaps and bounds in the months and years to come.
And this is in part the dilemma that J Street finds itself in. At its heart J Street is a Washington DC political organization that is trying to harness the power of social change in the Jewish community towards rather conservative political ends. Boxed into Washington’s language on the conflict (willingly), the organization seems in danger of alienating an activist base who increasingly understands this discourse to be irrelevant. One questioner in a panel called "What does it mean to be Pro-Israel" said he wants to go home to Santa Fe and help build J Street, but he knows their "Pro-Israel" moniker will alienate people. How long will J Street supporters flock to an organization that demands the debate be opened – but only so much? Several speakers reinforced that it was fine to criticize Israel, as long as it’s from a place of love. One questioner responded, "But what if instead I love justice?," to some firm applause. In the end I imagine J Street will continue to evade this question as it looks to build power in a city where calls for justice routinely go unanswered.
Finally, there is a more fundamental question as J Street tries to square the circle between harnessing the social change within the Jewish community to promote political change in Washington – where does this leave other Americans concerned with its country’s foreign policy? And more importantly where does it leave Palestinians? The mission to move US policy through reforming the Jewish community’s debate over Israel/Palestine has clear political implications. Ben-Ami ended the opening evening by saying the movement J Street is a part of is a "movement rooted in love of Israel," and while all are welcomed to join J Street in its work, "the heart of this movement has to be in the Jewish community." From this perspective, it was telling that Gaza was not mentioned once the entire evening (except by Rabbi Andy Bachman who said it was no longer occupied). There was only one panel during the entire conference dedicated to "Palestinian perspectives," and even the closing panel called "Why Two States? Why Now?" only included speakers to explain Israeli interests and American interests in promoting two states. Two of the most moving parts of the conference for me was hearing Laila El-Haddad, from the Gaza Mom blog, describe life in still occupied Gaza on the unofficial blogger’s panel. She told a story about how her family was almost unable to leave Gaza to visit her in the US and she is totally unable to enter her homeland. Later, Bassim Khoury, the ex-Minister of National Economy for the Palestinian Authority who recently quit in protest to their reaction to the Goldstone report, demonstrated "Israeli apartheid" in Jerusalem through a power point presentation outlining the gross discrepancies in municipal funding between Jews and Palestinians in the city. Both presentation injected an intense dose of reality into a proceeding that seems to be chugging along more on vision and hope.
J Street represents a very important rupture and opportunity in the supposed American Jewish consensus over Israel/Palestine which should be celebrated. Pushing this wedge into the heart of the community could only be a good thing. But, the tenor and message of the J Street conference would seem to indicate that the struggle to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can only be lead by Jews, after we conquer our own internal issues to reform our community, and on our agenda. Meanwhile, Palestinians will have to continue to catch the brunt of the Israel everyone loves so much.