A student responds to the J Street conference

Israel/Palestine

The idea of a three to four day conference (depending on personal choice of attendance) solely devoted to the “Voice of the American Jewish Left” sounded inspiring. It sounded like J Street might finally allow a forum for those who have felt afraid to voice their opinions on Israel within their own Jewish communities. Personally, I have always felt that certain opinions – viewpoints which are not actually mine – were expected of me, as a self-proclaimed future rabbi. The shock I see from people when I state my concern for the Palestinian people over the ideology of a Zionist state often threatens to push me back into silence, particularly when it comes from the aunt who told my parents I clearly wasn’t raised correctly, or the WORMS (We Openly Resist Military Stupidity) buddy from Viet Nam who more or less told my father I’d be more useful lying under a bulldozer. Well, I wasn’t raised one way or another when it comes to Israel, and I certainly have no intent to martyr myself for the cause, but I do walk that difficult line that faces many within the progressive Jewish movement: how to express my leftist ideals without the risk of being exiled from my Jewish community?

In trying to find that line, that voice, J Street let me down. They first let me down when they invited my college president, Ralph Hexter to speak, despite his notorious (at least to Hampshire students) cowering to Alan Dershowitz in the midst of Hampshire College Divestment from OCCUPATION (which never claimed to be a divestment from Israel) last year. During the first panel President Hexter spoke on, the one for students attending the J Street U conference (which started a day earlier than the general conference) was entitled, “Reckoning with the Radical Left on Campus: Alternatives to Boycotts and Divestments.” Surprisingly, I felt this panel went fairly well. Though still disappointed that J Street would invite Hampshire’s president without consulting the student or faculty body from Hampshire, I was relieved to hear President Hexter speak relatively positively of the idea of selective divestment that Hampshire SJP pushed for last year. The students in the room also responded in a way that was pleasing to me, as a member of Hampshire’s Students for Justice in Palestine. A few even seemed interested in the idea of collaborating with their schools’ pro-Palestine groups in working toward a divestment and boycott scheme that only affects the companies that are directly involved in the Occupation, such as Ahava, as panelist Aziz Abu Sarah suggested. While I’m sure none of those students will be attending the National Campus BDS Conference that Hampshire SJP is hosting at the end of this month, it is reassuring to know that they are at least thinking about the ideas of how money can talk.

Unfortunately I cannot say the same for the panel that President Hexter appeared on the next day for the general conference, entitled more simply, “Israel on Campus.” To be honest, I can’t even tell you what the response to that panel was, because I was so distracted by President Hexter’s claims of “excessive zeal” surrounding the BDS movement, but also the need to stand up to donors who try to intimidate a college to do their bidding with their money (of course, the implication being he is able to fulfill this need for his college). It was easy for him to project a completely different view on BDS for this panel, as I didn’t see any recognizable faces from the first panel.

Second, J Street let me down with the overwhelming white-ness of the conference body. Is there no way to reach out to Jewish people of color? While living in DC over the summer, I attended a dinner for the college-aged interns from Jewish and Indian/South Asian communities, which included Jewish Indians. So I know there is at least one community of Jews of color within DC. The fact that they – and assuredly others – were not reached out to, says something to me about the very nature of Zionism, even on the so-called American left.

Then, they let me down again with their repetition of the slogan, “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace,” which I had thought included a “Pro-Palestine” (SOMETHING) as well. Speaking of pro-Palestine, the final letdown was the constant mention of the two-state solution as though it were the only solution. My understanding was that this conference was the first of its kind, and as such, would be a forum for discussion as much as education. Though each panel I attended Monday was educational and fascinating for me, there was no space that day, nor at any of the events I attended solely for the J Street U conference-goers, to talk about leftist Zionism. There really wasn’t an official space to talk about dissension at all. Some students did gather during the lunch break on Sunday to discuss similar frustrations, an informal event that was extremely necessary. At other times when I felt rebellious, such as regarding President Hexter’s panels or the student “lobbying” on Tuesday, I was sought out and “calmed down” in a way I found very patronizing.

I appreciate what J Street tries to accomplish. I understand that many fall directly under J Street’s politics, and up until last weekend they found the space furthest left for American Jews to talk about Zionism to be AIPAC (a frightening thought to me). For those people, and for the sake of a tactful approach to Israel, I support J Street. I understand that the collapse of the nation-state paradigm is not going to begin with the world’s one Jewish state, and as such, the two-state solution probably is more viable than a bi-national state. On a less radical note, I also understand that many people are afraid to attach stipulations to the money the US grants Israel. But after all the knowledge gained at this conference, I am left with questions. What are the alternatives to Boycotts and Divestments, promised but not delivered by the panel on the first day of the conference? Or more importantly, why do we need such alternatives? Why should US money continue to go to Israel, if Israel’s settlement building is going to continue, spitting in the face of President Obama and Special Envoy Mitchell? Where do I get to talk about Israel’s hypocrisies with other Jews?

Elizabeth Asher Goldstein is in her fourth and final year at Hampshire College, studying the sociology and environmental effects of mass violence. Currently, she is working on a senior thesis – which is one part anthropology/sociology, one part legal studies, and one part memoir – around the role of the water crisis in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict; and it is consuming her life.

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