The good news from the J Street conference is that the organization made it a point to include the Jewish left, non-Zionist Palestinian solidarity activists, and this opening will have important consequences for Jewish life if not for the future of the Middle East.
To hear young writer Ilana Sichel say that she will not use the word Zionism because it has been "corrupted"... to hear Rebecca Vilkomerson urge the boycott of Israel so as to honor the "Arab spring" in the region... to hear Amjad Atallah speak of the two state solution giving way to ideas of a confederation or binational state... to hear human-rights lawyer Michael Sfard introduce artist Emily Henochowicz, half-blinded by the Israeli security force during a peaceful protest against the flotilla massacre last May, to wild applause... to hear Roger Cohen say that something inside of him dies when he hears the words peace process... to hear Daniel Ben-Simon, a member of the Knesset of Israel's Labor Party, say that the campaign against "delegitimation" is a dishonest attempt by Israel to manipulate public opinion around another enemy... to hear Mona Eltahawy say that the Arab revolutions will not stop at the border of Palestine, as the crowd roars... to hear J Street's Daniel Levy say at a plenary session, "[Avigdor] Lieberman is the bastard child of the demographic analysis of why we need to end the occupation, you cannot treat the Palestinian Arab public as a demographic threat and advocate full equality inside Israel" and a minute later, "I'm not convinced that [the two-state solution] is the only model"... Well, these were all very positive moments.
The feeling I had at the last J Street conference in fall 2009 was that the leadership disliked its rank and file. The rank-and-file were for boycott, the leadership was locked down against it. Rabbi Eric Yoffie denounced Richard Goldstone from the podium and he was booed for doing so. Today that mistrust is greatly reduced.
I think J Street turned to the grassroots for two reasons. First, it didn't get access to the Obama administration. The most revealing moment at the conference may have been when Levy said, "I don't know what's going on in private conversations [among policymakers]." Levy should have been helping to make policy; he's not. And J Street has been kicked in the teeth so many times in the last year by power players (from Netanyahu to the birthright program to Congressman Gary Ackerman) that it had to find other friends.
And the second reason is that the Arab revolutions have ravished young Americans, including J Street's youth. When Levy said, "you cannot be a friend of Arab freedom if you're on the wrong side of Palestinian freedom," he got his biggest applause.
The effects of J Street's shift will be felt largely inside Jewish life. If you consider that for decades the American Jewish community has blinded itself to conditions that make Jim Crow look like Green Acres, J Street is helping to liberate Jews from selfish blindness. The slogan for the conference was Giving Voice to Our Values, which was a clear reachout to the social justice tradition in the Jewish community. There were kids in the back of the hall with backpacks and pillows and sleeping on the convention floor, which is something you don’t see at AIPAC. J Street wants to channel dreamy youthful idealism, and it knows it has to say something better than, "We all know what a final settlement will look like" to capture them (though god knows those words were used many times). And while it was somewhat laughable to see J Street's college organizers selling t-shirts with Peter Beinart’s chiseled portrait on the back over the words, Beinart’s Army (yes, Beinart has been talking good sense about AIPAC, but that slogan won't help him in his effort to live down the book titled The Good War that advocated invading Iraq), I must say that it was stunning to hear young Ilana Sichel, who grew up in a Zionist family and edited the student magazine New Voices, declare that she is finished using the word Zionism.
On the word Zionism, I avoid it, I think it’s too unstable, too divisive a word to use it productively. Basically I try to talk values. I do think it's a bit of a red light for this demographic, for young 20s, 30s liberal Jews who are so used to the word Zionism being used by people, yes who I do think have corrupted it, but I see our energy as being too limited to spend so much time on the reclamation of the word rather than the embrace of the values.
Well, that was a dramatic moment I won’t soon forget.
I am saving you from all of J Street's more regressive messaging. Sichel spoke at the same time as Gershom Gorenberg, who emigrated to Israel from California 30 years ago, and pleaded with his audience to save the Zionist dream of a Jewish majority in the Jews' own land from the settlers’ project, but I had the sense that J Street trusts Sichel more than Gorenberg. It is planted at last in an American political space, and following an integrationist dream of minority rights in western society, and not a nationalist dream that turned out to be-- nationalistic! J Street is not the foreign agent that AIPAC is, it is aligned with a marginal political party in Israel, Labor, and it repeatedly flipped the bird to Netanyahu. (Though yes, he beat them to it.)
J Street will follow Sichel, and separate young American Jews from Zionism, and stir up an urgent conversation inside the Jewish community about why it was swept by a messianic nationalist political project conceived by a Viennese newspaper feature writer who had little knowledge of political philosophy or religion but a grandiose view of himself as Moses and Christopher Columbus (Herzl). This is a vital project, and I will maintain my policy of mostly ignoring J Street when I can't wish it the best. There was joy in hearing Amjad Atallah, inspired by young Arabs, lecture Jews about the fact that they are following a political model of two centuries ago rather than a modern one.
Why do I think J Street's political effect is so limited? For one thing, Washington is the most conservative town in the world and the Israel lobby is still boss and J Street is out on the corner with the jive talkers. The organization said it went from 1500 registrants to 2400 this time round, but I don't think it has big money; and cracking Congress will take a lot of cash and support from the media.
More important, I cannot emphasize enough how exciting the Arab revolutions were to the J Street attendees; and when you put those revolutions up against the Jewish left's achievement over a generation, there’s just no comparison. J Street is weighed down by that ineffective legacy. In arguing against boycott, J Street board member Ken Bob bragged that he wrote his first editorial against the occupation in 1971 for the Berkeley Jewish Radical. This is something to brag about-- when 63 year old Palestinians are still being shot in their beds? I would want to crawl under a rock. Gorenberg has spent a lot of his recent journalistic career honorably combing archives to expose the Israeli government’s complicity in the roots of the settlement enterprise. But the project seems slightly deluded; Gorenberg does not make any connection between '67 and '48, no he is invested in 48 just as settlers are invested in Judea and Samaria, even as '67 and '48 get closer and closer in history's rear view mirror. And Bernie Avishai’s opposition to boycott based on a “global and cosmopolitan Israel” is not the kind of values statement that any young person wants to hang their sweatshirt on, it feels more like a rationalization of privilege.
I would contrast Avishai's statement with one by Israeli Assaf Sharon, a leader of the Sheikh Jarrah protests (protests that Avishai goes to): “We are putting an end to the distribution of privilege on an ethnic basis…. We refuse to settle for anything less than this and that’s what we are fighting for.” Now that was something to bring tears to your eyes.
But my point is that the progressive Jewish community is a turbulent and confused one with a lot of useless old energy. And Daniel Levy and Amjad Atallah would never have dared to make their statements about giving up the two-state model if it were not for the leadership of Arab youth. All that talk about the backward Arab societies we got for so many decades—really now, it is our community that is backward. Young Arabs are the most creative and engaged political actors on the planet. We have to believe in them (as Roger Cohen urged); and I can only imagine what their ideas are for Palestine. But being at J Street was only a reflection of a distant reflection of that spirit.
In sum, J Street is doing great things by liberating American Jews from their servitude to nationalism. While I hope this makes a difference in the struggle for Palestinian freedom, that struggle is likely to require greater daring and imagination.
Update: Ilana Sichel takes exception to my characterization of her views. She writes:
Your hope that "J Street will follow Sichel, and separate young American Jews from Zionism" would more accurately reflect my remarks if, at the very least, the word "Zionism" were kept in quotes. I made my comment about avoiding the term in response to an audience member’s concern about the challenges of identifying as a Zionist while building connections between groups that may or may not self-define as Zionist. Given the instability of the word “Zionism”—and the historical diversity of the movement—I, like the audience member, recognize how it can divide groups with otherwise shared values. Precisely because the term can bear so many meanings and be used in so many ways, I’m not the best candidate for leading a troupe of “young American Jews” away from Zionism, but rather as someone engaged in a conversation about how to move forward.