The last time I attended an event on Israel at Temple Concord in Syracuse, I angered the audience when I confronted Ido Aharoni, the Consul General for the State of Israel. It wasn't so much my alluding to dead babies and white phosphorous, but my brazen proffering that the average age of the audience was around 75 years, a comment made in the context that the younger Jewish population, not represented at the event, is far less tied at the hip to Israel as the older generation.
So before last night's event (8/25) which hosted the J Street Northeastern Regional representative, Melanie Harris, I promised our group (CNY Working for a Just Peace in Palestine/Isreal) that I would be there in "silent solidarity". And I meant it. I had no intention of putting the audience or the speaker on the offensive. Harris was there to introduce the audience to J Street with the aim of opening up a chapter in Central New York.
When J Street first emerged on the scene a few years ago, I was put off by their "Pro Israel, Pro Peace" motto. I'd have preferred Pro Human Rights for all, but it's not my gig. When J Street organizers gave the brush off to Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun at one of their earlier conferences, I wrote them off as duplicitous and shallow. However, over the past couple of years my opinion of them has changed and I've often participated in their petitions and have sent financial contributions. I appreciated their ability to reach the hardcore Israel-supporting audience that my group rarely penetrated and I began to perceive them as the counter-balance to AIPAC, slowly siphoning off the large lobby's membership and money.
So it was with this belief that I and my daughters as well as several members of our group attended the event last night. We didn't want to challenge the speaker. If she would be able to crack through the "Israel right or wrong" mentality, we'd be happy.
Harris began her presentation by explaining that J Street's objective is to widen the dialogue within the Jewish community, thereby breaking through the not-so-subtle prohibition on questioning Israeli leadership or policy.
It encourages political participation of its members to encourage continued US political commitment towards achieving the objective of a Two-State solution. She explained that a Jewish State alongside a Palestinian State is the only way to assure Israel's survival as "Jewish and Democratic". J Street supported continued US military aid to Israel, a demilitarized Palestine, and borders somehow based on '67 lines with land swaps to denote settlements which aren't going to be dismantled. She commented that the "policy of Israel right or wrong mentality is damaging for the US and Israel". J Street wants participation from its membership to "show that there is a base of support for President Obama's positions" as outlined in his March 2011 speech. She urged the audience to reach out to their officials to show support for these policies. She spoke of the Jewish values she was raised with and her personal desire to "take back the conversation from the extremists". She wished for "pragmatism, rational thought...not bogged down in the history of the conflict".
Zingo. Let's open the conversation, but not that far.
Troubling to me was the fact that J Street wants to open up the conversation and abandon the "Israel Right or Wrong" mentality, but not pose the question: "Zionism, right or wrong?" Harris explained that the organization isn't eager to get bogged down in history, but can this context be omitted from an in-depth discussion of the conflict? Harris spoke of a suffering friend in southern Israel worried about rocket attacks, but omitted any mention of the Palestinians of Gaza, the Wall, expropriated lands, the inability for Palestinians to travel, to arrive at hospitals, or get an education. She stressed the need for the "Palestinians to abandon their right of return because it would pose a demographic problem for the Jewish State" and made no mention of the ever growing population of Palestinians within Israel or how the Jewish state will deal with that messy demographic conundrum down the line.
Before attending last evening's event, I opined to my group members my belief that J Street, while quietly as outraged as we are over Israel's human rights abuses and outright murderous actions, is being "tactical" to garner the support of the Jewish community. I believed that there is more than one path to the ultimate objective of peace and justice for Israel and Palestine. I was left, however, with the notion that J Street is very much like AIPAC in the sense that they advocate for continued US involvement, political support, and US tax dollars, but only as long as our elected officials advocate on behalf of the continued existence and strength of the militarized Jewish State. I felt a total disconnect and even denial by the speaker of the constant trampling on Palestinian human rights. They were represented merely as a demographic problem with terrorist tendencies.
Perhaps I was wrong to keep my pledge of silence during Q & A, but my daughter made no such promise and she asked a three-part question which was basically met with "we advocate for a Zionist State". So much for opening up dialogue.
After the event I spoke to Melanie Harris about my concerns and she suggested I attend the first meeting of the new J Street chapter in Syracuse next month. (I had already registered) I think I will attend, but only to see if in a smaller, more intimate environment the J Streeters are more open to real and meaningfully conversation and whether the group advocates justice for all, or merely a strong Jewish Israel totally supported by US policy and money.