In three months the American Jewish community is going to hit an iceberg called the Jubilee, the 50th anniversary of the occupation/Six Day War. The collision is going to change the Jewish establishment. The fractures that have been developing for years over Israel are going to break out in public agony. The anniversary will change the American Jewish relationship to Israel for a long time, as the Six Day War did 50 years go. Young Jews will take charge, young anti-Zionists will be welcomed into some synagogues, and some will speak up for BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) against Israel.
That is my not-very-sober conclusion from the last three days at the J Street conference in Washington.
The liberal Zionist group is bigger than ever; and in the era of Trump it has been revivified as the voice of the establishment Democratic Jewish lobby — a kind of left-center twin of AIPAC. But just as the Democratic Party is divided, J Street is riven by a generational battle between older conservative Jewish communal forces that demand loyalty to “the Jewish people” and young idealists who don’t measure everything with a Jewish yardstick.
The battle was clear when Eva Borgwardt of the student group J Street U gave a speech on the main stage describing her political epiphany when seeing a Free Palestine poster at a Ferguson march in 2014—and realizing she did not have to check her liberal values at the door when it comes to the injustice of house demolitions and military occupation.
Barry Shrage, the longtime leader of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston, scolded Borgwardt, a Stanford student, warning that she would alienate Israelis:
I was uncomfortable with what Eva said. There are differences here. To talk about 50 years or 70 years of oppression — it doesn’t give a lot of space to real heroes who tried to make the peace happen. The real audience here is not the people in this room, it’s the people of Israel. If we alienate the people of Israel, we have no hope of creating the two state solution that most of us strongly believe in.
Those Israelis send their children to the military that Borgwardt is accusing of atrocities, Shrage said; and the obligation of the young Jews in the room was to love Israel and the Jewish people first. “Maybe the job of J Street U is to say we love Israel, we adore Israel.”
Then Shrage referred to the hesitation of Jewish donors who know that Israel is destroying itself, but will not say so publicly:
There are many, many, many of my most important donors that would love to go over to Israel and make the case — But they do not want to be identified with the UN attacks on Israel, they do not want to be identified with completely unfair attacks on Israel…
That is the Jewish establishment’s crisis: it sees Israel alienating itself from world opinion and committing suicide as a Jewish state. That crisis dominated the J Street conference. The paradigm these people have given lip service to for 20 years, the two state solution, looks to be finished. Even Martin Indyk said from the stage that it is “dead” (though adding that in the Middle East dead things come alive again). Some large portion of the Ashkenazi establishment in Israel came to J Street to plead with the organization to put pressure on Israel; and J Street leaders kept citing the support for two states from Israeli generals.
Let us leave aside the political difficulties of that program — but it is not as if that program is very inspiring to young American Jews. One older speaker after another got up to describe the threat to Zionism posed by Jews ceasing to be a majority in the one-state era. Omer Bar-Lev, a member of Knesset, warned about the end of the Zionist dream. Israel General Rolly Gueron spoke of the need for Jews to take matters in their own hands and finish building the wall that seizes so much Palestinian land. “Israel is the democratic national home of the Jewish people in the land of Israel only as long as Jews are a majority in it, it’s as simple as that,” warned Mika Almog, granddaughter of Shimon Peres.
Even Bernie Sanders, who was adored by the students, spoke up for a Jewish majority. His time on a kibbutz in Israel convinced him that it is progressive to establish “a democratic homeland for the Jewish people after centuries of displacement and persecution.” Sanders blasted Donald Trump for expressing indifference between the one state and two-state outcomes, as if one is Pepsi and the other is Coke. But one state potentially means “the end of a Jewish majority state.”
This language represents a crisis for Jewish communal life, because it’s a racial appeal that young Jews would not tolerate in the U.S. Sanders was on a kibbutz 54 years ago; and no kibbutz has Palestinian members. Bar-Lev sounded very Jim Crow when he warned that if Palestinians decided to vote in East Jerusalem — right now they pretty much boycott elections — they could elect a Palestinian mayor of the city; because they so outnumber the Jews, and Jewish mayor Nir Barkat only got 115,000 votes. Big problem, huh?
Young Jews would like to see speakers bearing witness to injustice. But not one Jewish speaker at any panel I attended used the word apartheid to describe Palestinian conditions. No, that dirty work was left to Ayman Odeh, the Palestinian politician.
There was really nothing transcendent to believe in offered by the older speakers on the stage. J Street has to be terrified in anticipation of the moment that someone on its stage grabs a mike and says the two state solution is over and let’s work for equal rights for everyone living in the land. The students will go nuts.
I saw a little of that energy at the margins. The group SISO wants to “Save Israel/Stop the Occupation.” It says that if Palestinians aren’t free then they should be given the vote; and it’s got some non-Zionists involved with it, along with Morton Halperin, the well-connected J Street chairman. Former Obama negotiator Rob Malley had the temerity to say on stage that Donald Trump’s Pepsi-Coke indifference about the two state solution represents a great opening to think of other outcomes. Countless U.S. presidents have worked hard to negotiate a two-state solution and failed, he said; and Israel never showed restraint. Message: Israelis made their bed.
Yet this conference left me hopeful. Why? There is hope in the crisis that is going to rock this community.
The old Jewish communal types are holding on with their money, but they are getting old, and they have no ideas. Alan Solow is a big Obama donor/former Conference of Presidents chairman. He set the theme of the conference when he said at a press availability:
“The 50th anniversary of the Six Day War, the liberation of Jerusalem and the commencement of the occupation is going to be a huge story come this June, and I am very concerned about whether or not the organized Jewish community is adequately prepared to discuss it in constructive ways that will shed light upon the complexities of the issue… as opposed to not being prepared to see what’s coming.”
Those who focus on the occupation are prepared for that moment, Solow said, while the pro-Israel camp has not thought about the p.r. fallout, and he was urging his colleagues to frame the issue thoughtfully.
When I asked Solow how he would deal with the occupation’s anniversary, he said the blame can be spread around.
“I would honestly discuss that the situation is complex, there is nobody here who is completely innocent in getting us to the situation that we’re in today. Certainly the 1967 war was not instigated by the state of Israel, though they may have fired the first shot in a formal fashion, I think a fair historical analysis is that that war was a defensive action. I think there have been opportunities over the course of time that the Palestinians have failed to take advantage of to get us to a different result than we are at today, Israelis fear legitimately that their security is challenged by various actions taken by members of the Palestinian community over the years…
What I would be doing is exposing the multiple truths to the situation and then making the argument that the correct way forward is to arrive as quickly as possible at a two-state solution.
Solow is in the same position as Shrage. They may oppose Likud, but they are its American apologists.
As you can see, I spent most of the conference warring in my heart against these Jewish communal pressures. Those pressures are strong: the donors are going to insist that communal Jews love Israel. Any large Jewish organization is going to be dominated today by people over 55 who are co-dependent with Benjamin Netanyahu.
If you are a religious person – and one recognition I had at the conference is that I am most comfortable in a spiritual space — there was enormous light in the last event I attended at the gathering, last night: a rabbis’ panel on how to open synagogues to broader points of view. Jammed and agonized, the meeting was like a group therapy session. One rabbi after another got up to explain how he or she had dealt with older donors/congregants who don’t want criticism of Israel discussed in the synagogue, or they threaten to leave and “take their marbles.”
Yet one rabbi after another discussed the moral urgency of talking about the conflict. I felt great compassion for these spiritual leaders facing a crisis in their community. As these brave rabbis spoke, it was clear that some want/need to have young Jewish Voice for Peace members in their congregations, as well as advocates for BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions).
A Seattle rabbi told about a prominent member of her congregation stopping her in the lobby and whispering angrily, “What is that doing there? That should not be there!”
That was an Israeli flag.
There is a great positive movement afoot in the Jewish community. Maybe it is at the fringes, but I am hopeful for the jubilee that fills Shrage and Solow with dread. The ’67 war married American Jews to a militant state as their primary form of identity in the shadow of the Holocaust; but the jubilee year is going to mark the divorce. While no one can be optimistic about the effect on Palestinian life, the 50th anniversary will change American politics.