On my way into the New Israel Fund Haaretz conference on the future of Israel Sunday morning I felt I had made a mistake in coming. The long security line was filled with American and Israeli Jews, some talking Hebrew, and I felt angry and duped that anyone would even undertake a discussion of this huge political question with a Jim Crow crowd. That American Jews could tell themselves that it was sufficient to gather Jews to the issue was (as always) infuriating. It would be like negotiating the future of the American South with a conference of white people. And at the same time, the monocultural crowd gave me confidence about my progressive community’s inevitability. If Jews must maintain a majority even in these conversations– well, Zionism really is self-defeating. I texted a friend, “I hate Zionism.”
By the end of the day I felt much different. There was a distinct minority of Palestinian voices at the conference, but they were the most powerful voices. They were not token, they had a platform; they came on strong in the afternoon, and audiences listened to them rapt. Ayman Odeh the member of the Israeli Knesset who is head of the Joint List was saluted like a rock star at the end of his speech calling for a shared future of equal rights. (Watch the crowd leap to its feet at 4:50 below)
Saeb Erekat provided the signature moment of the event when he said that his nephew was killed last week at Hizma crossing and Israeli leaders had called on him not to attend the funeral. You could hear a pin drop. Rula Jebreal was cheered after saying, “Revise your Zionist project, reform it, because…. it’s an ethno-religious project and this is incompatible with democracy and with modernity.” Sayed Kashua drew bitter laughter when he said he had moved to Illinois because “I couldn’t really lie any longer to my children… to say to them one day you will be equal citizens in the state of Israel.” Jafar Farrah of the Mossawa Center got a room full of progressives to its feet when he explained the apartheid circumstances of Palestinians inside Israel– we can’t build universities–
and responded to a challenge from the Haaretz moderator about why Palestinians don’t vote, to say the political challenge is to organize Jews in Israel and the US:
“It wasn’t easy for us to… come to talk to Jewish Americans. It’s important for us to do it because if we believe that if we want to liberate ourself from this occupation and racism and tyranny we need to talk to the Jews, we need to outreach to the Jewish communities…. We need you to start to go influence more Jews and give us access to the Jewish communities. We want to talk to Jews to convince them to end occupation…”
It was a flattering line. It gave the largely-Jewish audience the sense, We can be relevant on the left; we too can be engaged with a transformative idealistic movement, ala Black Lives Matter and economic justice advocacy; we are not going to be PEP (Progressive Except Palestine). Of course, the organized Jewish community simply cannot stand in that space, because it is privileged and conservative, and wears the cement shoes of Zionism. But American Jews got the thrilling sense that they can be aligned with a movement for minority rights. That is of course an anti-Zionist mood. It is the space that Jewish Voice for Peace has already carved out by supporting BDS. Haaretz and New Israel Fund are in their own way seeking to capture that spirit without calling it anti-Zionist.
And no, these were not Palestinians on the front lines of the occupation. But it was a pleasure for once to see the usual Jewish heroes, Amira Hass and Gideon Levy, outshined.
Of course there was the usual Zionist claptrap at the conference. Ari Shavit ended the day with smug pronouncements about American Jews needing Israel to be Jews. Tzipi Livni began the day by chanting nervously that Israel was the state of the Jewish people, including Diaspora Jewry; please stick with us, and Labor will rise again (and slaughter Palestinians in Gaza). She and Reuven Rivlin both attacked Breaking the Silence. UN Ambassador Samantha Power was a deep disappointment.
But Zionist messaging was not the theme of the conference; it was the craving on the part of young progressive American Jews in the age of Ferguson and Trump to be involved in an idealistic cause in Israel and Palestine. So the conference was more of a spiritual revival meeting than a political organizing conference: it had no real political agenda, but it was an alert to the Jewish community that young Jews are going to be allied with Palestinians. And that in the end has to mean Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. (Jeffrey Goldberg conceded the same point, spitefully, at the Saban Forum last weekend: the Jewish kids are lost to us, the most popular Jewish group at his daughter’s fancy New England school is JVP).
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of the the downtown Beit Simchat Torah (LGBT strong) synagogue in New York said you have to have BDS Jews in the community. Peter Beinart also said as much. I saw several anti-Zionists at the conference, as well as a number of folks who are surely in the Anything to have peace camp– even if that means the end of a Jewish state. There was a table with leaflets headlined, “Save Israel, Stop the Occupation.” I thought at first this was another effort to redeem the blessed Jewish state; but it is better than that. It says that if Israel has not achieved a two-state solution by the 50th anniversary of the occupation, next year, we must begin a campaign for “equal rights for all in all territories under its control.” Yes I know; Palestinian solidarity groups are already there, and another year and two weeks is a long time to wait when you are getting stuffed into a racist cattle gate at a checkpoint. But whoever is behind this group is not very Zionist.
And while there was no political agenda to the conference, the implicit thrust was a call for sanctions on Israel over the settlements. Colette Avital, a former Israeli ambassador, said in so many words that Israel must be stopped; and the world must do it with pressure. Lara Friedman said that the European gesture of labeling settlement goods is not enough. Peter Beinart did his usual tap dance about wanting to boycott settlement goods but not supporting BDS because he doesn’t want to end the Jewish state; but he also said that going to the occupied territories is a shattering experience and any American Jew who goes to Israel without seeing the West Bank is living in la la land. Ayman Odeh, Rula Jebreal, Jafar Farrah, and Amal Elsana Alh’jooj were there to represent Palestinian experience. When Saeb Erekat said “there are roads I can’t drive on” in the West Bank, and when Ayman Odeh spoke about the Nakba, they made the Zionist appeals seem provincial and outdated.
There were two particularly conservative voices at the conference which must be addressed. Ambassador Power gave a speech she could have given at AIPAC. It was all about working hard to make sure Israel was not delegitimized at the UN and her effort to get it on to the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space– COPUOS. She recounted how hard she had lobbied for Israel. “We worked the phones; we cornered countries’ representatives at the UN in strange places.” Any hope that the ambassador would offer some break from the soft gruel of Obama administration messaging was dashed. She offered meaningless measures for Palestinian freedom: “immediate and concrete steps, including increasing Palestinian civil authority and strengthening the Palestinian economy; steps that would resume the transition envisaged by the Oslo accords without undermining Israel’s security.” Her strongest criticism of Israel was “continued settlement growth raises honest questions about Israel’s long-term intentions.” Rob Malley was much stronger when he said repeatedly that the failure of the peace process was fueling extremism in the region. Some said Power had misjudged her audience, others that she was under political orders not to make any mistake that would endanger Democrats. For an audience that wants change, it was a real damper.
The other conservative voice that jarred was Ari Shavit. I have always found him to be a provincial who believes himself to be worldly. He proves it again and again. He said that American Jewish identity is now dependent on Israel and in exchange for keeping us Jewish, American Jews must support Israel in the U.S. This is an old bargain and a hollow one. If that’s what being Jewish means, I’d rather be a lamppost in Denver (as Sonny Liston said). The people in the room, both Jews and non-Jews, don’t want that relationship between America and Israel.