Palestinian activists and organizers have long complained about our erasure from political discussions around issues that impact us directly. This erasure is aggravated, rather than remedied, when Palestinians are not actually barred from speaking, but are rather given the floor, only to repeat the discourse that oppresses us. The J Street 2019 conference was a clear example of that.
Last Friday morning (October 25), one day before the annual J Street conference in Washington DC, I received an excellent statement penned by “Palestinians in the US” (who I was later told were “a group of Palestinian youth”) denouncing J Street as a regressive organization, and asserting that the Palestinian “leaders” at that conference do not represent the Palestinian people. The statement opens with: “This is an open letter from Palestinians in the United States who are driven by the values of equality, freedom, and justice for all and who root policy demands for Palestinian freedom in these values. J Street’s positions are not in line with these values and do not represent the progressive, just and hopeful vision of the future that we know is possible.”
The statement then goes on to say:
“Many of our fellow Palestinians who were selectively invited to appear at the J Street conference as “Palestinian leadership” do not represent the full array of Palestinians dedicated to pursuing freedom and justice for our people. Their acceptance to appear at the J Street conference alongside a speaker like Ehud Barak, an Israeli war criminal, illustrates their disconnect from the hopes and aspirations of the Palestinian people for a future that guarantees our dignity and lives.”
As none of those Palestinian speakers were named in the Open Letter, I went over to the conference site, and looked at the speakers’ list. There I saw Sae’b Erakat, chief negotiator of the infamous Oslo Accords, MK Ayman Odeh, the current head of the Joint List, Issa Amro, of the Hebron-based Youth Against the Settlements, Bashar Ezzat, a member of the Palestine National Council, and a handful more Palestinian members of organizations primarily focused on non-violence and co-existence.
I watched most of the conference online, and read as much commentary as I could in between panels. On Monday morning, Mondoweiss’ Michael Arria commented that “The theme of the J Street conference was conditioning aid to Israel,” with no concrete action steps. Indeed, Bernie Sanders, a regular speaker at the J Street conference, and one of its highlights this year, had prefaced most of his answers with “As president of the USA…” Sanders is not president today, but he is a long-time Senator, and could and should have introduced, in the Senate, a bill similar to MN Representative Betty McCollum’s HR 2407.
Besides, the fact that conditioning aid to Israel should be considered a breakthrough is a sad reminder of how far to the right the US has shifted since the Trump Administration, as it seems most have forgotten that George W. Bush had actually done that, almost twenty years ago. And while there was ample and fully justified criticism of the devastating policies of Trump and Netanyahu, my concern was with how J Street’s messaging as a progressive group is perceived, despite the organization’s regressive agenda.
With the “Palestinians in the US Open Letter” in mind, I focused on the Palestinian speakers. Erakat’s speech could have been written by J Street staff, for how much it gave them exactly what they wanted to hear. Walking in to the background music of U2’s “Beautiful Day,” he stated that “I’m here because I believe that we and J Street can make a difference.” I tried very hard to understand who the “we” he was using referred to, but he never clarified. Yet most Palestinians, and certainly those Palestinians who have penned the Open Letter, are not represented by Erakat. Then he went on to give J Street exactly what they wanted to hear, asserting “Trump is the problem, occupation is the real threat to Israel.” And he threw in, for extra brownie points, “we must defeat terrorism in the region.”
Issa Amro of the Hebron-based “Youth Against the Settlements” also catered to J Street’s obsolete vision, of two states living side by side. Even as he urged Americans, and in particular American Jews, to “support all forms of non-violent resistance,” (33:00 in the video below) he emphasized that “We don’t want any fights with other groups, we need to unite against the occupation.” Then he gave just one example of these “other groups, groups really to the left,” as he described them: “BDS.” (35:00). Amro was speaking on the “Opportunities and Challenges for Palestinian Non Violent Resistance” panel, along with Susan Shadid and Samah Salaimeh, and he is the only one to have mentioned BDS, but only to disparage it. Yet by describing it as “really to the left” of the audience he was addressing, he also gave an accurate hint at how regressive J Street is.
Speaking on a different panel, Bashar Azzeh, member of the Palestine National Council, stressed that Palestinian society is mostly young, with 70% of Palestinians under 26 years of age, and urged those young Palestinians to participate in the next elections. He conveniently forgot to mention that 70% of Palestinians are in the diaspora, disenfranchised, with no vote, and that, corrupt as the Palestinian Authority is, Abbas would not be calling for elections if he were not sure he would win.
The J Street conference ended with a gala that did not include Palestinian speakers, instead showcasing the hawkish Zionist Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Similarly, the “keynote conversation” featured WA Representative Pramila Jayapal, (whose director of outreach and engagement, Zach Carstensen, previously worked for J Street), in conversation with Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen, with Jodi Rudoren, Editor in Chief of The Forward, as moderator.
Ultimately, the utter irrelevance of our Palestinian so-called “leadership” was most painfully manifested in the fact that all reports and analysis about the J Street conference so far fail to mention what the “Palestinian chief negotiator,” Sa’eb Erakat, or MK and Joint List leader Ayman Odeh, let alone what those much closer to the grassroots, and the street battles, civilians such as Amro, had to say.
Yet by speaking at the conference, the Palestinian participants betrayed Palestinian interests, as they validated J Street’s regressive agenda, long rendered moot by an on-the-ground reality that predates Trump and Netanyahu.