J Street third annual conference marks shift to the right

By Moriel Rothman

I have attended all three J Street conferences since the organization formed in 2008 with the dual objectives of pushing the US government to take an active role in bringing about a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and changing the discourse within the mainstream American Jewish community to one that is more open, critical, value-driven and, yes, left-wing. J Street was the only major Jewish organization I knew of willing to criticize the insanity of that “war” and of other Israeli policies. Following J Street’s first conference in October of 2009, I decided to throw my lot in with this new movement, and remained deeply involved until I graduated college in May of last year.

This year, I attended J Street’s third national conference as a Jerusalem-based activist who has shifted further left after spending more and more time in the Occupied Territories. Meanwhile, J Street has swung right in an effort to gain more acceptance and recognition by the mainstream American Jewish Community. J Street’s shift began last September when the organization issued a statement in support of a US Veto of the Palestinian bid for independence in the UN Security Council. This decision came more from a desire not to draw the fury of the mainstream than from any sort of policy position. Only eight months earlier, J Street issued a statement against the US Veto of a UN resolution condemning settlements, writing that “we cannot support a U.S. veto of a Resolution that closely tracks long-standing American policy…”

J Street drew a lot of heat for this decision, but its conference last year, Giving Voice to Our Values,” featured speakers who did not fit neatly into the American Jewish mainstream’s version of what a kosher pro-Israel conference should look like, including Izzaldin Abueleish, a Palestinian doctor from Gaza whose daughters were killed in the Gaza war, and Sara Benninga, an Israeli activist who spoke of the joint struggle in occupied Sheikh Jarrah. Along with the usual collection of two-state liberal Zionists (including me), its panels featured Palestinian and Arab journalists, and even JVP director Rebecca Vilkomerson, who advocates boycotts, divestments and sanctions against Israel.

Since September, J Street has basically been maintaining party-line, cautioning against war on Iran and reaffirming its opposition to BDS, but this recent conferencespoke unsettlingly of the shifting priorities of the organization’s leadership.

First, the opening speakers were all Israeli Jews. Amos Oz, the only one of them to address the substance of the conflict, spoke eloquently about the need for a resolution to the conflict, using the metaphor of “divorce” between Israelis and Palestinians. The crowd was, from what I could tell, was very excited. Some that I spoke to were glowing:

“That was the best speech I have ever heard.”

Afterwards, however, I spoke to a number of people who were less thrilled: “All of these attempts to inspire us are kind of… silly,” said a J Street member from Texas.

Some from the latter camp felt that feel-goodness of the three speakers was not an appropriate tone for the opening of a conference about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2012.

“Oz’s speech,” an Israeli activist attending the conference said to me, “was full of the problematic discourse of the 1990s-Oslo-era; there are two parties who need to be separated, two parties who are “equally right,” two sides that need to change, and “divorce” into two states. Maybe that formula was more accurate in 1993, but any observer of the conflict today knows very well that there are not two equal parties to this conflict.” Nonetheless, Oz is a respected, left-wing figure, whose values are certainly in line with much of J Street’s constituency, now or two years ago.

The panels and plenaries continued in a similar vein, with general enthusiasm from the crowd and the majority of the panels were filled with very intelligent-if-vanilla Liberal Zionist Two-Staters, and a smattering of uninteresting Israeli Politicians, a few Obama officials, and a few less-Liberal Zionists like Rabbi Donniel Hartmann (author of a recent piece arguing that Israel’s political assassinations are “Tikkun Olam,” repairing the world).

The main panel on Monday morning did include Mustafa Barghouti, who in no uncertain terms described the Occupation as colonialism and apartheid and challenged the notion that a two state solution is truly possible. Negotiations today, Barghouti said, are more like “two people arguing over a piece of cheese, while one them is locked behind bars and the other is eating the cheese.”

His challenging statements received substantial applause from the audience. As someone I met told me, “people here were thirsty for a Palestinian perspective, which they never get to hear- that’s why all of the questions at the end were directed at Barghouti.”

There were also a number of not-necessarily-Zionist or necessarily-not-Zionist groups and individuals scattered throughout the panels (B’Tselem, JustVision, and a small handful of other Palestinians, including +972’s Aziz Abu Sarah). But these voices were few among many, a shrub of leftist discourse in a forest of comfortable cheerleading, with one notable, horrifying redwood towering above it all.

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I came to J Street was because I was so disturbed, like many of my peers, by Operation Cast Lead. So it was quite disturbing to learn that J Street had chosen to honor the Israeli Prime Minister responsible for the war crimes perpetrated in Gaza (not to mention the financial crimes for which he has been indicted in Israel) at this conference. The final event of the conference, the Gala Dinner, was concluded with a speech by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who positioned himself squarely within J Street’s camp. “J Street,” he cried, “is a legitimate organization!” He received a standing ovation from a significant part of the crowd, even though a number of people had expressed to me reservations about this choice of speaker.

When I asked Ben Ami why they had decided to honor Olmert , he responded that Olmert brings “power for getting J Street’s message out, a message for the critical urgency [of the Two State Solution]. This is the most important thing we can do.” He added, “in a country that has been through the wars and challenges that Israel has faced, the people who will lead it to peace are those who have led it through war, Begin, Rabin, Sharon and Olmert.”

I get it. J Street’s goal is to be an effective political voice in DC, and to bring the mainstream American Jewish community further left on this issue. I get that politics involve compromise, and I get that the American Jewish community’s thinking on Israel has become so warped that criticisms of Israeli policy sound to many of them like existential threats. I do not expect J Street to issue papers against Israel’s Jewish Law of Return or challenge the ways in which Israel within the green line has become infested with racism and oppression- that is not J Street’s role. But there need to be red lines. If J Street’s potential can be split into two categories: political success on one hand and building a strong, value-based community on the other, I am afraid that J Street is steering more towards the former, at the expense of the latter.
Even the most confident Two Stater must realize that no change will come from the American side of things until, at earliest, the year following Obama’s reelection (if, God willing). The conference should have been called something more modest, perhaps: “Building Community.”

And there was a sense of community. J Street’s space, both physically and intellectually, continues to be an amazing meeting point for a lot of people genuinely concerned with ending the conflict. But according to some attendees, myself included, it should have included more Palestinian figures, more One-Staters, and, as it did last year, representatives of the BDS Movement, not necessarily as an endorsement, but as a recognition that the left-wing discourse needs to be broad and challenging.

However, J Street will not catch up to AIPAC in terms of money, membership or power in time to stave off Israel’s process of Apartheidization. The only thing J Street has over AIPAC is our system of values. And this system of values must be stronger than the temptation to ally with people responsible for war crimes, as “politically/strategically valuable” as such an act might seem. While I think that many left the conference feeling excited and invigorated, I and some others left deeply concerned.

If we lose sight of our leftist values, I think we will lose what is left of our value.

Moriel Rothman is an American-Israeli currently living in Jerusalem and active with Rabbis for Human Rights and the Solidarity Movement.