J Street Conference 2011: Why this is where it’s at

I had been eager to attend J Street’s first conference in October 2009, but nothing could have prepared me for the burning energy that drove the event. Aside from high-level discussions, a diverse range of participants representing the full spectrum of Israel- and peace-supporting views, Jews and non-Jews from policy, media, religious, and community spheres – aside from all that, there was a deeply emotional force. Over a thousand people connected to one another, sharing a huge sense of release and relief. Finally, we felt, we can express what we really believe with relation to Israel.

There were tearful outpourings from people who had been intimidated to speak their minds up to now. People told stories about their jobs and their futures being threatened for having expressed their views about Israel.

What did those views amount to? The composite vision of J Street, no matter what its obsessive, fanatical detractors say, is to support Israel by supporting a peaceful, negotiated, resolution to the conflict.

I have always felt committed to both Israel and the peaceful, negotiated resolution to the conflict, hopefully in the most just manner possible. But I felt distant from American Jewry, which seemed to me more interested in fetishizing Israel than knowing it. Even Madmen got this right, in Episode 6:

Rachel sees Israel more as an idea than a country. It is a place for people like her – Jews. Don sees it as Utopia, which the woman explains as according to the Greeks mean two things, the good place and the place that cannot be.

I wanted a place that can “be” – not this improbable fantasy American Jews seemed to conjure. So I left the US for the reality of a not-always-easy place to live. But at the J Street conference in 2009, I felt home again among American Jews: meeting so many friends I had accumulated over years of seeking scattered pockets of people who shared my hopes; encountering like-minded strangers, with a wide (and litigious) intellectual sweep.

One thing made me sad: that I had to come back to the US to reach that kind of electric charge and commitment for change for Israel. There seemed to be something almost absurd about it – all these people spending their time, at their own expense, investing hours and days in thinking about a single topic – Israel – and all the Israelis had to come to America to work on what is so clearly right for our country. After working so hard to become an insider and influence my society from within, I had to go back to America to feel that force for change.

So toward the end of the 2009 conference, I went around to the Israelis who attended and suggested that we meet to discuss how we could bring this energy and direction home. People agreed; several were committed public figures and public servants, including Colette Avital, MK Shlomo Molla, Ami Ayalon, and others – I remember about ten of us sitting over coffee. As we gathered, immediately the happy high seemed to fade and a familiar defeatism took hold; it was quite remarkable – as if just re-creating the Israeli scene reminded us of how few inside it would listen. Still, one point was clear after realizing how repressed American Jewry had been all these years: we were far freer to criticize Israel’s self-imploding government policies from inside Israel, than from America.

I wonder what J Street’s second conference, which begins Saturday evening, will feel like. Will the initial energy fade? After all, hopes for a peace process rose in September, then crashed and burned precisely as predicted. The two-state possibility, long thought to be teetering, looks dead. J Street itself has been pulled through the mud (see fanatic, obsessive detractors, above) and there have been some uncomfortable moments.

But here are a few reasons to expect some of that same energy at this year’s conference, if not more: registration, organizers tell me, is higher than at this point before the last conference – that’s before the arrival of folks who just show up.

Another reason is that things have become worse in Israel. The environment is increasingly unfriendly and yes, even threatening, to those who dare to speak what they consider the truth about Israel’s failed policies. Just recently, I had the notoriety of being marked by an academic witch-hunt group for a piece here on 972 .

But the situation goes way beyond amateur bully-groups; there is a full-out legislative, media and civil society campaign to ignite and impose exclusive nationalism and stifle dissent. The fact that the Knesset this week came to its senses and dropped the vote on the establishment of McCarthyite parliamentary investigation committees to hassle left-leaning NGOs is brief respite in the face of a larger trend. Now critical Israelis might just need the refuge of J Street in order to speak their minds, like Americans. However, here’s a positive development: perhaps as a result of the pressure, activists protesting those trends in Israel are becoming increasingly vocal – and we could use some trans-Atlantic support.

Finally, J Street’s mission is vital, because the two state-solution is not dead. The negotiated two-state solution may be increasingly distant. It is true that creative one-state ideas have been floated (and even polled – look for the “confederation” question) that make more sense to me than the typical notion of an imaginary bi-national utopia that will probably quickly turn dystopia. But not so fast – a few exceedingly brilliant minds have argued here about why a two-state solution is still central to Israel’s current and future reality. Further, I can imagine no more powerful convergence of minds to address the mind-boggling shifts in the Middle East.

If the J Street conference this year provides the intellectual and emotional incubator for the community of people who support both Israel and Palestinian national realization – not to mention freedom for all people of the region – it will have done a great service to Jews everywhere. Even before the conference, let me give my bottom line observation about the last one, a year and a half late: J Street – Good for the Jews.

*PS – Mairav and I promise to provide updates from the conference.