Why I am proud of my work for J Street

By Max Socol

In 2010, less than a year after returning to the United States from Israel, I helped establish J Street DC Metro. Like Moriel Rothman, I was deeply disturbed by Cast Lead, which had defined my time in Israel. I felt strongly that an American initiative would be needed for the bloodshed to stop, and I also felt that, for better or worse, that initiative would have to be midwifed by the American Jewish community – the only American voting bloc with the credibility to speak about Israel, the political power to make a difference, and the generally liberal values that would align with the sacrifices that needed to be made for peace.

I was under no illusions that this would be an easy process. And I agree wholly with Moriel that the window for a two-state agreement will have passed before a majority of American Jews actively identify with J Street.

Nonetheless I want to explain why I am proud of the work I have done for J Street and why I not only have no plans to stop, but on the contrary intend to increase the time and energy I expend for the group, starting with our Future of Pro-Israel campaign.

Building a coalition. There is no other Jewish organization in the world where you can hear from Stav Shaffir, Ehud Olmert, Jennifer Mizrahi, and Mustafa Barghouti under one roof. There is no other organization where you can meet with Ameinu, Gisha, B’Tselem, Friends of the Earth Middle East, Geneva Initiative, and Americans for Peace Now within 15 minutes. In three years, J Street has built an unprecedented center-left coalition.

Shaffir’s appearance, in particular, was a coup. As a representative of the most powerful social justice movement in Israeli history – one which has been ignored by the bulk of the American Jewish community – she has the potential to open a massive door for J Street into the Israeli middle. Perhaps nothing will come of her time at the conference; but the kind of open and creative thinking that led J Street to place Shaffir front and center is exactly why I support the organization.

And this isn’t only a top-down coalition. The future of pro-Israel campaign centers on a statement of principles generated by J Street activists at the grassroots level, and in the coming months the document (available on our website) will be ratified by locals across the country.

As for Ehud Olmert. Yes, he is implicated in alleged war crimes. No, he will not be arrested. Neither will any of the past three American presidents, or the prime ministers of Russia, England, or any other country that has engaged in preemptive war with high civilian casualties in the past decade. To suggest that J Street is conspicuously approving of this phenomenon is a bit like accusing it of ratifying the theory of gravity because its conference was not held on the ceiling. Ehud Olmert is the immediate past prime minister of Israel, the country that J Street hopes to influence. Until recently he was the leader of its largest voting bloc, and he retains plenty of influence despite the allegations that dog him. Turning him down for a speaking engagement would be nothing short of lunacy.

It’s not my place to tell Israelis or Palestinians how to feel about this, and I understand that he is a deal-breaker for some. But we should be realistic: whatever peace is made, it will exonerate many who are accused or guilty of terrible crimes. This is not an unintended consequence of peace after war, but a primary feature.

Positioning on Capitol Hill. As J Street activists swarmed the Hill Tuesday morning, American lawmakers swarmed our base of operations in a House office building. Representatives Dingell (D-MI), Braley (D-IA), Baldwin (D-WI), Capuano (D-MA), Lewis (D-GA), Van Hollen (D-MD), Edwards (D-MD), Polis (D-CO), and Schakowsky (D-IL) all visited with J Street members and gave short addresses, exhorting we volunteer lobbyists to continue to fight for a just and lasting peace.

Yes, AIPAC held a lot of meetings. Yes, the AIPAC/J Street dynamic still hews too closely to the first part of the Goliath/David story. But J Street held 225 meetings of its own that morning, an enormous number, and one that guarantees that while we may not have won (yet) we are far from being ignored.

For the first time, I did not have to walk into offices and explain what my organization does. Actual representatives, rather than their staff, were pleased to meet with me, knew exactly what J Street was, and were often eager to support us. And I’m not just talking about the “usual suspects” of American progressivism. I met with a number of southern Republicans who are sick of war and ready for a new approach to Israel/Palestine.

Part of this phenomenon is J Street’s rapid growth, and the amount of money it has been able to spend in key districts to support friendly congresspeople. Part of it, however, is the fact that J Street has raised its profile considerably by opposing an Iran war. Americans are tired of wars of choice, and that is filtering through to their representatives. J Street is in position to capitalize on these sentiments.

There is a larger lesson here. The left will never win if it refuses to play. Taking our ball and going home because AIPAC is so huge may feel satisfying, but it accomplishes nothing and, worse, it saps our ability to accomplish anything even in the far future. We could not have made gains on the Iran war issue this year if we weren’t already on the Hill two years ago. What future opportunities would we lose out on if we gave up now?

No one can predict how American politics will shift in the coming years, but two things are certain: they will shift, and it will be those who have already established themselves in the halls of Congress who are in position to determine the new consensus.

The long game. I feel the urgency of the situation acutely – that is why I am part of J Street to begin with. I agree with many writers on +972 Magazine who remind us that the time for a peaceful resolution is running out, though I disagree with others who claim time is already up.

However, just as we are quick to point out that Israel has been damaging itself internally for decades in order to support the occupation, we must also be willing to accept that rebuilding will also take decades. What we on the left are demanding is a major reconfiguration of what Israel looks like, how Israelis and Palestinians see themselves, and how they relate to the outside world. We do ourselves no favors by pretending that this will all magically occur when Israeli and Palestinian heads of state sign an agreement.

The coalition that J Street is building will be necessary for the acceptance of an agreement, but it will also be necessary for the future beyond that agreement. The dismantling and evacuation of settlements, reinstatement of rule of law, protection of Israel’s minority Arab population, reparations and resettlement of refugees, the division of Jerusalem and the internationalization of holy sites – every one of these tasks is immense, and many will be heartbreaking. If we are serious about a peace agreement we must begin preparing for them now, with the same commitment and dedication as our parents and grandparents employed for the creation of the state.

I do not know what is in the future for Israel and it would be ludicrous to claim that the era of Netanyahu has been an improvement. I am not, however, ready to give up, and it’s clear to me that J Street is the best hope we have.

 Max Socol is communications chair for J Street DC Metro, J Street’s grassroots presence in the DC area.

Read also:
J Street, undaunted by reality: Interview with Jeremy Ben-Ami
J Street third annual conference marks shift to the right
What’s wrong with J Street – an open letter to members
WATCH: Why does a Palestinian speak at a J Street conference?