Habonim Dror North America

J-Street

In Israel on December 6, 2009 at 3:14 pm

By: Lonny Moses

Reprinted with the permission from ISRJ

For the past several decades, United States political discourse on Israel has been stifled, with a hawkishly pro-Israel agenda being the only option for politicians. That, at least, is the argument of J-street, a new group that defines itself as “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace”. J-street sees itself as an organization that is freeing up space on Capitol Hill, by giving a voice to what Director Jeremy Ben-Ami has dubbed “the Silent Majority” of American Jews who, while Pro-Israel, recognize that Israel’s security depends on the creation of a neighboring Palestinian State and the dismantling of settlements. J-street is not attempting to be all things to all people, yet its message and policies are intentionally broad enough to encompass a large swath of left-wing Jews, as well as people of other faiths and ethnic backgrounds who support two states. At it’s first annual conference, J-street finally brought together its disparate elements from around the United States (and the world), and began to meet the challenge of bringing its members into line with its core policy principles. At the same time J-street struggled to define itself as a movement that was open to criticism, debate and complex discussion of the issues at hand.

Before the main conference even started J-streetU, the semi-autonomous daughter of the J-street organization, which operates on college campuses, had its inaugural meeting. Boasting representatives from more than seventy college campuses, J-streetU seeks to position itself as the student arm of the Pro-peace movement. Thus, the sessions offered to the conference attendees were focused on building and developing the voice of J-streetU and on learning strategies for organization. The college climate being much different from the mainstream political structures, J-streetU is exploring different ways to be inclusive of many voices and sides, while still maintaining a Pro-peace basis. In an early session, Lauren Barr (Secretary of National J-streetU and American University student) explained that this was the reason that J-streetU decided on the slogan of “Pro-Peace” rather than “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace”. Because J-streetU built its base from many existing campus organizations, some of which are now official J-streetU branches and others of which are only affiliates, its power came from building a broad platform. J-streetU includes groups from without the spectrum of Pro-peace groups, ranging from Pro-Israel groups, to Jewish and interfaith dialogue groups, to “Pro-Israel, Pro-Palestinian” groups.

In the first Plenary session of the first night of the J-street Conference itself, it was clear that J-street was going to be coming from a Pro-Israel perspective, that the organization was also committed to the same kind of dialogue and complexity as its daughter organization. The plenary started with some speeches by the various J-street machers, but lead into a discussion on the participants’ relationship with Israel, based on questions provided at the tables. Adding to the sense that J-street was trying to encourage a real and meaningful dialogue, they projected large screens at the front of the room, where tweets with the #jstconf09 tag could be seen, updating the room on the discussions that were taking place at the other tables and proposing new questions as the participants went along.

Further breakout sessions made it clear that while J-street was willing to make some clear policy statements, and that while on other issues it would be clear where the majority of J-street supporters stood, that conversation, dialogue and complexity were at the top of the agenda. In Examining the Jewish Social Justice/Israel Divide, speakers discussed the political leanings of the Jewish community as a whole, and the dichotomy between the relative ease in fundraising for organizations that promote Social Justice in America versus those who pursue such values in Israel. Strong arguments were made on the one hand, that Jewish organizations that are devoted to Social Justice must address Israel, and on the other hand that Jewish organizations are not usually all-encompassing, and that Jews can be expected to express their values through multiple communities. In the end, no agreement was reached, but the conversation was both realistic and civil. In a later session, Noa Baum presented A Land Twice Promised, in collaboration with Theater J. The program, a one woman show, was a riveting examination of similar narratives from the perspectives of an Israeli and a Palestinian woman living and conversing in California. Baum’s powerful presentation spoke to the ability of narrative to bring a dialogue past mere dispute of facts.

J-street’s willingness to embrace various sides and to engage in dialogue was also on display when Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of The Union for Reform Judaism, a vocal critic of J-street, participated in a “Jewish Community Town Hall” alongside J-street director, Jeremy Ben-Ami. Yoffie was given an opportunity to speak about his positions and disagreements with J-street, and while he drew boos from a small minority during one especially vitriolic attack against the Goldstone Report, J-street’s leadership managed to maintain the crowds order. For many of his positions, in fact, Yoffie garnered applause. After he spoke,Jeremy Ben-Ami responded with a combination of conciliatory remarks, forthright challenges and a nuanced approach to the Goldstone report that came of as intelligent, understanding and dialogue-building, after which J-street again harnessed the power of social media to engage discussion throughout the room. Using a quote from Rabbi Yoffie’s remarks, the crowd was encouraged to debate the role of Israel’s military and the need for defense, again using twitter as a platform to apprise the room of the conversations going on at each table. Tweets ranged from the simple statement that “This is not a pacifist movement”, to the realization that dealing with military and physical power is something that the Jewish community as a whole had not had to deal with in nearly two millennia before the creation of Israel.

So what are we to make of all of this? J-street, an upstart organization not yet two years old, has splashed loudly onto the scene in Washington, claiming over 1500 delegates from various communities and college campuses around the U.S. In this, its first ever conference, J-street has taken a highly nuanced approach to the task of building a coalition. The political wisdom in this country is that a 5 second sound bite is about all that one can expect a crowd of people to listen to. Well – J-street can’t be said not to understand that. It’s name and its slogan (J-street, Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace) is designed for the media and the public. Yet, in this gathering of its committed supporters and activists, J-street has shown that it is not content with blanket statements, and hardline policies. Subtlety and dialogue is the name of the game. In bringing in the numbers that it did, in attracting Jewish leaders from across the country, in holding a civil dialogue with a vocal critic, and in spurring a crowd of people who have often been on the sidelines into action, J-street has shown that it stands ready to be a game-changer in how Israel advocacy in the United States works. While establishing the core of what it believes in, J-street has also created a new space for real, complex and thoughtful dialogue on issues surrounding the conflict in Israel and Palestine.

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