Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Reflections on the J Street Conference, Part I.

Today, somewhat of a detour from the usual content of this blog, to offer a summary of perspectives and thoughts on the J Street Conference in Washington D.C.  J Street, in the lead-up to this conference, was the subject of intense commentary and debate, from those who were skeptical and critical of how supportive of Israel it truly was (the question we so often ask… ‘Is it good for the Jews?’) to those who were excited and energized by the opportunity to come together to hear a multiplicity of voices of those who care deeply about Israel and also care deeply about peace, human rights, and justice.

I wrote about J Street, and my decision to attend the conference, in my congregational bulletin article this month, which you can read here:

This is a longer than usual posting. I want to emphasize several things about the nature of my report, and my focus and interest in J Street. As I had stated in my bulletin article, I had gone to listen and learn. I want to try and offer a summary of what I heard, considered, and the questions that remain. While I do have my own leanings on the issue of how to proceed in the Peace Process, I offer thoughts and information, in keeping with my role as a Rabbi – a teacher, but I wish to model open discussion and dialogue, and not present a bully pulpit for a particular point of view.

I have very vivid memories of my first year as an undergraduate at University College London, attending a Jewish student meeting about Israel where a student who tried to express a critique of a particular policy of Israel was shouted down by others who challenged the young man’s Jewish and Zionist credentials. It was made quite clear that thoughtful consideration and debate about Israel was not welcome there, and I was so thoroughly put off that I never attend a Jewish student society event again in the 7 years I attended UCL (3 years of undergrad, and 4 years for my PhD). And so, when the J Street conference opened by inviting us to turn to those at our table (as it did on several other occasions during the conference) and encouraged us to share our backgrounds, our questions, our concerns, I felt that I had come to a place where real dialogue, openness, and a willingness to hear perspectives different to our own were truly welcomed. Not that all perspectives would ultimately be represented by J Street, the organization, but that the conference itself was much more than just a platform for advocating a very specific agenda; at this first gathering, there was an attempt to set a new tone and foster and encourage a culture of dialogue that could be taken back to our home communities.

The fact that, to a large extent, this culture of dialogue was modeled at the conference is so important especially, it became clear, for engaging young adults and college students on Israel. We heard that too many of them today feel as I did nearly 20 years ago when I attended that Jewish Student Society meeting – feeling hopeless, unsure of their support for some of Israel’s actions, ambivalent about their own personal relationship with Israel, and disenfranchised from the possibility of meaningful dialogue. While some have debated whether young American Jews have a ‘right’ to feel as they do (see Daniel Gordis’ recent posting here, for example), I am simply concerned that they feel this way and want to do whatever we can to bring the next generation back into the conversation. For that reason alone I applaud J Street and would, without question, attend again for an opportunity to continue to learn and think deeply about the strategic, political and moral choices facing Israel and the Palestinian people as we continue to strive to make peace.

There were a number of sessions that explicitly focused on the work of developing a culture of dialogue and openness to debate with regard to Israel and the peace process, which I’ll say more about in a second posting. But first, having spent several hours reading many blogs, online magazine and news articles, and followed many tweets on the conference, I offer my own, selective, distilling of some good places to watch video, read detailed reports on specific sessions, and dip into a broad array of articles that I have tried, in keeping with my belief in broad and open dialogue, to represent voices from the left, center and right.

You can watch full recordings of some of the most important sessions here:

Both major English-language versions of Israeli newspapers offer thoughtful overviews of the conference, here at Ha’aretz, and here at The Jerusalem Post. In particular, I read the Jerusalem Post piece as accurately portraying J Street as a centrist organization that is Pro-Israel and Pro-Peace, in favor of a two-state solution, but rightly also raises the issue of the presence of some who were further to the left at the conference, and recognizes the challenges facing J Street in trying to be too much of a broad tent while remaining effective in Washington.

For a truly wonderful service to the community, I thank Rachel Barenblat, who blogs as The Velveteen Rabbi, who wrote very complete reports on many of the sessions, without adding any additional commentary – outside of the vimeo videos posted by Isaac Luria, at the link already mentioned, her reports are the best way to hear almost first-hand what was said in these sessions.

There were many different voices present among the participants at J Street, including Muslim and Palestinian voices, primarily there because they were hopeful that they had found a partner for peace. As an illustration of how our willingness to listen to the voices that are never usually a part of a ‘Pro-Israel’ dialogue, I was particularly touched by this report from a Jewish participant’s encounter with a young Palestinian man from Gaza in the hallway during a break:

And, in the interest of balance so that we can hear the voice of concern for J Street’s position, this article from Ynet news makes some powerful arguments:

The Jewish Week (NYC Jewish newspaper) also provide an excellent summary of the spread of perspectives in view at the conference, the great successes of the conference, and the questions and challenges ahead.

Of particular interest to Reform Jews will be the dialogue plenary between Jeremy Ben-Ami, Director of J Street, and Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union for Reform Judaism. On all of the substantive and strategic questions, the two seemed largely in agreement. They differed on some details – such as the appropriate response to the Goldstone Report on Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. These differences are not irrelevant but, in terms of the larger, strategic goal of a two-state solution, positions on the settlements, and the status of Jerusalem, there was substantial agreement.

Finally, one of the main topics of debate in the plenary sessions was dialogue about what it meant to be ‘Pro-Israel and Pro-Peace’. I would agree with a number of commentators who felt that, among the participants, some who were present might have been ‘Pro Peace’ but may well have fallen outside of any parameter that we could really call ‘Pro Israel’. I believe that they were in the minority, and I believe that the excellent speakers on the panels and the representatives of J Street themselves did a very good job of explaining why the particular policies that they support truly are both ‘Pro Peace’ and ‘Pro Israel’ – that these things can co-exist.

What I heard presented by several analysts, Israelis who have been engaged in high level diplomacy, and members of the Knesset, was that there are only a limited number of options to consider. The best solution for both Israel and the Palestinian people is a two-state solution, with two peoples living in peace side by side. The ynet article referenced above gives good voice to the security concerns that Israel has about trusting that path forward. I understand those fears, and I do share them. However, what many of the expert voices expressed at the J Street conference was a clear understanding of the alternative. While some might think it is possible to maintain the status quo indefinitely, with military power, borders and fences, continuing to expand settlements in the absence of a final proposal for peaceful resolution, the reality is that this approach is unsustainable. Many at the conference expressed its undesirability from a human rights perspective and, while I don’t debate the validity of many of their concerns, I am persuaded even by those who offer only a pragmatic analysis of the situation.

There is deep concern that, in the absence of renewed progress toward a two state solution, that there will be growing Arab and international support for a one-state solution; simply to allow the situation to continue until it becomes clear that there is an Arab, Palestinian majority when Gaza, Israel, and the West Bank are considered together. At that point, if Israel is to remain a democratic state that gives equality to all, it cannot sustain itself as a Jewish state. The alternative is for a minority to rule over a majority, and Israel risks losing the support of the international community in a way that could seriously jeopardize its viability were that to be the case.

This is why we must not delay in continuing to push both sides to engage in an ongoing peace process. Shlomo Ben Ami, Former Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs and Public Security, in a panel that looked at the need for a regional approach to making peace, believes that the political infrastructure does not exist in either Israel or the Palestinian territories for these two parties to do this alone; ongoing engagement from the US government and Arab nations who have offered the normalization of relations with Israel as an important end-goal too, is absolutely necessary. I believe he is right, and this is why J Street’s contribution to seeking peace in the Middle East has the potential to be of such ongoing importance.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz


  1. I agree with everything you write in terms of sentiment and as you know Im impatient for a 2 state solution. However it is a huge leap of logic to state that just because there may, at some point, be less jews than arabs in the combined land of Israel and the territories we should therefore have or even suggest a 1 state solution. It ignores one rather huge fact.

    In 1948 there were less Jews than Arabs in the combined land.

    Additionally, Arabs can suggest one all they want for PR and political reasons but no 'Palestinian' government is going to want to have fight 5-6 million jews who would refuse to be in such a state. It would be like the republic of ireland having to deal with the protestant minority in the north being forced to accept rule from Dublin against their will. It would lead to never ending civil war far worse than the conflict/peace is now.

    Indeed, even though I feel the current situation is not sustainable if you think it can't get worse than you are wrong. it could get much worse. And I don't mean nuclear weapons type worse, I mean constant never ending attacks day on day, throughout the lands. Indeed similar to what happened between 1938-1949.

    The current Israeli government is playing a high stake strategy over the settlements, and I would rather they did not. However the palestinians are playing a high risk strategy too by making it a massive sticking point. They feel there is legitimacy and value in holding out for the 1 state solution. The more people raise it on an intellectual level in public the more it gives them confidence to slow down the peace talks and hold out for the 1 state. We are selling them short by doing this as it will not happen. The world couldn't keep Yugoslavia together, they can't keep kosovo in serbia, and russia unilaterally took part of georgia. Once an ethnic group is set on separation there is no stopping them if they are of a critical mass large enough to wage war. The Jews do not want to live in an Arab state and the sooner this is accepted as an eternal 'given' the sooner the palestinians will negotiate again.

    meanwhile its still not clear if there ever will be a 2 state solution or in fact a three state, as every report makes it clear that Hamas is trying to 'play' fatah over reconciliation.

    The good news is that the latest independent polls show that if there was an election tomorrow Hamas would loose very badly in the Gaza strip. So much for people saying Israel's current policy against the strip is not working. yes people blame israel for their problems first and foremost (which they should) but Hamas is then next in the running. The today programme covered this the other day and the word on the street is going against them. Thats why Abbas has now called elections, he is calling their bluff.

    Anyway Im all for J Street as AIPAC have been too right wing for sometime. But lets not do things because otherwise it might lead to a 1 state solution. Lets just do them because they are the right things to do. Discussing a 1 state, even in theory is not though and will lead to more blood. I equate discussion of a 1 state solution as fundamentalist and war mongering, i.e. anti-peace.

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and reflections on the conference. (And thank you also for the kind link to Velveteen Rabbi!) I share your sense that JStreet's interest in dialogue, and in creating a space where conversations can happen, is incredibly exciting and is something to celebrate.