by: Kelsey Waxman on September 30th, 2013 | Comments Off
Saturday night, 2800 Jewish Americans and their domestic and international allies congregated in Washington, DC to begin the 4th annual J Street National Conference. J Street, founded in 2008, is a Jewish-American political advocacy organization that markets itself as “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace.” The organization, which also runs its own PAC (Political Action Committee), presents a vision for security and stability in Israel/Palestine through its lobbying in the form of an American-brokered two-state solution. This year’s conference, entitled “Our Time to Lead,” features three days of panels hosted and moderated by American, Israeli, and Palestinian speakers from diverse professional backgrounds. culminating in an “Advocacy Day” in which conference delegates will disperse throughout Capitol Hill to meet with Congressional representatives to lobby for the passing of political policies that they support. The conference will also include a keynote address from U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.
Saturday night’s event began with a joyous acknowledgement of each J Street chapter (there are currently 48 chapters from all over the United States), and several speakers. J Street’s Outgoing Chairman Davidi Gilo welcomed conference attendees and expressed enthusiasm for his successor, the current Vice Chairman, Morton Halperin. Dror Moreh, the Israeli director of the critically-acclaimed film The Gatekeepers, spoke about his experiences with interviewing 6 former heads of Shin-Bet, the Israeli secret intelligence agency, during his filmmaking, and quoted the late former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in a call to peace-building action: “Don’t say the day will come, bring the day.” J Street’s Founder and President, Jeremy Ben-Ami, then took to the stage to announce the organizations new “2 Campaign,” a multimedia effort that advocates for the necessity of several concrete platforms in order to move closer to a “two states for two peoples” solution. There are aspects to this campaign that are quite familiar to those presented in the Geneva Initiatives: a return to the pre-1967 borders (with land exchanges), dividing the city of Jerusalem along current neighborhood borders into two capitals cities of two sovereign nations, and a refugee policy that would relocate displaced Palestinians without granting them a right to return to their homes in Israel.
The launch was followed by a speech from Tzipi Livni, the Israeli Justice Minister and chief negotiator in the current set of proposed talks with the Palestinian Authority. Livni moved the crowd with her insistence that “we can love Israel, and at the same time we can fight for peace,” and called upon the world’s Jewry to embrace connections with Israel. The night closed with the reverent words of The Honorable John Lewis (D, GA) whose brave tales of freedom fighting during the American Civil Rights movement resonated hauntingly in the ears of hopeful delegates. “You have got to find a way to get in the way,” Lewis said, referring to a call to political action. “There comes a time when we must get into good trouble.”
This is my second time attending a J Street National Conference (I attended as a member of the Chicago delegation at their inaugural conference in 2009), and my first as a member of the Tikkun community. When Tikkun magazine first asked me to represent them at J Street, I was shocked. I am just an intern with an insatiable hunger for the rich complexities of Middle Eastern history, trying to learn everything I can (and more importantly, trying to decipher the truth from all of the talk) whilst forming my own opinions on current events unraveling in the region. I have no political or popular clout in the Jewish and American population like many of the conference attendees and presenters do. I am not even a chapter member of my university’s J Street U, the rapidly growing branch of the organization that is designed to mobilize youth in support of a two-state solution.
While I am here representing Tikkun magazine and the Network of Spiritual Progressives this weekend (make sure to stop by the Tikkun table to say hello and pick up a copy of Tikkun founder/editor Rabbi Michael Lerner’s book, Embracing Israel/Palestine), I am also here as a concerned youth delegate, adding my voice to the small but powerful group of young, Jewish liberals who see promise in American-mediated progress in the Middle East but understand that concessions, compromise, and radical changes to traditional conflict resolution methodology must be undertaken to achieve those goals. I have also come here as a challenger of the idealist notions that the American peace movement currently champions. While introducing J-Street’s new “2 Campaign” in last night’s opening remarks, J Street Chair Jeremy Ben-Ami called for a transition from political lip service but “defining what must be accomplished from a two-state solution.” It is one thing to bring voices and minds together to revel in the discourse and debate of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it is another to put those thoughts into concrete action.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect for me as an attendee and observer of this gathering is the staggering youth presence. J Street U has 52 chapters and affiliations with 125 campuses in the United States, Canada, UK, and Israel. When I attended the first national J Street conference in 2009 as a sophomore in high school, I was by far the youngest delegate in a gathering of half as many people. Last night I sat amidst a sea of students my own age, cheering at the top of their lungs when their school or chapter was acknowledged. While it was inspiring to be one of 900 students at this conference (about 1/3 of the attendees), I question if J Street is able to provide young people with the tools to become educated advocates for logical and thoughtful decision-making in regards to Israel/Palestine. Of course J Street seeks to educate its constituents young and old, but I am doubtful that this education goes deeper than a solid understanding of the organization’s own policies, traditions, and methodologies.
My hope for this weekend and beyond is that J Street will encourage its younger members to explore and educate themselves beyond these three conference days; to question what they learn, to honor their own instincts, and to understand that there is no right answer; the road toward a solution to the conflict in Israel/Palestine is fluid and in always flux. It must be understood that my generation will inherit this conflict in Israel/Palestine. For that reason alone, it is imperative that organizations such as J Street prepare tomorrow’s young Jewish leaders to face the multi-faceted and complex questions that we face in Israel/Palestine, not just to rally them for a platform cause. How will young people become educated on the variety of peace movements and philosophies when the opportunity for comfortable and explorative debate is limited? How will these young American Jews learn to facilitate peace building when not a single Palestinian student is present at this leadership conference?
I am eager to see what the following days will bring. Stay tuned for more updates on conference sessions, interviews with attendees, and other happenings from the heart of our nation’s capital. May this week bring you much lightness and joy.