by: Kelsey Waxman on October 17th, 2013 | 5 Comments »
Two weeks have passed since the culmination of the fourth annual J Street National Conference in Washington, D.C. Two weeks have also gone by since our congressional leaders failed to come to a compromise regarding the future of our national budget, resulting in a complete shutdown of governmental affairs. The three days I spent representing Tikkun magazine at the nation’s largest “Pro Israel, Pro Peace” gathering have left me conflicted about the American call for progressive peace in the region, but have reassured me that those who are committed to fighting for it are headed in the right direction.
From my exhibitor’s table in an isolated area of the Washington Conference Center, my perception of the goings-on of J Street was much different than the average delegate. I’d like to share my own individual analysis of the conference – please take note that the statements and opinions I’m offering here are purely my own and do not represent those of Tikkun or any other entity.
To refresh our memory, J Street, founded in 2008, is a Jewish-American political advocacy organization that markets itself as “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace.” The organization promotes a vision for security and stability in Israel/Palestine through its lobbying in the form of an American-brokered two-state solution.
It should be noted that with “exhibitor” status, neither Tikkun nor I were technically invited to participate in the J Street conference, but to stand quietly on the sidelines as “Jewish allies” of J Street and hand out our literature. While several other exhibitors, organizations, and publications submitted materials to be handed out in conference “swag bags,” Tikkun‘s magazines seemed to mysteriously not make the distribution cut. This disappointed me because J Street markets itself as an organization committed to the open facilitation of peace dialogue, but the exclusion of different perspectives on Israel/Palestine issues contradicts that very principle.
While J Street and Tikkun both stand for a cooperatively created, two-state entity in Israel/Palestine, their visions for bringing about change are quite different. To start, Tikkun‘s opposition to the American government’s cowardice and coddling of Israel’s right-wing governments does not mesh very well with the “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace” lauding of J Street’s platforms. While Tikkun also supports the State of Israel and the arrival of peace, the publication insists that the best way to go about the peace-building process is to acknowledge the undeniable importance of the needs for security, justice, and fairness for both Israelis and Palestinians. The latter group – Palestinians – tends to be left out of the J Street conversation.
The attending body of the conference was extremely diverse in terms of age, location, and professional background. While the group was not entirely Jewish, there was no significant minority coalition, and I do not think I met a single attendee of Palestinian heritage. This puzzles me: How can Americans who support the idea of two homelands for two peoples spend three days developing a plan for peace building, when one of those peoples is essentially absent from the conversation? How are American Jews that support J Street bringing anything new or progressive to the negotiation table when this approach of making plans and decisions on behalf of Palestinians without including Palestinians has been implemented in the region with an abject futility that predates the creation of the state of Israel?
As I was overseeing the Tikkun table for much of the conference, I experienced a large part of the conference vicariously through my conversations with others. As expected, the bulk of colorful and meaningful discussion at the conference took place in the 35+ small group sessions available to all conference-goers, with topics ranging from political strategy, to the moral questions of the conflict, to workshops on grassroots organizing, leadership, and public lobbying. While I did not have the chance to attend many of these sessions, I talked to many who felt that their time was well spent in them. “I enjoyed the array of panels and the opportunity to meet amazing, high-level leaders in fields varying from human rights, to elections, to Palestinian governance, to media,” said UC Berkeley senior and J Street U delegate Shannon Thomas. Others were a bit disappointed by the somewhat circular nature of the discussions held in the breakout sessions. “It was nice to have a space to discuss some of the details of what a two-state solution would look like as opposed to the big ‘rah rah!’ of the plenary sessions, but I don’t think I came out with a better picture of how to build peace in the region,” said another delegate, who wished to remain anonymous.
There were three core plenary sessions throughout the J Street Conference; the opening gathering (which I wrote previously about for the Tikkun Daily blog), a panel discussion by members of the Israeli Knesset, and a final session with keynote speaker Vice President Joe Biden. While most of the rhetoric thrown around that afternoon was dedicated to hailing J Street as a strong arm for progressive, pro-Israel platforms in America (and this somehow making them the logical alternative to AIPAC for American Jews) in groupthink fashion, there were points of interest that the esteemed speakers brought to light.
One of the more refreshing voices to grace the main stage of the J Street Conference was that of MK Zehava Gal-On, the chairwoman of Meretz, an Israeli minority leftist party that advocates for a two-state solution. Gal-On, albeit a party politician, was a blunt and assertive voice of reason amongst a sea of meticulously centrist stump speeches. She asserted that support for the Left was rising and again in Israel, and was firm in her stance that peace will not come to the region without a complete end to Israeli Occupation of Palestinian territory. “We must end the occupation to stop the daily suffering and humiliation of Palestinians,” Gal-On declared, and she was met with the roaring applause of younger conference delegates, with whom it seems she truly struck a chord. “My favorite speaker of the conference was MK Gal-On,” wrote Shayna Howitt, a sophomore at UC Berkeley and on the leadership team of the university’s J-Street U chapter, “She spoke out about how we should care about ending the occupation, because it is both unethical and destructive to hold another group of people under military rule.” In a post-conference email, MK Gal-On reaffirmed her pledge to end the Occupation to me, as there is “no other way” towards peace. It is unfortunate that, in the midst of a large gathering advocating for peace, MK Gal-On’s comments are such a beautiful rarity.
In an interesting collision of our political worlds, Virginia’s junior Congressman Tim Kaine was not able to deliver his speech at the closing session, as he was stuck on the floor of the House of Representatives trying to prevent the GOP from bringing a shutdown upon our government. As we know, he and his colleagues were unsuccessful, and I still question where his time would have been better spent: warring against a coalition of unwavering conservatives on Capitol Hill, or delivering another foreign policy stump speech at the Washington Conference Center.
The always-dynamic Vice President Joe Biden began his speech by declaring, “there is not contradiction between being a progressive and being a supporter of Israel.” He vehemently reconfirmed his and the president’s commitment to “the survival and security of a Jewish state in Israel.” “No one has done more for the security of Israel than President Obama,” Vice President Biden stated, citing joint military operations with Israel and Secretary of State John Kerry’s six visits to Israel in the past six months. The vice president then launched into a firm proclamation of America’s dedication to upholding security measures in the greater Middle East. He mentioned the cautious but potential beginnings of a relationship with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, as well as condemning the actions of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran’s nuclear program. Biden condemned the use of chemical weapons by Syrian ruler Bashar Al-Asad against his own people and promised to engage with the interim Egyptian government towards a more sustainable future, as long as they continue to uphold their peace treaty with Israel. “If there was not an Israel, we would have to invent one,” the Vice President awkwardly stated, emphasizing the importance of the nation to American security in the region. The Vice President did not make a single remark on the current state, demands, or security of the Palestinian people. A two-state solution continues to be lip-serviced by a single state’s agenda.
Biden concluded his speech by recounting a visit with the late former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and her aide, a young Yitzhak Rabin, at Meir’s office during his first term as a junior senator. Biden quoted Prime Minister Meir’s parting words to him: “We Jews have a secret weapon in our conflict with the Arabs: We have no place else to go.”
By the end of the J Street conference, still jet lagged, blistered-heeled from shuffles to the Metro in pumps, and completely buried in work to make up from missed classes, I felt like I had no place else to go. I left Washington on the heels of the government shutdown questioning the ability of any bureaucratic system’s ability to make concessions towards a mutually beneficial solution. My outlook on the mainstream progressive Jewish movement is bleak; J Street claims to speak for those who support a progressive, two-state initiative in Israel/Palestine but there is very little that is forward thinking about their platforms or actions. J Street falls short of truly recognizing the integrity of the Palestinian people and their political and moral interests by refusing to condemn certain unlawful actions committed by the Israeli government. I do not understand how the J Street “2 Campaign,” launched during this year’s conference, can call for a complete demilitarization of the Palestinian state without acknowledging the force used by IDF soldiers and their commanders against civilians that exceeds any reasonable expectations of security defense. I am confused as to how J Street can laud the great progress of peace talks with the Palestinian Authority when their government only represents a specific population of the displaced Palestinian peoples.
On Ocober 1, the day that the government shutdown was enacted, J Street conference delegates from all over the nation took to Capitol Hill to speak with their local congressional offices, asking them to support Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent call for a “Great Constituency for Peace” of progressive, Pro-Israel Americans who support U.S. leadership in a two-state solution process. What I saw at J Street was certainly a constituency, but I am still unconvinced of its greatness.
While I am critical of the J Street platform, I did meet and exchanged meaningful conversation with conference delegates who supported a wide range of political stances on the issues of Israel/Palestine. I must remind myself to be grateful that so many people are taking the time to be concerned about a conflict so many thousands of miles away, and that progress will always begin with the individual.
As I left Washington, I thought of Vice President Biden’s remarks and what I would have done if it had been me in that room with Prime Minister Meir all of those years ago. The Jewish people will always have a place to go, but they must work with their neighbors and allies to ensure that they are headed towards a place of peace and justice. I do believe in a two-state solution, and I do believe that there are people out there who will heed to the call of action of a Great Constituency of Peace. But for resolution to become reality, all aspects of the conflict must be acknowledged. If we are to support John Kerry in his efforts in Israel/Palestine, we must encourage him to acknowledge and reach out to all who have claimed their stake in the region. Everyone must be invited to the table before the bread is broken.
Kelsey Waxman is an intern at Tikkun Magazine and a sophomore at the University of California, Berkeley, studying History and Arabic Language. She is an alumna of the US Department of State Critical Language Scholarship for Advanced Arabic (Summer 2013). She is originally from Chicago, Illinois.