I came in concerned about the atmosphere at this conference. In 2009, at the first J Street national conference, there was a good deal of hope. Israel was facing great international pressure due to the onslaught on Gaza earlier in the year; President Obama had made it clear that he opposed Israeli settlements in a more substantive way than his predecessors; and that there was a real sense of urgency toward a two-state solution.
Now, the two-state solution seems to have been killed by Israel, Obama has shown that he will not get into fights about his Mideast policies and there is a general feeling of hopelessness about any diplomatic process. So what would this mean for J Street in 2011?
It seems like someone at J Street considered just that question. The decision to have Peter Beinart speak at their opening plenary was a no-brainer. But bringing Sarah Benninga and Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish was unexpected and turned out to be a very powerful way to begin the conference.
After Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism gave a passionate opening talk that basically supported J Street but placed himself on its right flank, Beinart gave a more or less standard overview of the liberal view of the situation. He did, though, touch on many important points—especially noteworthy was his statement of support for Jewish women who wish to carry Torah scrolls at the Western Wall.
But to that point, it felt like a standard reading of the pro-Israel liberal community, and it felt very much like it was leading toward the dead-end that has been created by the sharp rightward shift of Israel, both in terms of peace and in terms of its own democratic institutions.
Then Sarah Benninga spoke, and a fire was lit in the room.
Benninga, a young leader of the protests that have been taking place in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah gave an immensely powerful talk which called of unity between Arabs and Jews, and was clearly coming from a place of belief in universal rights for all. Her opening remarks about a “curtain of ignorance” for Israeli Jews which was opened for her when she just went over to East Jerusalem to see for herself, gave us insight into her journey, but her passion and determination for justice was presented in raw and energetic form. In her talk, politics were subordinated to ethics.
Benninga got a laugh from the audience of mostly Americans when she asked what we would do if our government treated the Constitution as mere empty words. She then said she chooses to fight a similar dynamic in Israel, which ignores the noble words of its Declaration of Independence. Given how much harder that is to do in Israel, it was particularly inspirational.
Then Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish spoke. This man, whose three daughters were killed when Israeli tanks shelled his home in Gaza without justification of any kind, still speaks of co-existence. Dr. Abuelaish worked in Israel for many years, and was well-known among Israelis and Palestinians. Israel eventually apologized to him, which certainly makes him an exceptional Palestinian.
I cannot imagine how one does not hate those who did such a terrible thing, but Dr. Abuelaish has found a way. He speaks of a burning desire for justice, but in his noble view, justice is not retribution. Justice, instead, is a future where Israelis and Palestinians no longer live in fear, separated from each other both physically and psychologically.
I was particularly taken with what might have been an unintentional jab at the American nonsense that “freedom isn’t free” when Dr. Abuelaish stated that freedom was the right of every person and there must never be a price for it.
The passion with which Ms. Benninga and Dr. Abuelaish spoke sent waves of energy through the room. Both of them made it clear that J Street was a group they had high hopes for and expectations of. They yearn for the sort of real, concrete support for justice and peace which the US is capable of bringing, even if it seems like our own domestic politics will forever make it impossible.
Most of all, Benninga and Abuelaish stayed away from the larger politics, the two-state questions, and other ideas which divide the left. They both spoke of settlements, but the strong sense I got from both of them was that their fight is not for this or that solution, but for justice, for peace and for equal rights for all the people in Israel and the Occupied Territories.
At J Street, that will be translated into work for a two-state solution, but it also jibed well with J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami’s frequently repeated theme of casting a big tent, opening up a conversation in the Jewish community and finding ways to channel energies of people into political momentum for a solution, rather than getting stuck on places where there are sharp differences.
Ben-Ami was not suggesting those differences be ignored. On the contrary, he was saying they should be discussed and argued. But he seemed to me to be implying that they should not prevent cooperation on matters that can be cooperated on. He didn’t say that, but it was the sense I got from many of his words.
If so, J Street has made some crucial advances. I suppose the test of those ideals will come in the next two days, when some of those differences will be aired, and then see where the organization goes from here.
Tomorrow is a full day with two plenary sessions and two sets of smaller discussion groups, and that is where the real meat of the conference will begun to be sliced up. This was a much better start than I expected, though.