Thursday, October 29, 2009

Reporting on the J Street conference

Below you'll find a number of reports on the J Street conference:
Some shorter entries from MuzzleWatch contributors Sydney Levy and Jesse Bacon, providing a flavor of some of the sessions, followed by a longer overview by Adam Horowitz of

Racheli Gai.

Sydney Levy and Jesse Bacon report from J Street conference.

Doing the math at J Street: Nine is more than four

The most difficult moment for me at the J Street came this morning. I was listening to a panel called Messaging Pro-Israel Pro-Peace.

Jim Gerstein, the first panelist presented good polling data about the attitude of American Jews towards Israel and the US role in the region. Lots of good numbers here, the kind of numbers that AIPAC prefers to ignore.

The survey shows that 7 out of 10 American Jews support US policies that help Israelis and Palestinians resolve their conflict–and this includes the US publicly disagreeing with both sides as well as exerting pressure on both sides (in other words, disagreeing also with Israel and exerting pressure also on Israel).

You can find all the survey info here:

Matt Dorf, the next panelist talked about communications and messaging: what we say matters a lot, he said.

Keep this in mind as we move to the third panelist, Dr. Calvin Goldscheider. Here comes demography to help us say what we need to say about being pro-Israel pro-peace.

Dr. Goldscheider did a rapid survey in no more than a few minutes about the changing ratio of Jews to Arabs in what is now Israel. In a few seconds, we heard about the role of Jewish immigration, the Russians (not all of them are Jewish), the temporary workers from Asia (now numbering a quarter of a million) so and so forth. Not a word about the Nakba, isn't that a bit odd?

But let's focus on the present. The question on the table, Is there a demographic threat?

The good news, says Dr. Goldscheider, is that in the context of the State of Israel, Arab minorities present no demographic threat unless we include the occupied territories and give the inhabitants there equal rights. Inclusion without equal rights leads to the end of democracy. Inclusion with equal rights leads to the end of the Jewish majority in the state. And that is why a two-state solution is a must: to preserve Jewish democracy.

The Palestinians are of course non-players in this Jewish democratic drama. At most, they are a threat just for being there. At best, they are a minority that we must keep under demographic control.

Oh, but the Palestinians are playing their part well. You see, in the 1960's Palestinians had an average of nine children per family. Now they only have four. (Phew).

Four children is a lot, but nine is a lot more, explains the kind demographer in case we cold not do the math. Audience laughs.

Now, I am Jewish and I am also a Latino man living in California–a state where we have a pluralistic demographic composition: not one group, not even non-Latino whites, amount to 50% of the population. If I were to hear white people bemoaning the demographic threat that the rise of people of color in the state represents, I would call it like it is, and that is racism, pure and simple. I have no use for the phrase demographic threat. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth and a sharp pain in my gut.

What we say matters a lot; that's what we were told in this workshop. If we need to use racism to message ourselves as Pro-Israel pro-peace, there is something very wrong here.

Is this the best J Street can come up with?

To be clear, I am not talking now about one-state, two-states, or three. I am talking about saying dayenu to this demographic threat mentality. I am talking about understanding fully and completely that you cannot save Israel's democracy one bit when you celebrate the fact that 20% of its citizens has an increasingly lower birth rate (yeay!) so that their proportion in the population will not grow (double yeay!). If this is what you believe, don't waste your time on avoiding the threat; you've lost the democratic values a long time ago.

My only consolation is that at least I can bring these issues to the public's attention — even to the attention of the J Street conference participants.

Were I to be in Israel this very week, I would be furiously fighting against a bill advancing in the Knesset that would bar the Israeli government from providing funding to activities that deny Israel's definition as a Jewish or democratic state.

– Sydney Levy

Bridging the gap with honesty and transparency

In an earlier post, I referred to a J Street workshop that sought to bridge the gap between Jewish social justice work and Israel/Palestine advocacy.

The gap is real. Take Jacob Feinspan, of Jews United for Justice. His organization works on a range of important local issues, including the challenges facing day laborers. He asked whether there was a litmus test for Jewish organizations: Does Israel have to be at the top of our agenda? He did not think so. He further asked a question that remained unanswered, why don't we have a reverse panel?, a panel about why J Street is not engaged in domestic social justice work.

Elissa Barrett, of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, drew inspiration from the prophetic tradition to make others uncomfortable and make ourselves uncomfortable. At the same time, she said that during the Gaza attack, the PJA issued a statement that was the source of much debate internally: how far do we go?. Two thirds of the conversation is about whether to have the conversation.

Alana Alpert, a rabbinical student, talked about the moral crisis that we face, and asked,
Is there any issue more important for American Jews to engage in than Israel/Palestine?
Her answer to her fellow panelists: To evade responsibility by claiming a domestic agenda–that's a false dichotomy.

Alana urged Jewish organizations to be more honest and transparent: If you are not doing Israel/Palestine work, why not? Is it really because you are solely focusing on domestic issues or is it because of funding concerns?

Elissa acknowledged that PJA has lost funders because of its positions on Israel. She added,

"We are afraid to be attacked because we are attacked. A line in the sand is there, and if you step across it, you will be crushed."

Susan Adelman, a founding member of PJA, drew an analogy to the ACLU's defense of the Nazi march in Skokie, IL. The ACLU lost thousands of members because of its position, and yet they stuck to its principles. She then asked, How can we not speak about human rights violations in the occupied territories?

A member of the audience talked about the current and possibly growing backlash against anti-occupation activism, and then she asked, Which side will the progressive Jews be on?

The next made-up controversy or orchestrated smear campaign will surely be reported in Muzzlewatch. And when things will get heated, I hope that we will be able to report that the majority of progressive Jews stood with us.

– Sydney Levy

Will J Street be the new gateway drug?

Will J Street be the new gateway drug? The thought has been running through my head ever since I heard Alana Alpert talking at a panel in the J Street conference examining the divide between the Jewish social justice activism and Israel/Palestine work. The panel dealt with the difficulties that organizations such as the Progressive Jewish Alliance and Jews United for Justice have in moving beyond a domestic social justice agenda and addressing the Israeli occupation. Facing the gap between Jewish activism on domestic issues versus Israel/Palestine, Alana asked whether Jewish social justice organizing was the gateway drug to deal with the Middle East.

The thought has been dancing in my head throughout the whole day, only now taking it one step forward: Will J Street be the new gateway drug that will move liberal Jewish activists who are pro-Israel pro-peace into being progressive Jewish activists fully pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian?

This is not just an academic play of words. We are talking about having an agenda that focuses on what's good for both sides, not just for the love of Israel.

I confess that the J Street's conference urgency to reach a two-state solution — although I am yet to hear the word viable attached to the Palestinian state — seems to be motivated more by the upcoming facts on the ground (demographic changes that put in peril the concept of a Jewish majority) than by the current facts on the ground (settlements and the rest of the occupation infrastructure).

Will J Street be the gateway drug that moves activists from the demographic head-count into the field of universal justice and human rights? Only time will tell. But the conference certainly offered some signs for hope. Every item that was not in the agenda — BDS, Zionism, Jewish state — came up for discussion one way or another because it was brought up from the floor. These questions have no easy answers, but time and again they will pop up until they are considered with the seriousness they deserve.

– Sydney Levy

Not to be taken literally

I attended what turned out to be the replacement for J street's disinvited poet panel. Ari Roth from Theater J — who supported the poets by coming out to their reading yesterday at BusBoys & Poets — used the beginning of his time to alert people to the panel that was and delivered a passionate defense of poets from a literary perspective.

Ari urged not taking the words literally and pointed out that one "doesn't look to poets for rational discourse." He defended the "right to conjoin symbols," and asked if "a wonky convention like J Street is comfortable with metaphor." He dismissed any suggestion that anyone was calling for a boycott of J Street, creating a "truly J Street dialectic: pro-conference and pro-poetry (a play of words on J Street's tag line, pro-Israel, pro-peace), which led to applause.

He posed two possibilities: we are either entering a "new age of censoriousness" or an "excitement moment," and noted what great plays have been performed at Theater J, including "Seven Jewish Children," and a play featuring both Rachel Corrie and Daniel Pearl. All in all, it was a hopeful moment for both art and the conference, whatever the larger moment we live in.

Squaring the circle and erasing the margins

by Adam Horowitz on October 28, 2009

I've finally reemerged from J Street. Although I intended to be posting throughout the conference, I never found the time. It was a packed few days, with energy bursting at the seams. Although usually subdued and rehearsed from the podium, the crowd was brimming with questions, challenges and a rebellious spirit.

My very initial impression was that If AIPAC feels like going to the Jewish Oscars, then J Street felt like a really fancy bar mitzvah. It was large and impressive, but did not have the ostentatious sense of stage production and drama that AIPAC displays, and I guess that's to be expected. I don't think it's only a matter of resources (which I'm sure play a part), but also of mission. The AIPAC conference seems to say – sit and let us overwhelm you, with facts, with fear, with theater – while J Street was conscious from the beginning that it was more self-reflexive and open. AIPAC was focused of handing out marching orders, and J Street has taken on a more vexing, complicated and perhaps self-defeating mission – to be a vehicle for both social change and political change inside the American Jewish community.

This dual mission was seen from the very first event, a town hall-style plenary session called "Israel and 21st Century American Jewry." Jeremy Ben-Ami explained that this was to be "more than a policy conference," it was also part of breaking the isolation people felt in their communities. And it's clear that breaking this isolation is what drew many people to the conference. As Phil pointed out earlier there was excessive handwringing across the three days of the conference as Jews struggled with breaking the vice grip of a pro-Israel orthodoxy in their community which says you must support Israeli expansionism and apartheid at all costs. The real energy at this conference came from the vast majority of the 1,500 attendees who said "no more!", and this was Ben-Ami's most effective rallying cry. J Street is playing a tricky game at trying to harness the dissatisfaction and anger in the Jewish community towards its traditional gatekeepers without letting that energy run wild
beyond its control. It's telling that the only person booed at the conference, as far as I know, was Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the most representative member of that orthodoxy to address the conference. It seemed to be a slightly embarrassing moment for J Street as its conference goers where rebuking an honored guest, but after two days of being revved by talk of opening the debate and hearing all voices – what did they expect? Rabbi Brant Rosen, who I had the honor of finally meeting in person, observed that J Street has opened a Pandora's box in promoting dissent while trying to manage it. He doubted it could be controlled once the box was opened.

This energy and questioning sprit (to borrow Dana Goldstein's term) was seen in every single panel I attended. Although speakers presented dry presentations on the the two-state solution or the current debate in Washington, questions from the audience would inevitably veer off the map towards questions of historical justice for the Palestinians and the viability and desirably of a Jewish state. Several questioners made clear their discomfort trying to justify the contradiction between advocating for the Jewish-defined state in Israel/Palestine while enjoying the privileges of a minority in a multicultural democracy here in the United States. This was usually met with a response along the line of "there has always been a tension between universalism and particularism in Jewish life" or something like that, but the dodge wasn't lost on anyone. The questions bubbling up in the Jewish community were beyond the pale for J Street, and for an organization that is supposed to represent a
new discussion about the Middle East in Washington and the Jewish community, it already seemed woefully behind the times.

Jeremy Ben-Ami has said it himself that he sees the organization as a US equivalent of the Israeli Kadima party. J Street is looking to advance the two-state solution, and although there was plenty of sympathy, and perhaps empathy, for the Palestinian people, the motivating factor in building a Palestinian state is to protect a Jewish-majority state in Israel. This was said repeatedly by both Israeli and American Jewish speakers. For a liberal group there was a disturbing amount of time given to talking about "demographic threats" and head counts of Jews versus Palestinians in Israel/Palestine. It is a conversation that many there would denounce as racist if it were to happen here in the US regarding latino or african-american US citizens, and I would say that there was ambivalent support for the conversation at J Street. If AIPAC attempts to motivate their base through the perennial fear of an impending holocaust, then J Street's fear mongering takes a more ethno-nationalist
approach that seems more in line with Lou Dobbs than the liberal heros that J Street attendees most likely adore. There were murmurs of dissatisfaction in the crowd over this, but I could see this discomfort growing by leaps and bounds in the months and years to come.

And this is in part the dilemma that J Street finds itself in. At its heart J Street is a Washington DC political organization that is trying to harness the power of social change in the Jewish community towards rather conservative political ends. Boxed into Washington's language on the conflict (willingly), the organization seems in danger of alienating an activist base who increasingly understands this discourse to be irrelevant. One questioner in a panel called "What does it mean to be Pro-Israel" said he wants to go home to Santa Fe and help build J Street, but he knows their "Pro-Israel" moniker will alienate people. How long will J Street supporters flock to an organization that demands the debate be opened – but only so much? Several speakers reinforced that it was fine to criticize Israel, as long as it's from a place of love. One questioner responded, "But what if instead I love justice?," to some firm applause. In the end I imagine J Street will continue to evade this
question as it looks to build power in a city where calls for justice routinely go unanswered.

Finally, there is a more fundamental question as J Street tries to square the circle between harnessing the social change within the Jewish community to promote political change in Washington – where does this leave other Americans concerned with its country's foreign policy? And more importantly where does it leave Palestinians? The mission to move US policy through reforming the Jewish community's debate over Israel/Palestine has clear political implications. Ben-Ami ended the opening evening by saying the movement J Street is a part of is a "movement rooted in love of Israel," and while all are welcomed to join J Street in its work, "the heart of this movement has to be in the Jewish community." From this perspective, it was telling that Gaza was not mentioned once the entire evening (except by Rabbi Andy Bachman who said it was no longer occupied). There was only one panel during the entire conference dedicated to "Palestinian perspectives," and even the closing panel
"Why Two States? Why Now?" only included speakers to explain Israeli interests and American interests in promoting two states. Two of the most moving parts of the conference for me was hearing Laila El-Haddad, from the Gaza Mom blog, describe life in still occupied Gaza on the unofficial blogger's panel. She told a story about how her family was almost unable to leave Gaza to visit her in the US and she is totally unable to enter her homeland. Later, Bassim Khoury, the ex-Minister of National Economy for the Palestinian Authority who recently quit in protest to their reaction to the Goldstone report, demonstrated "Israeli apartheid" in Jerusalem through a power point presentation outlining the gross discrepancies in municipal funding between Jews and Palestinians in the city. Both presentation injected an intense dose of reality into a proceeding that seems to be chugging along more on vision and hope.

J Street represents a very important rupture and opportunity in the supposed American Jewish consensus over Israel/Palestine which should be celebrated. Pushing this wedge into the heart of the community could only be a good thing. But, the tenor and message of the J Street conference would seem to indicate that the struggle to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can only be lead by Jews, after we conquer our own internal issues to reform our community, and on our agenda. Meanwhile, Palestinians will have to continue to catch the brunt of the Israel everyone loves so much.

Jewish Peace News editors:
Joel Beinin
Racheli Gai
Rela Mazali
Sarah Anne Minkin
Judith Norman
Lincoln Z. Shlensky
Rebecca Vilkomerson
Alistair Welchman
Jewish Peace News archive and blog:
Jewish Peace News sends its news clippings only to subscribers. To subscribe, unsubscribe, or manage your subscription, go to

No comments: