Notes from the J Street conference.
Since Netanyahu’s resounding election win last week, there’s been a deluge of coverage in the American media of a deepening disillusionment among U.S. Jews over Israel. Whether in the New York Times, the Associated Press, or Bloomberg, the thesis is more or less what you’d expect: Netanyahu rode to victory on a wave of racism, a rejection of peace with the Palestinians, and unprecedented disrespect for his number one patron, Barack Obama. These tactics fly in the face of a largely liberal community comprised of reliably Democratic voters.
That rift was represented this weekend in Washington, where the J Street lobby wrapped up its fifth national conference. Contempt for Netanyahu was prevalent and unapologetic. To the activists and supporters of the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby, the Israeli prime minister is anathema to peace and the main obstacle to the two-state solution. They are shocked and they are angry.
To a first-time observer like me, the discourse characterizing the conference was a fascinating representation of both the evolution and stagnation that seems to characterize much of the U.S. Jewish community lately. Judging by applause levels at various sessions and plenaries, the professed commitment to universalism seemed real. Language of equal rights and dignity for all was met with enthusiasm. In one particularly satisfying moment, the crowd erupted on behalf of Hadash activist Nabila Espanioly, who accused incoming Zionist Union MK Yoel Hasson of paternalism when he smugly told her what he thinks the Joint List needs to do (lose Balad). Other speakers given the main stage also departed from J Street orthodoxy, declaring the two-state solution dead (Marcia Freedman) and even calling out the lobby’s support for the Gaza war (our very own Noam Sheizaf).
But there’s some dissonance accompanying these moments and all the hand-wringing over Netanyahu’s win. Old ideas and regressive sentimentality still take center stage. Say “two states” and you’ll get a round of applause. Say it in the same sentence as “Zionism” and you might get a standing ovation.
I heard a number of strong voices in several breakout panels, offering sharp analysis and new thinking. Many of J Street U’s young activists are similarly impressive, and some have graduated to activism far more critical of Israel. Unfortunately, that freshness of thought doesn’t extend to some of the conference’s headliners. One particularly shameful...Read More