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J Street third annual conference marks shift to the right

By Moriel Rothman

I have attended all three J Street conferences since the organization formed in 2008 with the dual objectives of pushing the US government to take an active role in bringing about a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and changing the discourse within the mainstream American Jewish community to one that is more open, critical, value-driven and, yes, left-wing. J Street was the only major Jewish organization I knew of willing to criticize the insanity of that “war” and of other Israeli policies. Following J Street’s first conference in October of 2009, I decided to throw my lot in with this new movement, and remained deeply involved until I graduated college in May of last year.

This year, I attended J Street’s third national conference as a Jerusalem-based activist who has shifted further left after spending more and more time in the Occupied Territories. Meanwhile, J Street has swung right in an effort to gain more acceptance and recognition by the mainstream American Jewish Community. J Street’s shift began last September when the organization issued a statement in support of a US Veto of the Palestinian bid for independence in the UN Security Council. This decision came more from a desire not to draw the fury of the mainstream than from any sort of policy position. Only eight months earlier, J Street issued a statement against the US Veto of a UN resolution condemning settlements, writing that “we cannot support a U.S. veto of a Resolution that closely tracks long-standing American policy…”

J Street drew a lot of heat for this decision, but its conference last year, Giving Voice to Our Values,” featured speakers who did not fit neatly into the American Jewish mainstream’s version of what a kosher pro-Israel conference should look like, including Izzaldin Abueleish, a Palestinian doctor from Gaza whose daughters were killed in the Gaza war, and Sara Benninga, an Israeli activist who spoke of the joint struggle in occupied Sheikh Jarrah. Along with the usual collection of two-state liberal Zionists (including me), its panels featured Palestinian and Arab journalists, and even JVP director Rebecca Vilkomerson, who advocates boycotts, divestments and sanctions against Israel.

Since September, J Street has basically been maintaining party-line, cautioning against war on Iran and reaffirming its opposition to BDS, but this recent conferencespoke unsettlingly of the shifting priorities of the organization’s leadership.

First, the opening speakers were all Israeli Jews. Amos Oz, the only one of them to address the substance of the conflict, spoke eloquently about the need for a resolution to the conflict, using the metaphor of “divorce” between Israelis and Palestinians. The crowd was, from what I could tell, was very excited. Some that I spoke to were glowing:

“That was the best speech I have ever heard.”

Afterwards, however, I spoke to a number of people who were less thrilled: “All of these attempts to inspire us are kind of… silly,” said a J Street member from Texas.

Some from the latter camp felt that feel-goodness of the three speakers was not an appropriate tone for the opening of a conference about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2012.

“Oz’s speech,” an Israeli activist attending the conference said to me, “was full of the problematic discourse of the 1990s-Oslo-era; there are two parties who need to be separated, two parties who are “equally right,” two sides that need to change, and “divorce” into two states. Maybe that formula was more accurate in 1993, but any observer of the conflict today knows very well that there are not two equal parties to this conflict.” Nonetheless, Oz is a respected, left-wing figure, whose values are certainly in line with much of J Street’s constituency, now or two years ago.

The panels and plenaries continued in a similar vein, with general enthusiasm from the crowd and the majority of the panels were filled with very intelligent-if-vanilla Liberal Zionist Two-Staters, and a smattering of uninteresting Israeli Politicians, a few Obama officials, and a few less-Liberal Zionists like Rabbi Donniel Hartmann (author of a recent piece arguing that Israel’s political assassinations are “Tikkun Olam,” repairing the world).

The main panel on Monday morning did include Mustafa Barghouti, who in no uncertain terms described the Occupation as colonialism and apartheid and challenged the notion that a two state solution is truly possible. Negotiations today, Barghouti said, are more like “two people arguing over a piece of cheese, while one them is locked behind bars and the other is eating the cheese.”

His challenging statements received substantial applause from the audience. As someone I met told me, “people here were thirsty for a Palestinian perspective, which they never get to hear- that’s why all of the questions at the end were directed at Barghouti.”

There were also a number of not-necessarily-Zionist or necessarily-not-Zionist groups and individuals scattered throughout the panels (B’Tselem, JustVision, and a small handful of other Palestinians, including +972’s Aziz Abu Sarah). But these voices were few among many, a shrub of leftist discourse in a forest of comfortable cheerleading, with one notable, horrifying redwood towering above it all.

– – – – – – –

I came to J Street was because I was so disturbed, like many of my peers, by Operation Cast Lead. So it was quite disturbing to learn that J Street had chosen to honor the Israeli Prime Minister responsible for the war crimes perpetrated in Gaza (not to mention the financial crimes for which he has been indicted in Israel) at this conference. The final event of the conference, the Gala Dinner, was concluded with a speech by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who positioned himself squarely within J Street’s camp. “J Street,” he cried, “is a legitimate organization!” He received a standing ovation from a significant part of the crowd, even though a number of people had expressed to me reservations about this choice of speaker.

When I asked Ben Ami why they had decided to honor Olmert , he responded that Olmert brings “power for getting J Street’s message out, a message for the critical urgency [of the Two State Solution]. This is the most important thing we can do.” He added, “in a country that has been through the wars and challenges that Israel has faced, the people who will lead it to peace are those who have led it through war, Begin, Rabin, Sharon and Olmert.”

I get it. J Street’s goal is to be an effective political voice in DC, and to bring the mainstream American Jewish community further left on this issue. I get that politics involve compromise, and I get that the American Jewish community’s thinking on Israel has become so warped that criticisms of Israeli policy sound to many of them like existential threats. I do not expect J Street to issue papers against Israel’s Jewish Law of Return or challenge the ways in which Israel within the green line has become infested with racism and oppression- that is not J Street’s role. But there need to be red lines. If J Street’s potential can be split into two categories: political success on one hand and building a strong, value-based community on the other, I am afraid that J Street is steering more towards the former, at the expense of the latter.
Even the most confident Two Stater must realize that no change will come from the American side of things until, at earliest, the year following Obama’s reelection (if, God willing). The conference should have been called something more modest, perhaps: “Building Community.”

And there was a sense of community. J Street’s space, both physically and intellectually, continues to be an amazing meeting point for a lot of people genuinely concerned with ending the conflict. But according to some attendees, myself included, it should have included more Palestinian figures, more One-Staters, and, as it did last year, representatives of the BDS Movement, not necessarily as an endorsement, but as a recognition that the left-wing discourse needs to be broad and challenging.

However, J Street will not catch up to AIPAC in terms of money, membership or power in time to stave off Israel’s process of Apartheidization. The only thing J Street has over AIPAC is our system of values. And this system of values must be stronger than the temptation to ally with people responsible for war crimes, as “politically/strategically valuable” as such an act might seem. While I think that many left the conference feeling excited and invigorated, I and some others left deeply concerned.

If we lose sight of our leftist values, I think we will lose what is left of our value.

Moriel Rothman is an American-Israeli currently living in Jerusalem and active with Rabbis for Human Rights and the Solidarity Movement.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Bill Pearlman

      “One staters” and BDS advocates belong in some left wing debating society or with mondoweiss types. If j-street is truly serious about appealing to the vast majority of American Jews they at least have to be advocates of the continued existence of Israel.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Richard Witty

      Again,
      J Street is a lobbying organization, NOT a grass roots social issues advocacy organization.

      Its presence does not prohibit you from other thoughts, writing, efforts. The only censorial impact it could have is on the issues of ‘electibility’ if proponents stray off message.

      Better that it does what it does, than deviate to what is paralyzing or even illegal for a legal lobbying organization to do.

      Reply to Comment
    3. XYZ

      Here is an excellent piece by veteran peace-camp member Carlos Strenger in Ha’aretz on why he has finally come to the conclusion that the 2-state solution is dead, why Israel will not leave the settlements, why Beinart and J-Street don’t have any understanding of Israel and how Israelis think. He even moves in the direction of confederation as a practical solutaion to the problem of giving the Palestinians more rights within the present framework:

      http://www.haaretz.com/blogs/strenger-than-fiction/open-letter-to-peter-beinart-boycotting-the-settlements-will-not-save-the-two-state-solution-1.421302

      Reply to Comment
    4. Lee Diamond

      Richard, J Street is grassroots. You cannot ignore that.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Lee Diamond

      I had the pleasure of meeting Moriel Rothman at the conference. I think the most important challenge he poses to J Street’s strategy is his point that the organization will not be able to catch up to AIPAC in time to save Israel from itself. I do agree that this IS the KEY point: Can J Street do the educational spade work, mobilization of support from the public & politicians in time to make a difference?

      I think there was a wide range of perspectives at the conference. I don’t think more one-state advocates were so critical because I do not see Israel ever agreeing to one state…….. at least not before a Two-State period FIRST.

      I share Moriel’s concern about the key point I cited. Personally, while I admire the dedication of a lot of people associated with J Street, I do not understand how activists who have devoted so many years to this struggle can leave the conference with the current posture of the organization. That is not a criticism. That is just how I feel personally. This current situation is horrific. It is profoundly anti-Jewish. Israel today does not stand for or represent Jewish values. Jews who support Israel today are turning their backs on our tradition.

      I hasten to add though, that i am not working inside the Jewish community. I do know how resistant people are to what Moriel and I are talking about. I am somewhat torn, but I think we should be sounding the alarm.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Richard Witty

      Lee,
      J Street is a lobbying organization. It might get support from grass roots, and declare that it represents grass roots, but those are money and numbers (the stuff of lobbying).

      Discussion and the forming of goals and comment and dissent occur elsewhere.

      J Street can not for example advocate for civil disobedience if it means violating laws, or it will threaten its tax status.

      Its ok for it to have a limited role.

      Reply to Comment
    7. I think Moriel Rothman is an amazing leader and thoughtful activist. That said, I think he’s confused J Street’s move to the right with his own move to the left.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Rebecca

      Richard,

      As Moriel accurately notes in the very first sentence of this post, half of J Street’s self-defined mission is “to ensure a broad debate on Israel and the Middle East in national politics and the American Jewish community” (jstreet.org/about). Ensuring a broad public debate is not the traditional role of a Washington DC lobby.

      The way J Street has implemented the “broadening debate” part of its mission is by running a public relation campaign to promote its two-state policy platform. This is, in fact, a way to influence public opinion rather than to promote debate at a grassroots level. I think this disconnect is part of the reason why J Street is perceived by some of its current and former activists as engaging in doublespeak (cf Naftali Kaminski’s post on this site).

      Reply to Comment
    9. Joel

      Moriel Rothman,
      .
      Thank you very much for a very perceptive analysis of J Street. I agree completely with the two core goals you identified and the tension between realizing them. However, does it really have to choose between them and has it?
      .
      From what you say, J-street still invites and encourages discussion also with people who don’t conform to it’s official lobbying policies. For sure, there could be more of it and from a wider spectrum, as you note, but can’t this widening of the discourse happen at the same time as J Street pursues it’s defined agenda (the two state solution) in it’s lobbying activity?
      .
      I think J Street benefits from having as wide of a roof as possible, when it comes to supporters and activists simply because different target audiences are simply at different stages (of awareness or opinion).
      .
      For example, two years ago when J Street was new it helped me tremendously in bringing in another perspective in my small Finnish Jewish community. Criticism is simply much more efficient when it comes from a source you trust. Now, I think largely because J Street opened the door, I can quote articles from 972, which many times are much more critical than J Street. And I don’t think I could do that now, if I had not started with J Street.
      .
      So, ideally, I think J Street could work as it is trying with the Beinart contraversy (and this is @XYZ too). We need people with the credentials of Beinart to stand up and make a case for a boycott of the settlements. Not because it’s necessarily the right thing to do, but because it inspires the kind of responses, for example Stranger gave him. And again, the importance of Strenger’s response is not necessarily that he is right, but the fact that he took Beinart’s arguments to heart and engaged in some introspection of his own thoughts. The point is, that I think this illustrates the gradual process of real change, that has to come from criticism that is taken into heart; and J Street, being just big and respectable enough, can facilitate this, by disagreeing with Beinart’s opinion, yet inviting him to continue arguing for it.
      .
      In other words, I see J Street’s greatest strength and accomplishment as a bridge-builder. A friendly facilitator for change. That gives a forum to everyone from BDS supporters to congress lobbyists to engage in critical argument in such a way that it does not become a shouting match and pure exercise validating one’s own opinion further.
      .
      It’s not enough to make the case, we must actually get through to people. And I don’t think we can get through anyone without relating to them in a common language. That’s why translators like J Street is needed.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Moriel Rothman

      @Kung Fu Jew. I think that you are in part right, and I certainly acknowledge that I have shifted to the left. (“This year, I attended J Street’s third national conference as a Jerusalem-based activist who has shifted further left after spending more and more time in the Occupied Territories.”) But I think that I am not alone in noticing that J Street itself has shifted rightwards. This conference had less Palestinians, less Arabs, no conversation of BDS, less of the “radical left…” And September, I think, as compared to January 2011, in which J Street came out against a US Veto, I think is still the most disturbing example of J Street taking a position not because its based on our values, but rather because it will be seen well in the eyes of the mainstream (which is, on the Is-Pal issue, basically right wing).

      Reply to Comment
    11. Moriel Rothman

      @Joel,

      Thank you for your thoughtful response. Firstly, I agree with you- J Street should not have to choose between its lobbying role and its role as a grassroots organization based on left wing values. I wrote that “I am afraid that J Street is steering more towards the former, at the expense of the latter.” I do not want the latter to be forgotten, lost, washed away in the flow of DC politics. J Street absolutely should seek to pursue its political goals, but I just wanted to caution against doing so in ways that harm its potential to be a pluralistic left wing space.
      .
      As for the question of big tent, I only partially agree with you. I think J Street should be a space for extremely open debate- I frankly would be thrilled to see almost any right wing figure on a panel at a J Street conference- but I think that there is a difference between bringing someone like Olmert as a “opposing view” and bringing someone like Olmert as an honoree and “one of ours,” which was what J Street chose to do at this last conference.
      .
      I am all for bridge building, and I so deeply agree with you (and had the same experience) that J Street enables many to bring a more Left wing discourse into their communities, in a way that is less threatening for many mainstream Jews, than, say, +972. I have no problem with J Street speaking in the language of moderation, of talking about Zionist values and calling itself Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace. My only problems arise when J Street takes positions that I see as not only compromises, but as basically opposed to the values of much of its left wing membership, it’s decision to support the US Veto in September looming the largest, Olmert and the other smaller flaws of this recent conference coming in next.
      .
      I want to reiterate, in case this was not clear from this specific article, that I have such deep respect for what J Street is doing, and that this article was written from a place of loving concern, in hopes that the organization will take heed of criticism and perhaps curb its willingness to compromise on fundamental values, and away from the Left. I am certainly not saying that J Street should not be, or should stop trying to be a political force, just that perhaps we need to take a moment and consider whether some making decisions like supporting the veto or honoring Olmert may not harm our capacity to speak with clarity about what our values actually are.

      Reply to Comment