Leading an Ameinu delegation, I travelled to our nation’s capital last week for the first J Street conference. My first impression at the Grand Hyatt was to become one of the main stories of the event. The place was mobbed, with 1,000 pre-registered participants joined by 500 walk-ups, creating a human traffic jam in the conference lobby. Due to an attractive, content-filled conference schedule, meeting rooms were packed and more often than not, I found myself sitting on the floor or leaning against a wall, listening to speakers. While creating a little discomfort, the surprising numbers lent credence to the sentiment that there is an appetite for J Street in the American Jewish community.
There has been quite a bit of news coverage on the event; you can search for “J Street” on the Forward website or other news outlets to read reports. I am going to share some personal impressions, triggered by quotes from speakers at the conference.
“You can be sure this administration will be represented at all future conferences.”
–General James Jones, White House National Security Adviser
For a young organization trying to establish legitimacy, it is a shot in the arm when the Obama administration sends a senior representative who greets the inaugural conference so enthusiastically. It is hard not to contrast this stance with the decision by the Israeli government to turn down the invitation to have its ambassador Michael Oren address the gathering. It would behoove the government of Israel to engage with J Street. I realize that J Street’s positions are not completely in synch with the current Israeli government but that is precisely the reason for its representatives to develop a relationship. Beyond the important policy issues at hand, the State of Israel has always viewed itself as the center for all of the Jewish people, not just those who agree with government policy at any given time. Boycotting the conference sends the wrong message to this community of people.
“If you fear that you will wake up in two, three, or four years and confront a radical Iranian state brandishing nuclear bombs, why do you not fear that you will wake up in two, three, or four years and confront an emerging consensus…that a two-state solution must give way to a one-state solution?”
–Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union of Reform Judaism
Much has been made of Rabbi Yoffie’s past criticism of J Street and even the scattering of boos he received at the conference when he suggested that Judge Richard Goldstone should be “ashamed of himself” for leading a UN Human Rights Council investigative panel on the war in Gaza. As Rabbi Yoffie told me after the speech, he was booed for supporting gay rights when he spoke at the late Reverend Jerry Falwell’s college, so it goes with the territory. That aside, it is clear from the statement above that J Street and Rabbi Yoffie agree on a great deal. Several Israeli speakers, including Kadima Council chair Hiam Ramon and former Labor MK and head of the Shin Bet Ami Ayalon, warned the attendees that time is not on Israel’s side. Ramon explained that on September 1 when the Israeli school year began, there were more Palestinian 8th graders between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River than Jewish students. He stressed over and over that this is a very serious demographic situation that can only be solved by a two state solution. For his part, Ayalon stressed that “In a few years it will be too late. There won’t be international political support for a peace process.”
“I am not only Jewish and an Israeli but also a Zionist. I don’t have a Plan B.”
–Gadi Baltiansky, Director General, Geneva Initiative
At sessions throughout the conference, occasionally someone would ask a panelist whether is it time to give up on the dream of a two state solution and move on to “Plan B,” which was described as one democratic state for Jews and Palestinians alike. This is what prompted Gadi Baltiansky to respond that he has no Plan B and I believe it is important for J Street to continue to state clearly that it sees no alternative to a two state solution as well. As Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami told Atlantic columnist Jeffry Goldberg, “one state is not a solution, one state is dissolution, a nightmare for the Jewish people.” Will Jews to the left of J Street be upset by this and other positions taken by the organization? Probably, and that is fine with me. It is important and healthy to dialogue with others with whom you disagree, both to be inclusive and to perhaps convince them. However, there can be only one organizational policy and it is currently clear where J Street stands, despite attempts from the right to muddy the waters.
“It looks more like JDate than J Street here.”
–Shula Bahat, Beit Hatfutsot of America
While Shula was joking as she spoke on the panel I chaired, her point was on target. Many conferences I attend in the Jewish community have student contingents, and this one featured active participation from J Street U, the former Union of Progressive Zionists co-founded by Ameinu. However, the more impressive element at the conference was the large group of people from their late twenties into their forties. That demographic is often absent and their presence sparked discussions about the generational differences between people who grew up under the influence of the Six Day War and those much younger who have only known an Israel as a regional military superpower and an occupier of the Palestinian territories. In a different session, panelist Ezra Klein of the Washington Post commented that, “we spend a lot of time talking about talking about Israel,” suggesting that policing of the Jewish debate is an artifact of a different time when Jews were in a different situation in America. I am going to address this topic in more depth in a future column.
My final thought for now is sharing some “Ameinu pride.” At the opening plenum a short introductory film about the J Street premise was shown to the attendees. Much to my surprise and enjoyment, two of the handful of “talking heads” in the film were honorees at our upcoming gala event in NY, Leonard Fein and Rabbi Esther Lederman. If you haven’t already reserved your place at our November 14 event when we celebrate 75 years of Habonim and honor Leonard, Esther and David Twersky, please do so now.