The Israeli-Palestinian issue is generally frustrating. On that I think we all agree. Yet I, and many of my peers, find that frustration to be rooted in a very particular problem.
Peter Beinart, who will be speaking Thursday, March 17, 7 p.m., at Rodef Shalom Congregation, aptly defined this source of frustration in his now infamous article on young American Jews. As he wrote, the Jewish establishment has indeed spent decades asking American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and we, our community’s future, have been mistakenly left to feel as if our profound passion and devotion to Israel is irreconcilable with our belief in open debate and human rights. Frustrating is putting it mildly.
So, it was much to my joy that I saw that disenchantment finally meet its match at the national J Street conference in Washington, D.C., just three weeks ago. Put very simply, the conference was inspirational. As a student, my experience began on Friday night with a shabbaton for student leadership. It was a powerful Shabbat, characterized by open, honest discussion about our connections to Israel and investment in the greater Jewish community.
That powerful sense of promise was magnified immensely as the conference itself began, honoring three leaders who “give voice to our values”: Peter Beinart, Sheikh Jarrah leader Sara Benninga, and physician and founder of the Daughters for Life Foundation Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish. During the next two days, I joined more than 2,000 participants, including 500 students from 128 universities, nearly 60 members of Congress, and five Knesset members for a series of panel discussions and plenary sessions intended to create a true space for constructive discourse.
These names and numbers are indeed impressive for an organization that is only three years old, and the words spoken during those discussions were often mesmerizing. And yet, one of the most inspirational parts of my experience occurred beyond the walls of the packed sessions, on a more personal level.
In between the scheduled events, the attendees stood in the hallways doing what Jews are wont do to — we schmoozed. But this wasn’t just ordinary schmoozing; it was a genuine discussion of the passion and the facts, of the emotion and the evidence that are all fully a part of the impossibly complex conflict.
These conversations became a venue for a real dialogue inclusive of the inevitable differences in personal opinion. Yes, there are differences in opinion among American Jews, and it is these differences that made the discussions amongst attendees so inspirational. They were differences dealt with not as conflict, but as conversation.
I had the great privilege of speaking on a panel that discussed the import of this kind of conversation. Titled, “The Campus Challenge: Changing the Conversation in an Environment of Extreme Polarization,” the panel focused on creating a space on campus for the wide range of exposure, experience and opinions within the Jewish community. As a member of Princeton Hillel’s board of directors, I am deeply invested in the progress of my local community and firmly believe that, on both a local and national level, as individuals and as an organization, J Street demonstrates that we do not compromise our beliefs by including others in this conversation.
This balance was struck at the conference by two major, common tenets underlying these discussions. As I witnessed, we are able to broaden our tent because, as put by J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami in his opening remarks, “We are passionately and unapologetically pro-Israel [and] we believe that the future of Israel depends on achieving a two-state resolution to the conflict with the Palestinian people.” This core belief is paired with the understanding that, as American Jews, our connection to Israel is our connection to the conflict, and, thus, we have a unique role to play — in standing for an American foreign policy that reflects these tenets, and an Israel that lives up to the best of these traditions.
A central pro-Israel, pro-peace flag encircled by a united, and still diverse, movement — this was the model of dialogue that took place at the national conference, and it must be the model. The inspirational power of the conference came from seeing “the talk” made into “the walk.” That weekend demonstrated to all of us in attendance that disenchantment has no place — and, particularly to young Jews such as me, that a space exists for us to have these passionate and necessary conversations within the context of our deep commitment to Israel. By pairing passion with promise, we have made tangible progress toward the kind of dialogue that will lead to real peace and security for Israel and the entire region.
(Aliyah Donsky of Pittsburgh is a freshman at Princeton University.)