J Street program addresses Jerusalem, Jewish identity

J Street program addresses Jerusalem, Jewish identity

The sign taped to the door of Room B at the Squirrel Hill branch of Carnegie Library Sunday read, “Jerusalem: Can one city serve as capital to both Israel & the future Palestinian state?”

Inside, roughly 30 people debated the best means for dividing Jerusalem.

The program, coordinated by J Street Pittsburgh, was the first in a series of gatherings dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.  

Participants at Sunday’s meeting were presented handouts and shown a segmented portion of “Is Peace Possible?”  The four-part video is a collaborative project from The Atlantic and the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace.  

Following the video, participants were encouraged to break into groups and discuss their reactions; afterward, individuals were asked to publicly share what had been discussed.  

Eileen Kraus-Dobratz, who led most of the discussion, cited a recent poll that claimed the majority of Israelis and Palestinians favor a two-state solution. She said the poll also revealed that each side believes the other doesn’t share that desire.  

Nitsa Bucritz Ford followed. “You can believe that the other side wants peace,” she said, “but would you want to take the risk and be under their gun if their leaders are not holding on to their promise?”  

Other participants piggybacked on these comments, while offering opinions on sanctions, terrorism and tourism.

As the discussion continued, the topic drifted from dividing Jerusalem to identifying as a Jew.  After one participant suggested Jews like living in ghettos because ghettos provide easier means for establishing identities, Sally Newman proudly reported that neither she nor her husband belong to any Jewish organizations, yet maintain a Jewish identity.

“I have never denied my Jewishness, but I don’t think I have to belong to a Jewish organization that’s focused exclusively on Jews in order to demonstrate what a Jewish humanitarian is, and that’s how I see myself.”

Kraus-Dobratz steered the conversation back to dividing Jerusalem, and eventually concluded the meeting by reminding participants of upcoming events. But she later addressed the rift among participants regarding identity.

“I think that when we talk about Israel, if you’re an American Jewish person, your identity is so tied up in Israel,” she said. “So it’s only natural that when you’re talking about Israel and real life issues for Israel, your own identity is part of that.”

Nancy Bernstein, a member of J Street’s national board of directors, added, “I think that these kinds of conversations bring up a lot of issues for people.”  

While Sunday’s program required participants to enter a door with a sign questioning Jerusalem’s future, many ultimately exited having investigated their own identities.  

“It’s a great opportunity for people to look at the connections between their Jewish identity and these issues, Bernstein said. “I think it’s very connected.”

J Street Pittsburgh, co-chaired by Bernstein and Malke Frank, is the local arm of the national nonprofit organization, which calls itself “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans.”  Established in 2008, it has 180,000 online supporters, 8,000 students and 700 National rabbinic cabinet leaders.

At J Street’s 2013 conference, 2,800 people attended, including several Pittsburghers.

Greg Molinda, who attended the conference, traveled 40 minutes from South Fayette Township to Squirrel Hill for Sunday’s event.  Having previously participated in several events with J Street Pittsburgh, he appreciates the organization’s existence.  

“I think it’s a great venue for guys like me who have no logistical power, only an interest,” he said.  

In other settings, “if you speak against Israeli policy then somehow you’re anti-Semitic, which is not true,” Molinda explained. “In my own personal situation I am interested and I am married to a Jew, so I don’t think I am anti-Semitic.

(Adam Reinherz can be reached at adamr@thejewishchronicle.net.)

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