Nancy Bernstein and Ronnie Cook Zuhlke went West to progress East. For two intensive days, the Pittsburghers attended the J Street National Summit and Annual Gala. Located in San Francisco, the event welcomed several hundred attendees committed to the organization’s “pro-Israel pro-peace” platform.
“There were plenaries, breakout sessions and a gala, all the factors of a national conference but a little smaller,” said Bernstein.
The event featured marquee speakers, beginning with an opening-night roster of Dr. Salam Fayyad, former prime minister of the Palestinian Authority; Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt; and Gabriela Shalev, former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations. The trio led a session titled, “Leading to Peace: An Inside View of Mideast Diplomacy.”
According to Bernstein, that session, which was open to the public and held at Congregation Emanu El, welcomed more than 750 people.
Smaller gatherings occurred throughout the event’s remainder. While principally focusing upon J Street’s next steps in the wake of its recent failed push to gain membership in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and the American Jewish community’s responsibilities toward Israel, the event featured sessions including, “What Are Israelis Thinking?” “Women, Peace and Security: The Critical Role of Women in Advancing a Two-State Solution,” and “Bringing it Home: How to Get Involved with J Street in Your Community.”
For Bernstein, attendance at the event enabled involvement in a national conversation. Beyond serving as co-chair of J Street’s Pittsburgh chapter, Bernstein is also a member of J Street’s national board and Women’s Leadership Forum. The latter group encourages women’s leadership and provides education on women’s role in peace making and negotiations.
Bernstein admitted that the event was “two intensive days.” Zuhlke added, “The summit was very constructive and had a diversity of opinions.” Heading many of the sessions were national figures, including congressmen, CEOs, rabbis and academicians. Knesset member Merav Michaeli of the Labor Party also addressed participants.
Upon returning to Pittsburgh, Bernstein and Zuhlke will report back to their local chapter on several issues. Included among those is the ongoing boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) against Israel.
“There was a discussion of BDS, and J Street is not going that way,” said Bernstein.
Of the Conference of Presidents’ vote, Bernstein said that the question of who speaks for the Jewish community was raised during a session titled “Beyond the Tent: What’s the American Jewish Community’s Responsibility Toward Israel’s Future?”
“While J Street was rejected, there was major support for J Street from other organizations,” noted Bernstein. “The vote said more about the Conference of Presidents than it said about J Street.”
Apart from those issues, Bernstein said that attendees discussed the role of the recent kidnappings of three Israeli teenagers and their effect on the peace process. Of the kidnappings, Bernstein stated, “We’re all very worried and concerned for the families. It’s a terrible thing.” Looking forward, Bernstein said, “Even if there’s a peace agreement, there will always be terrorism and violence, but they can’t be used to stop progress toward peace.”
For Bernstein and Zuhlke, there were two major takeaways from the event: reacting to the stalled peace talks and increased participation in the peace process.
Regarding the former, Bernstein stated, “We can’t give up, there’s plenty to work on. The two-state solution is a fundamental need.”
Zuhlke added, “I think that the work continues and that issues are still on the table.”
“The U.S. continues to be a major player in building two states for two people, but U.S. leadership isn’t sufficient,” Bernstein charged. “There has to be a will on the part of the parties to make peace.”
(Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)