J Street’s third national conference, ”Making History,” took place in March in Washington, D.C., attracting more than 2,500 participants, of which 650 were students from 125 schools.
As a longtime supporter of J Street, feeling that it is the only viable pro-Israel lobby advocating for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I headed to that conference, wondering about the mood of the speakers and the participants.
I’ve lived through the founding of Israel and its crises — many of those years living in Israel — and I have never been more concerned for its future.
Fortunately, I found a diversity of opinions regarding how best to work with our Jewish homeland, and almost all the attendees were full of hope for our cause and for Israel, believing it still can be a country of democracy, justice and peace.
Affirming that in order to be pro-Israel one must be pro-peace and pro-justice, we committed ourselves to letting our local and national leadership know that being pro-Israel doesn’t mean just talking about war and terrorism.
As the J Street vision statement reads, “we call on the U.S. government to invest all possible resources to help Israelis and Palestinians create a peaceful and secure future for them both and we call out those opportunistic politicians who would jeopardize Israel’s future for their own political ends. … We believe we serve Israel best when we create the space for an open conversation about its future in our community.”
Of course, there were many important speakers including Jewish Americans, Israelis, Palestinians and American officials.
Novelist and activist Amos Oz stated that no one could tell any individual how to express one’s Zionism. He also explained that the nationalism of the Palestinians and Israelis “represented two rights and even sometimes two wrongs”; and it was a clash that needed an ending.
“We need a fair and painful divorce,” he said.
Mustafa Barghouti, founder of the Palestinian National Initiative, spoke about the critical need to solve the situation of the illegal occupation in the West Bank and create a society without racism. He emphasized passive resistance, stating how he was the major advocate to the Palestinian factions. He expressed concern that we were close to having only the one state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River that extremists favor.
Daniel Kurtzer, a former American ambassador to Israel, said that diplomats using the term “process” and worrying about who sat where, and in what room allowed the status quo to remain intact. Kurtzer discussed parameters and remedies.
On the issue of human rights, Israelis as Avishai Braverman, member of the Labor Party; Michael Biton, mayor of Yerucham; and Stav Shaffir, leader of the Israeli Social Protest Movement, reminded me of the words of the Orthodox Rabbi Moshe Halbertal: “Human beings are as varied as they are numerous; the descendants of created man differ from one another quite clearly. The Mishnaic development of the Creation story crystalizes the idea of humanity by establishing the infinite value of individuals, their equality and their diversity.”
Those remarks spoke directly to the words in the Israeli Declaration of Independence.
Finally, Anthony Blinken, national security advisor for Vice President Biden, correctly pointed out how President Obama has given Israel more military support than any other American President.
Israeli President Shimon Peres said a peaceful solution would create a regional economic cooperation.
On the last day, 800 conference participants made 225 visits to members of Congress. Jeremy Ben-Ami, the founder and president of J Street, said that two years ago most of the people in Congress would not let us into their offices; this year, many members have signed our letter. That letter, referred to as the “Dear Colleague Cohen-Connolly-Yarmouth letter,” expressed strong support for “active American leadership toward achieving a two-state resolution to the Israeli Palestinian and Israeli Arab conflicts.” As Ben-Ami said in a recent interview, “one congressional office at a time.”
Recently, I spoke with a young Jewish community leader who had been to a different Jewish national conference. Her single point was that she was tired of the words expressed there — war and terrorism. Hopefully, she can soon say clearly the words Jewish democracy, justice and peace.
(Ivan C. Frank lives in Squirrel Hill.)