It was Palestinian suffering that got me engaged with Israel and concerned about its future.
I had attended Habonim camp and had grown up in an ardently Labor Zionist household. But when I was in my twenties, I didnâ€™t have much to do with Israel until the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Lebanon, in the Fall of 1982. Initially, I was appalled by Israeli officials’ denial of any responsibility. But my fury turned into something more constructive when I learned about a massive Peace Now rally, where hundreds of thousands of Israelis demanded that their government investigate the extent of Israel’s culpability and fire Defense Minister Ariel Sharon.
I began to investigate Peace Now and the Israeli left, to explore the nuances and complexities of The Situation, to participate in debates and conversations about the PLO and territorial compromise. I joined a group called Friends of Peace Now (the precursor to Americans for Peace Now). I became committed, in a way I had never been before, to the survival of a Jewish democratic state next to a Palestinian state. No doubt that will be unfortunate news to those who believe nothing about Israel is worth preserving, but itâ€™s the news that’s fit to print.
This journey (described in a bit more detail in my book) was hardly unique. Over the years, Iâ€™ve seen others arrive at the doorstep of groups like Americans for Peace Now because they were mainly concerned about human rights and social justice. Initially, they didnâ€™t feel many connections to Israel. Eventually, by aligning themselves with likeminded progressives in the Jewish state, they learned to see the world through the eyes of Israelis as well as Palestinians. And they developed ties to Israel that had not existed before.
J Street did not invent this process. But it has the potential to encourage it on a large scale, based on what was happening to the college students and recent grads who flocked to its just-completed, already-legendary conference in Washington. A small number of them were one-state advocates. Some were committed, left-leaning Zionists. My impression was that many of them were just trying to figure out what to think and how to feel, searching for ways to identify with a Jewish state and society that, to their peers, is a toxic and evil empire.
â€œI get inspired by the idea of a place where Jews are in the majority,â€ said a young man during the small-group discussion that followed the first plenary session. But he didnâ€™t know whether â€œitâ€™s possible to do that without oppressing another people.â€ I asked random young people what they were getting out of the conference. One said she had come because â€œprogressive peopleâ€ she knew were in the Palestinian solidarity movement and â€œI just kind of wanted to check out the liberal Jews, see what they were about for myself.â€
Jim Besser writes of the â€œstudent faction that embarrassed J Street leadership with a debate about minimizing the use of the phrase â€œpro-Israelâ€ in campus activism.â€ (By the way, it is not true that â€œpro-Israelâ€ was deleted from the official description or platform of “J Street University,” as was reported in the
Jerusalem Post and then gleefully picked up in the vengeful right wing blogosphere. Here is an official statement that clears this up).
I donâ€™t know if any of these young people will ever pass the â€œpro-Israelâ€ litmus test that is imposed by the Jewish establishment. But there is a good chance that many of them will begin to swim in the waters of Israeli politics, understand the complexities of The Situation, then find themselves arguing vociferously with both the Israel-right-or-wrong types and the lefties who hate all things Israeli. In other words, they will join or stay involved with the Jewish community. That is a good thing. I, for one, want this extraordinary, ongoing experiment called the â€œJewish peopleâ€ to succeed.
In a post decrying the aforementioned, false report about J Street University, Michael Goldfarb wrote the following, astonishing sentence: â€œJ Street is a left-wing group that supports social justice in occupied Palestine and a bunch of other dopey progressive ideas about the Middle East.â€ It is those “dopey” ideas that have a chance to salvage an entire generation of Jews, as long as J Street and its fellow travellers continue the kind of inclusive community-building that began at its conference.