More than 2,000 American Jews attended the national J Street conference last weekend in DC, determined to do something to change the discourse within the Jewish community and affect American policy. I’ve waited a week to write about this because I wanted to gauge others’ reactions and sort out what I experienced at the conference.
Predictably, right-wing Jewish bloggers like David Horowitz and Jennifer Rubin objected when many attendees enthusiastically applauded vehement criticisms of the occupation and the Israeli government, depicting a cabal of malevolent Israel-haters who thought the Jewish state was solely responsible for scuttling the peace process with the Palestinians.
Indeed, there was no shortage of people who were angry at the plight of the Palestinians and Israel’s contributions to the current diplomatic impasse. But the very boisterous left wingers at the conference, people who were much more comfortable hanging out with radical Israeli human rights activists than with Kadima and Labor Party MKs, were not as numerous as media reports contend. Many attendees were more centrist, including savvy Democratic Party activists and donors, as well as the likes of Ken Bob, the President of Ameinu, who spoke out forcefully against BDS during a panel discussion.
That said, it is certainly true that the left wing of J Street is loud and energetic. And that creates a challenge for an organization that needs to appeal to at least some in the mainstream American Jewish community in order to achieve its political goal, which is to give the Obama Administration and Congress more leeway to disagree with Israel from time to time. Check out Bruce Levine’s comments to my previous post for the reactions of a liberal American Jew who clearly wanted to support J Street but has become alienated (See comments 40 and 41). J Street needs him, and needs to figure out a way to bring him back.
As the Forward’s Nathan Guttman puts it, “J Street faces a sometimes difficult balancing act in appealing to those in Washington and in the organized Jewish community while also meeting the expectations of the left-leaning activists who make up its base.”
James Besser asks, “Can J Street keep its core members happy while working to reassure members of Congress who may be inclined to support it that it won’t get them in political hot water?”
That is a very good question. But it isn’t the only question, and it might not be the most important one.
The activists on J Street’s left wing don’t pose a challenge only to the organization’s leaders. They, and the many Jews who agree with them, also pose a relatively new challenge to the mainstream, organized American Jewish community, which hasn’t a clue about how to deal with them.
One reason for J Street’s impressive growth has gone largely unnoticed. More and more American Jews who feel committed to Israel’s safety and survival are angry at Israel and are willing to say so. And they are willing to assert publicly, in no uncertain terms, that some Israeli behavior is just plain wrong. For quite some time, in all kinds of American Jewish settings, it has been perfectly acceptable to claim that Israel’s settlement policies jeopardize its security or its future as a Jewish democracy. But to say that Israel and Israelis sometimes violate moral and ethical values is quite different, and still quite daring.
More and more human rights organizations in Israel are doing so. Their values are shared by a broad swath of American Jews who are most definitely not anti-Zionists or haters of Israel. They infuriate the far left as well as the far right. They are emotionally connected to the Jewish state and care about its well-being. My impression is that the vast majority of them understand that the current situation is not all Israel’s fault, and that Palestinians and their leaders are also culpable. But they no longer want to keep their mouths shut about what is rotten in the Palestinian territories, such as the abuses by Israeli soldiers reported by Breaking the Silence, the collective deprivations caused by the seige of Gaza, the rousting of Palestinians out of their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem.
What are American synagogues and traditional Jewish community groups going to do about these people? These institutions have had a hard enough time giving podiums to official representatives from J Street and Americans for Peace Now, who have not been allowed to speak in some synagogues and shouted down in others. Now the institutions are faced with an even tougher challenge. What are they going to do about all the unofficial, spirited grassroots activists who insist that they are pro-Israel, who get fired up and angered by human rights abuses, and who are motivated to speak out mainly because Israel is becoming a country that does not conform to their core values, their decidedly Jewish values? Will any part of the American Jewish mainstream even try to find a place for them in the communal tent? Or will the Jewish establishment just ignore them, try to wish them away?
Right now, in my community, except in a small minority of synagogues and meetings of left-leaning American Jewish groups, one is simply not allowed to talk about the moral cost of ruling over another people. If that taboo is not broken, an entire generation of young, articulate people who should have a place somewhere in the traditional Jewish community will look elsewhere for a home.
I have a recurring, probably crazy dream: somehow, in the forums of the organized Jewish world, at least in many more Reform and Conservative synagogues, some room will be made for a vocabulary of right and wrong when discussion turns to the occupation. A more inclusive protocol will let into the conversation the conference attendees–many of them college kids–who eagerly applauded when Daniel Levy told them, “You can’t be a friend of Arab freedom and be on the wrong side of Palestinian freedom.” Those very same people also lobbied Congress for aid to Israel (and the Palestinian Authority). Watch and listen to the testimonies of conference attendees on this web site. All of them want to help Israel. Call them misguided if you want, but make room for them!