I’m back from the national J Street Conference in DC and its been a whirlwind. There’s so much to tell, but I’m not sure I can do it any better than the myriad of bloggers who have already weighed in. For your reading pleasure, I recommend the missives from the good folks at Jewschool and the Velveteen Rabbi’s thorough session transcriptions. Also worthwhile: Adam Horowitz’s insightful piece in Mondoweiss and Richard Silverstein at Tikun Olam. Wade through all of those and you can consider yourself an honorary conference participant.
My proverbial two cents:
There is no denying that this was a milestone event for the American Jewish left. In a breathtakingly short amount of time, Jeremy Ben-Ami and his cohorts have rallied the “Pro- Israel, Pro-Peace” troops in an undeniably impressive show of force. For years, this message has been languishing in the hands of too many small groups that did little but wring their hands at the institutional strength of AIPAC. The American Jewish left is clearly ready to play with the big boys now.
Even before the conference began, however, it became obvious that it would not be a simple matter to gather the various progressive Jewish factions under a single tent. I was personally disappointed when J Street ominously bowed to pressure from the right wing press and rescinded its invitation to poets Kevin Coval and Josh Healy, who were scheduled to perform at the conference.
Now that the conference is over, it’s even clearer to me that this will be J Street’s greatest challenge: can it be a “big Israel tent” for the progressive Jewish community as well as a political lobbying force that must necessarily hew closely to its two-state solution talking points?
The JTA viewed this challenge in largely generational terms:
Older conference goers appeared to be virtually unanimous in expressing support for a two-state solution, calling themselves Zionists and saying that while they back more U.S. pressure on the parties, they reject cutting aid to Israel if it does not accede to U.S. demands.
But a number of delegates under 40, especially college students and recent graduates, appeared to be much more equivocal on the idea of two states for two peoples. Some were hesitant about identifying as Zionists, and some were open to the idea of making U.S. aid to Israel conditional on progress in the peace process.
Whether this divide is strictly generational or not, I can attest that it was clearly apparent throughout the conference. While virtually everyone I spoke to agreed that the conference was remarkable and often inspiring, I also heard widespread frustration that the content of most of the sessions revealed nothing particularly new.
Over the course of the three days, we repeatedly heard professions of love for Israel, concern over the endangered “Jewishness” of the Jewish state, and expert analysis of the peace process. But for many in the crowd, it seemed that the conference was most galvanizing during the relatively rare and unscripted moments when presenters and participants delved more deeply into the inherent injustice of the situation on the ground.
Indeed, this dynamic was apparent from the very beginning of the conference. During Jeremy B-A’s opening words, for instance, it was lost on no one that the only applause he received was when he acknowledged the suffering of Palestinian children. This kind of energy played out in notable ways over and over again. I can’t help but wonder if by pitching a wide tent, J Street has unwittingly opened a Pandora’s Box that will not easily be closed back up.
For me, the most unabashedly diverse and honest sharing of ideas occurred during the “bloggers lunch.” Interestingly enough the session was not officially sponsored by J Street – and given the free-wheeling nature of the opinions expressed it was to their credit that they allowed it to take place at all. (In a much-discussed Atlantic interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, Jeremy B-A defended his decision thus: “Come on Jeffrey, I’m letting them have a room for lunch.”)
Therein lies J Street’s genius – and its challenge.