J Street conference rallies youth, falls short on effectively moving the conversation forward

Joe Biden, then serving as vice president, speaks at the 2013 J Street conference. Credit: J Street via Facebook.
Joe Biden, then serving as vice president, speaks at the 2013 J Street conference. Credit: J Street via Facebook.

The J Street policy conference, “Our Time To Lead,” ran this year from Sept. 28 through Oct. 1. With 2,800 participants—900 students—it was a sea of turquoise and a rush of chants, “Two states. Two states.”

Sometimes more like a football game than a foreign policy conference, the youthful energy at the conference was a testament to the grassroots and community-building work the organization has done on college campuses through its J Street U program.

“We have over 900 students who have chosen to engage,” said Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen during a Monday evening cocktail reception. The leader of J Street U at Princeton, Cohen brought 24 others with him to Washington. He said the students involved with J Street U feel they are moving the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” platform forward, a platform he equated to the civil rights and women’s rights movements.

And while certainly the students had an air of dedication surrounding them, there was also an atmosphere much like one would expect at a BBYO or United Synagogue Youth convention: kids wearing logoed T- shirts, snapping photos of their smiling faces and “checking in” on Facebook, tweeting words of inspiration, peace and love.

But the loud cheering was just that—cheering. Rah-rah messages brought little diversity or depth to the J Street sessions, of which there were roughly 25. For the training sessions, as the conference coined them, the media was not allowed to attend.

In each session, the message was the one to be expected.

“Those who do not support a two-state solution… those who think belonging to the Chosen People gives you the right to discriminate against non-Jews, they are the real dangerous anti-Zionists,” bellowed Israeli Knesset member Zahava Gal-On (Meretz) ahead of Vice President Joe Biden’s talk on Monday, Sept. 30.

“In moments of crisis, we have a duty to make change,” said Dror Moreh, director of the documentary “The Gatekeepers,” during the opening plenary.

“To say we’re doing everything we can to protect Palestinian lives is a lie,” said Avner Gvaryahu of Breaking the Silence during a session entitled “The Impact of Human Rights Organizations on Israeli Politics.”

One session, “Iran: A New Chance for Diplomacy,” had two speakers sitting on a panel from the same organization.

There was little more.

The vibe in the hallways—and in dialogues during free time and receptions—was that the conference lacked necessary organization and background, something that many compared with the sophisticated AIPAC annual conferences, which draw upward of 10,000 people.

“Where were the Israel 101s and 102s you see at AIPAC for the inspired who need the background to effectively take a stance?” was a question older participants and other media asked more than once.

“I am often most impressed by AIPAC’s organization,” said Rabbi Eric Solomon, who leads a congregation in North Carolina, a state in which there are approximately 25,000 Jews. He noted that while many members of Conservative congregations nationally shy away from active participation in J Street politics, his congregants have warmed to the idea of their rabbi’s participation. He said the shul honors an active and concerned dialogue about the Jewish state and that they like that “I care and that I am passionate about Israel.”

Rabbi Solomon tries to attend both the AIPAC and the J Street conferences and believes the two organizations can be complementary. “Before the public goes to vote, it has to be educated as to the realities of the peace process,” said Anat Saragusti of B’Tselem USA during the session “Can the People Bring Peace?” This need for greater education became gruesomely apparent when sessions opened up for questions. Though there were those in the audience who thoughtfully quizzed the speakers, there were many others who struggled to formulate on the subject—or even rooted in reality—questions.

In “The View from the Palestinian Street,” one participant stood up and asked a panelist how difficult it is to have the majority of Palestinian leaders exiled from the West Bank and cited Yasser Arafat’s 2003 death in a Paris hospital as an example. The panelist who was asked to respond, Nidal Foqaha of the Palestinian Peace Coalition, was left speechless. Ultimately he told the questioner he was sorry but he could not answer, as the facts were all wrong; although there are a handful of Hamas leaders who still live outside of Gaza, top Palestinian Authority dignitaries live in the West Bank. Arafat was not exiled from Ramallah at the time of his death.

‘The Machinery Is You’

There was only one session devoted to Iran—at least, though, there was one. Hamas was referred to as weakened and there was little talk—if any—as to whether the terrorist organization could pose an obstacle to peace.

In fact, for a conference focused on moving forward with peace negotiations, there was little talk about the actual status of the negotiations—although Ambassador Martin Sean Indyk did address that question during his keynote address at the Monday night gala. More focus was put on how external influencers can sway the peace process and what movers and shakers—and just average people—can do to move toward two states for two people. There was also talk about how media, film and even human rights organizations impact Israeli and Palestinians’ understanding of what’s happening at the negotiation table.

During the session “After the Credits Roll: Can films change the conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?” all three speakers—Ronit Avni, founder and executive di- rector of Just Vision; Isaac Zablocki, director of the Israel Film Center and Other Israel Film Festival; and Moreh of “The Gatekeepers”—said their experience with film helped them see “the other side” of the conflict and learn the other’s story.

Bassam Aramin, director of international relations for The Parents Circle, said he was impacted by film while serving time in a Palestinian prison. During the session about sentiment on the Palestinian street, he said he watched a film on the Holocaust while in prison, out of revenge for his lockup, so he could laugh at the Jewish people’s pain. But midway through the film, he found himself crying.

“I cannot imagine your fear,” he said, though he noted that he, too has suffered. He says he lost his daughter to the conflict. He claims she was shot by an Israeli soldier only several feet from her school.

The biggest game-changer (which was obvious at a conference called “Our Time to Lead”) is the people, said nearly all who spoke in larger forums. In his opening remarks at the Monday gala, J Street head Jeremy Ben-Ami said, “The machinery is you.”

Congresswoman and minority leader of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi told the crowd, “It is indeed our time to lead. In fact, it is long overdue.”

America The Great?

The elephant in the room—or at least a cause for much debate—was the true role (or the ability to have an impact) of America in the peace negotiations. Biden talked much about the work U.S. President Barack Obama has done for Israel and for the peace process.

“No president has done more for the security of Israel than President Barack Obama,” he told a crowd that waited upward of two hours for him to speak. “Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu… publicly thanked the president for insisting on moving forward.”

The crowd cheered loudly for those statements.

So did many of the panelists.

Secretary General of the Arab League Hesham Yousef said he looks to the U.S. to decide its role in the “important” Middle East region. He said a breakthrough will not be made without U.S. intervention.

Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, said the Mideast is a place that needs the U.S. to maintain order.

Some panel speakers, however, were less confident in America’s role. MK Meir Sheetrit of Israel’s Hatnuah Party said during “UN-ilateralism?” that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “must be solved between Israel and the Palestinians, not by the U.N. or the U.S. With all my heart, I believe we must solve it ourselves.”

Even Biden noted, “We cannot want peace in their country more than they do.” Sheetrit’s statement came just one day before a poll was released by the Palestine Center for Public Opinion, which stated that 68 percent of Palestinians believe that the intervention of the United States in the policies of the Middle East harms stability in the region. Also, that poll noted that only 6.2 percent of Palestinians “strongly believe” negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians will result in peace.

One striking absence at the conference was that of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, who recently concluded his term. Oren did send a letter, which was handed out in folders to conference participants. But while the letter noted in but one-and-a-half paragraphs that the U.S. and Israel have “worked tirelessly for peace,” there was no mention of J Street, its policies or the conference. In fact, the letter was addressed “Dear Friends.”

Similarly, when Oren offered a two-minute video clip at the gala dinner, there was an absence of the name of the sponsoring organization or the work that it does. Instead, the video focused on the effort that Netanyahu has made toward security and peace and strongly reiterated that Israel is a democracy, and the choices being made are by people elected to lead and in the name of popular Israeli opinion.

There was less applause for Oren.

Maayan Jaffe is editor-in-chief of the Baltimore Jewish Times, where this story first appeared.

With additional reporting from Heather Norris, Meredith Jacobs, David Holzel, and Eric Hal Schwartz.

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