During this week’s first J Street conference in Washington DC — a US-based, “pro-Israel and pro-peace” Israel lobby group that aims to widen the debate over the Middle East — an older woman stood up in a session titled “What does it mean to be pro-Israel?” and said: “I have the right to speak out when my tax dollars are backing Israel.” She argued that Jews have a responsibility to shape American policy toward the region, especially when the Jewish state occupies the Palestinians with Washington’s approval.
In many ways J Street’s conference was a watershed moment. The group’s aims are conventional — a two-state solution and establishment of “Jewish, democratic state” alongside a viable Palestinian nation — but the wide variety of (mostly Jewish) attendees were not content to simply accept strict boundaries of debate. Zionists, students, pensioners, 1948 Jewish fighters, anti-Zionists and Nazi hunters congregated — more than 1500 people showed up — desperate to engage the key issues of the age.
I arrived a cynic but left a sceptic. The usual suspects abused J Street before the event, during the event and after the event. For these Zionist groups, blind devotion to Israel is the only acceptable way forward. It’s clear, however, that many young Jews with whom I conversed didn’t accept an unquestioning Judaism. They knew about the Gaza war and felt uncomfortable about it. They had spent some time in the West Bank and seen IDF soldiers abusing Palestinian children. They’d watched rampaging Jewish settlers attack Arabs. Real dissent was whispered every day, a post-Zionism was discussed, a boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel was analysed and a one-state solution was put on the table. J Street endorsed none of these ideas, however, although cheers were constantly heard from the crowd when the dignity of Palestinians was stated and accepted.
During an unofficial blogger’s panel, attended by writer Max Blumenthal and blogger Philip Weiss, we discussed the ideas J Street didn’t want in its official program. Jewish identity, a constantly evolving beast that often remains mired in Zionist myths, is in need of re-tuning. J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami told me that he was all too aware that a growing number of young Jews were turning away from their religion and Israel, inter-marriage and disgust with Israeli policies leading to a 21st-century multiculturalism that leaves the Middle East in the hands of extremists and the most dedicated.
Historically, that has largely been hardline Zionists, settlers and Palestinian rejectionists. Although I fundamentally disagree with Ben-Ami’s proscriptions — his recent interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg was a sad reflection of what mainstream Jews supposedly need to say to please gate-keeper Zionists — J Street’s conference was a relatively wide-tent socially, if not politically. It’s unimaginable that AIPAC’s annual conference would tolerate (or even attract) participants who wanted to debate a post-Zionist Israel. Former AIPAC head Neal Sher told me that the real test for J Street was translating the undeniable passion and energy this week into real political power, something AIPAC has perfected to a fine art.
The question remains: what are the boundaries of America debate over Israel and Palestine and who sets the limits? For many at J Street, nothing should be off the table. Ever.
Even during the keynote speech delivered by Barack Obama’s national security adviser, Jim Jones — a largely sterile effort designed to show Washington’s dedication to the Jewish state while mentioning Palestinians almost in passing — the word Gaza was uttered, albeit briefly. Occupation was condemned. Illegal settlements were hammered. Whether Obama has the will or interest to achieve any kind of negotiated settlement in the Middle East is highly doubtful but Jones at least acknowledged the importance of alternative Jewish views.
J Street officials expressed fear that Obama was the last, great hope to resolve the Israel/Palestine conflict and provided a platform for those who argued about the “demographic threat” (more Arabs than Jews in the land of Israel and Palestine, something happening as we speak). There is something fundamentally racist about calmly analysing the higher Arab birth-rate threatening to swamp Jewish lives. Imagine if white Australian parents worried about Aboriginal children “threatening” the purity of their children.
The ability of some Zionists to want a majority Jewish state is an inherent contradiction in the modern world; enjoy multiculturalism and its benefits in the West but desire racial purity in the state of Israel.
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Australian Jewish leaders fear the importation of free debate. J Street’s coming out conference fills them with dread. Perhaps a newer generation of Jews will not tolerate this orthodox approach. The alternative is simply idealising the state of Israel without daring to look beyond its white and sunny tourist image. Occupation isn’t something to be ignored or defended. It has placed modern Judaism morally on its knees.
This week left me invigorated, enraged and disillusioned. J Street itself is pushing, in my view, a policy that will only lead to disappointment and continued occupation of Palestinian land. But the range of voices, arguments, disagreements and passions at the conference proves a vibrant Judaism is essential if Jews and Palestinians are to live peacefully together.
Antony Loewenstein is a journalist and author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution.