Movies Spark Discussion—And My Personal Call to Action on Israel

Evan Stern is an author, advocate and consultant with deep twin cities roots. He is secretary of the local Hillel Foundation Board of Directors and is active with Temple Israel and the Minneapolis Jewish Federation. This is the second in a two-part series introducing the author and the unique path that brought him to J Street. He will blog live from J Street’s upcoming ‘Giving Voice to our Values’ Conference in Washington, DC. Follow him on twitter: @Jewinspace.

In last week’s entry, I described how traveling to Israel inspired a deep, long-term connection to the Jewish community. Today’s entry will tell the concurrent story of how my secular interests brought me to the intersection of Jewish community engagement and political activism.At the University of Minnesota, film quickly became my academic focus. I had always loved movies, even understood the world through a cinematic lens. So watching and studying films the way English majors study classic texts proved too sweet of an academic opportunity to pass up. (Since my time at the U of M, I have had some wonderful opportunities to put those cinema studies to practical use working with friends on independent films and music videos.)The same way that good writing requires reading of broad, quality literature, I have always felt that to excel at making films, one has to digest a regular diet of both big-budget and low-budget productions. Besides, moviegoing is one of my favorite pastimes and something I enjoy with friends, family, and even in solitude. I once left an awesome summer party to catch a midnight showing of Bonnie and Clyde at the Uptown Theater. Priorities.
Bonnie and Clyde is great because it is fun, whimsical, and visually stunning; intoxicating even. But the best movies, the ones that make you think, are where my Jewish upbringing and academic background find common ground. Think for a minute of all the films you’ve seen because of their Jewish or Israeli nature. Schindler’s List. Keeping the Faith. Munich. Even Borat, with all its quirks, is pulsing with Jewish flavor.
So what do all these movies have in common? They all make us think about our place as Jews in the world.
My mother and I try to see good films whenever we can, and they are almost always followed up by a long conversation over dinner or coffee. One particularly rich film we saw was Defiance, the story of Bielski brothers Zus and Tuvia (played by Liev Schreiber) and perennial onscreen Jew Daniel Craig as they lead and protect a group of fellow Jews hiding in the forest in occupied Belarus during World War II.
As conditions worsen, the brothers more intensely disagree and eventually brawl over the best way to protect their people. Confronted with conflicting moral imperatives and no good options, one cannot help but remember the radical disagreement and distrust that nearly brought Menachem Begin and David Ben-Gurion to civil war even as they faced a common existential threat.
As my mother and I discussed the movie, this allegory brought us into the larger discussion of the modern state of Israel and its seemingly insoluble situation with the Palestinians. We talked about the history, reaching back into memory bank deposits from my time at AMHSI (See blog post 1). We discussed the conflicting moral imperatives of ensuring security for Israelis and also guaranteeing that Palestinians have equal rights and a chance at a decent future.
I found myself repeating lines from a familiar refrain: “The situation is just so complex, it’s hard to know what to do…Both sides want too much, they’ll never agree to the other’s demands…the Americans don’t really want peace, they only care about supporting Israel…” These things frustrated my mother. She simply refused to accept that American Jews, who yield tremendous influence, couldn’t effectively work to resolve the conflict. After all, settlement expansion isn’t making Israel safer and it’s not helping the US image abroad.
I explained our shortcomings within a domestic political framework. How Americans have trouble accepting the failures of foreign policy, and how the lack of honest accounting can further perpetuate unsuccessful policies. This cycle helps explain why nobody took to the streets to protest the flagrantly misguided invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq following 9/11.
Despite best intentions, some of Israel’s friends within the American Jewish establishment have for 60 years enabled Israel to act unwisely, without respect for the consequences.
Now I want to stop here for a minute and remind the reader that I love and support Israel, and I believe deeply in her right to exist and responsibility to defend her inhabitants. That said, the occupation of the territories and exponential growth of illegal settlements fueled by state subsidies and American dollars are both an affront to my Jewish morals and make Israel a demonstrably less safe place to live.
And that, in a nutshell, was the tough, honest crux of the conversation between my mother and me that night two years ago. Sadly, this approach to pro-Israel advocacy has alienated so many of my generation from engaging in our responsibility to work for a safe and peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We have been told that dissent will not be tolerated, that there is only one way to show support for Israel.
Traditional pro-Israel advocacy is predicated on a number of faulty assertions:

  • Israelis and Palestinians are stuck in a “zero-sum game,” where victory for one group requires total loss for the other.
  • Despite Israel’s genuine peace overtures, Palestinians do not actually want peace. They only crave the total destruction of Israel.
  • Criticism of Israel is motivated by anti-Semitism, not concern for the negative impacts of Israel’s policies on itself and others.

I feel that these misguided principles have so heavily skewed pro-Israel advocacy that most US action toward Israel is now actually counterproductive to the goals of peace and stability within the region. How did things get so out of hand? In a culture that generates three opinions for every two people, how bizarre that only one opinion of how to support Israel has been allowed to flourish in American politics.
This gaping hole in the political landscape neatly corresponds to an omission in Washington, DC’s alphanumeric street grid: there is no “J” Street. I don’t know why, it simply doesn’t exist–the way buildings often eschew a thirteenth floor. Most of the lobbyists in Washington work on “K” Street, where “J” Street would otherwise be. So when a group of activists got together to form a progressive pro-Israel lobby in 2008, they chose a name symbolic of the unrepresented masses of pro-Israel Americans who have been marginalized and disenchanted with mainstream pro-Israel advocacy. They chose to call themselves J Street.
When I first heard of J Street following its inception, I didn’t think much of it. I was less politically attuned and I didn’t see any real surface distinction between J Street and traditional pro-Israel advocates. I pretty much forgot about it until last fall, when I went canvassing for Mark Dayton and other Minnesota Democrats. Minnesota State Rep. Frank Hornstein took me to brunch prior to going door to door. We discussed my political beliefs, and things quickly turned to Israel. After hearing of my discontent and overall sense of misrepresentation, Rep. Hornstein suggested I look into J Street. And I haven’t looked back.
My first exposure to J Street was a few weeks after the 2010 election, when J Street Minnesota held a meeting at Temple Israel to discuss its mission, goals, political context and strategy. I was amazed at the diversity of those in attendance. Here were my religious school teachers, professors from Universities and colleges, every stripe of Rabbi, my friends’ parents and my parents’ friends. Even more impressive were the litany of progressive pro-Israel movements these activists had engaged in over the years. Despite a seemingly endless list of defunct and defeated efforts, these Jews were still hopeful, still proactive, and still determined to engage the Jewish community in renewed efforts to change the discussion on pro-Israel advocacy.
J Street’s mission is two-fold: “First, to advocate for urgent American diplomatic leadership to achieve a two-state solution and a broader regional, comprehensive peace.” But the second part of J Street’s mission really caught my attention and sealed my commitment: “To ensure a broad debate on Israel and the Middle East in national politics and the American Jewish community.”
This aspect of J Street’s mission speaks directly to my desire for open, honest, candid conversation about the tough issues facing Israel, the Palestinians, and their neighbors. To me, broadening the debate means guaranteeing civil discourse among pro-Israel advocates at every point on the political spectrum. J Street may not always agree with others’ methods for supporting Israel, but they wholeheartedly encourage them to join in frank, honest discussion about the issues.
After that first meeting I was hooked. Here is an organization that makes it possible to be pro-Israel in a way that is not anti-Palestinian. I now feel that I can show my support for Israel without checking my progressive, Jewish values at the door. J Street simply does not accept that the world must be seen through the prism of an “us-vs.-them” conflict.
Since that first gathering I have attended meetings with members of congress, advocacy strategy sessions, and registered for J Street’s Giving Voice to our Values Conference in Washington at the end of the month. I have also had the powerful experience of sharing J Street’s mission with other Jews and seeing in them the same spark that came alive within myself. To me, that’s what J Street is all about: Empowering friends, family, and community members to be proactive in a new way.
We are living in an unprecedented moment. Americans have the rare opportunity, amidst the rapidly changing and evolving Arab world, to reexamine the way we interact with Israel and her neighbors.
I am empowered. I am filled with hope.
And starting this Saturday night, you can tag along as I blog live from DC right here on Stay tuned.