Inspiring. Empowering. A Local Take on J Street's National Conference

This is a guest post by Evan Stern, 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.

“We are passionately and unapologetically pro-Israel. That is our first principle…Israel supporters have not only the right, but the obligation to speak out when we think that the policies or actions of the Israeli government are hurting Israel or harming the long term interests of the Jewish people. We do not revel in criticizing Israel, we do it with a heavy heart.”

Jeremy Ben-Ami, President of J Street.

The author with other Minnesota J Street members lobbying on Capitol Hill.

I recently returned from J Street’s second annual conference in Washington, DC. The “Giving Voice to Our Values” conference was exciting, inspiring and ultimately quite empowering. It was also invigorating to play an active role in an organization that is still congealing into a solid state. Less than three years old, J Street is wrestling with the question of how to cast a broad tent without alienating the moderate mainstream. In breakout sessions and impassioned conversations over meals, one could actually feel J Street continually shaping its direction, strategy and character.
This complicated question was on full display during one of the sessions I attended, “The Campus Challenge: Changing the Conversation in an Environment of Extreme Polarization.” Nearly all of the follow-up questions from the crowd focused on how organizations like Hillel and J Street U can foster open, pluralistic debate without compromising J Street’s mainstream appeal. Campus professionals and student leaders spoke about their experiences in polarized environments that often make balanced or nuanced discourse almost impossible. It was so powerful hearing from students who courageously stood in the lonely center of the debate, making it that much easier for other reasonable, nuanced thinkers to discuss solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate.
Even more inspiring were some of the major speakers and plenary participants at the conference. Rachel Lerner, the Vice President of J Street’s Educational Fund, kicked off the event with this reminder: “The Jewish Community has more to say than the institutions who claim to represent us.” Rabbi David Saperstein added, “J Street’s pro-Israel, pro-peace vision is right. It is needed now more than ever, go forward with courage.”
Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Gazan who lost three daughters and a niece during Operation Cast Lead, was honored for transcending his epic loss into a poignant message of peace and reconciliation. “Our enemies are greed, ignorance and that we don’t know each other,” said Dr. Abuelaish, who received thunderous applause when he asserted that being genuinely pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian are one and the same.
Speakers like these brought me to my feet, moved me to tweet up a storm (@Jewinspace), and deeply resonated with my progressive Jewish values. This excitement was compounded by the sheer size of the conference. Over 2400 J Streeters attended, with more than 500 students from 128 universities. Minnesota alone brought almost thirty people to the conference. Six of us participated in J Street’s day on the hill, a coordinated effort of hundreds of local activists lobbying more than 225 congressional offices.
We met with Senators Amy Klobucher and Al Franken, as well as Congresspeople Keith Ellison, Betty McCollum and Tim Walz. In preparing for these meetings, we worked closely with J Street staff to discuss the goals and methods of this kind of direct democratic participation. The actual meetings were incredibly moving, as representative after representative reiterated deep desires for peace and a sustainable solution for both the Israelis and the Palestinians. The understood the critical importance of continued foreign aid to both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the specific political “ask” our group made of each representative. (Click here to read the letter to President Obama from Congresswomen Jan Schakowsky and Anna Eshoo.)
Politics are tricky. As California Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey said during a panel discussion, on Middle East issues “the most important decisions are governed by fear; fear of losing votes, of losing campaign donations.” Which is why the widespread presence of J Street members in congressional offices was critically important: We demonstrated that thriving constituencies all across the country believe in J Street’s mission and are dedicated to urgent US diplomatic leadership in bringing about a sustainable two-state solution.
Keith Ellison, who spoke at the conference and is a J Street endorsed candidate, strongly encouraged us to continue polling the Jewish American electorate. In its November 2010 poll, J Street found that 83% of American Jews want the U.S. Government to play “an active role in helping the parties to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.” A slightly smaller majority, 71% said they would still support active U.S. leadership if it meant “publicly stating its disagreements” with both Israelis and Arabs. This is a startling statistic given the self-censorship of traditional pro-Israel advocates when it comes to criticism of Israel.
Perhaps the most interesting of all was the gap between the percent of American Jews who agree with the President’s policies when asked about his handling of the conflict, and the percent who said the “like the way he is executing these policies.” While 71% agree with the policies, only 33% like the execution of these policies.
That discrepancy between the language of the administration and the actions on its part was widely echoed among conference attendees. We even heard it from members of congress. The consensus was that President Obama can only impact things when he goes to Israel and makes a literally and figuratively strong statement to both parties. As conference panelist and New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote on March 4, just days after the conference, “Go to Jerusalem, Mr. President.”
In my opinion, we all need to go to Jerusalem. After three days of passionate speeches, dialogue and debate, I miss the land of milk and honey more than ever. I am determined to get back as soon as I can, but in the meantime, I intend on summoning up the spirit of the holy land by engaging friends, family and community members in local J Street efforts here in Minnesota. In his letter to conference participants, President Shimon Peres wrote “This is a tumultuous time, but it is also a time of opportunity.”
In her letter, opposition leader and Kadimah Party Head Tzipi Livni wrote, “I believe that Jews in Israel and around the world share a common commitment to ensuring Israel’s future as a vibrant Jewish and democratic State, secure and at peace with its neighbors.” We in the diaspora have a crucial role to play, and J Street is at the forefront of the progressive wave merging our policies with our values.