[JStreet] How We Stop Talking to Ourselves
[JStreet] What Does It Mean to be Pro-Israel?

[JStreet] Plenary session: View from the Hill

I'm blogging this week from Driving Change, Securing Peace, the first JStreet conference in Washington, DC. You can follow my conference posts via the JStreet category

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy -- please read it, especially if this is your first time here. Enjoy the conference posts! And regular readers, have no fear: I'll return to my more usual balance of blogging fare in a few days.

The last formal session of my day is a plenary session entitled View from the Hill: Congress and the US-Israel Relationship, featuring Representatives Jan Schakowski (IL), Bob Filner (CA), Jared Polis (CO), and Charles Boustany (LA), moderated by former CNN correspondent Bob Franken. Big plenary sessions aren't usually my cup of tea; I tend to be more interested in smaller conversations, but since this was the only thing on the agenda at this hour (and I was actually able to get a seat in the room along with the other 1500 people here today), I figured it was worth a try.

Photo of Rep. Filner & Rep. Polis by Dan Sieradski, used with permission.

Bob Franken notes that he's here as a journalist -- "not to take one side or the other... what I want to be able to do is stand for an open airing of ideas from valid parties, which is what we journalists are supposed to be all about.

Representative Schakowsky begins by mentioning her support for a "secure and Jewish" state of Israel, and giving a shout-out to her rabbi. "From the earliest moment of her founding, the US has supported Israel," she says; a strong Israel is in US interest, as is peace in the region. Congressional support for Israel has been nearly universal over the years, even when the politics of various representatives differ. "After 61 years, Israelis live in a state of perpetual danger with only intermittent respite from deadly conflict. As Israel's best friend in the world, it is only natural that we would be debating how best to work toward longterm security." Her belief is that this involves a negotiated two-state solution. "The United States can, should, and must play a role." Also security means averting a nuclear arms race and bringing about a peaceful resolution to the problems caused by Iran's nuclear program.

"The obstacles to peace have been festering for a long time," she says, "but perpetual war is not the answer." President Obama enjoyed 79% of the Jewish vote, and has appointed George Mitchell as a special envoy to the region -- these are signs of his commitment to this cause. "The administration, and many of us, feel a sense of urgency," she tells us. "I am hopeful that the debate on what to do can be conducted within the Jewish community and within our country in a matter that acknowledges that differences of opinion do not reflect a difference of commitment to Israel."

Not surprisingly, this feels to me like grandstanding. She's a good speaker, but her remarks feel awfully "safe" to me. But part of what's fascinating is that these four speakers give me four different vibes, so read on:

Next, Representative Bob Filner. He begins by thanking Congressman Boustany, "the only Republican who stayed on the host committee" after AIPAC pressured Republicans to withdraw their support. (For more on that, I recommend the post J Street and the World Order at Talking Points Memo.) The room breaks into a round of strong applause.

Representative Filner mentioned that he's been reading about how JStreet is in trouble because so many congressmen have been pressured to withdraw support. But he says, on the contrary! "That JStreet has accomplished so much in its first year: that's why they're paying attention to us. That's a good thing, not a bad thing."

He chairs the House Committee on Veteran's Affairs, and describes himself as anti-war and pro-troop. People say, how can that be? He says, no matter how one feels about the decision to go to war, when these young people come home, we need to treat them with love and dignity. By the same token: people ask, "how can you be pro-Israel and pro-peace?" He comes from a very Orthodox family; half of his relatives live in Israel. "When I visit them, there's far more debate about the peace process and how we should be doing it, compared to the debate in the United States -- until JStreet came along. Israelis believe you can be pro-peace and pro-Israel; why can't American Jews believe the same thing?" The only way for Israel to survive is in a peaceful environment.

Filner has a background in the civil rights movement, and marched and was jailed with Dr. King. Dr. King, of blessed memory, said, "Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal." Mazal tov, he says, to JStreet.

"I was not against the Vietnam war, because I was born before it ended," begins Representative Jared Polis -- though his parents opposed the war, and he grew up with that knowledge. It's an amazing opportunity to have all of us here, he says, to encourage "thoughtful and constructive dialogue about moving the Middle East peace process along." Nothing could be more important, for Israelis as well as Palestinians, than creating a lasting peace -- and we have an important role to play in moving that process along, and the Obama administration has already begun taking steps to encourage both sides to be at the table.

"We have an amazing opportunity," he says, "with the first American president who has credibility in the Arab world. That's an asset we've never had before." What we do with that going forward will be a true test of President Obama's leadership, he says, and a chance to live up to the Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded.

Many Israelis question our new approach. But "there's such a deep underpinning of good will," he says -- "they know they have the support of the American people, and that can help us bring both sides to the table."

He mentions that his own rabbi, Tirzah Firestone, is here from Colorado -- which tells me a little bit about why his stances feel so consonant with mine: Reb Tirzah is a part of the Jewish Renewal movement and is involved with Rabbis for Human Rights North America, and I admire her tremendously.

Our final speaker is Representative Charles Boustany, the lone Republican on the panel. "All four of my grandparents came from Lebanon," he says. "I grew up hearing Arabic, French, and English spoken in our household; hearing stories aout the Old Country." Starting at a very young age he developed an interest in history, and his grandfather gave him books to read about Middle Eastern history; that's still a subject of great interest for him.

"I believe that members of the US Congress have to look at what's in the US' best interest. That's our obligation to the people we serve. But at the same time, we have an obligation to be fully informed on the issues. What does that mean? If we're going to draft foreign policy, we need an informed viewpoint, we need vigorous debate to test that informed viewpoint, we need critical questioning, and we need independent research."

This isn't a zero-sum game. We should be able to come up with a solution in which everyone benefits. The US-Israeli relationship serves as a counterweight to Iranian hegemony, he argues. Our relationship with Israel, at least since the 70s, has put a damper on conventional wars between Israel and Arab countries. These are practical benefits.

Part of the story of this conference, says the moderator, is the story of those who decided not to come and were pressured not to come. This is a sign of the ways in which members of Congress feel tremendous pressures around these issues, which the rest of us may not entirely appreciate or understand.

Rep. Schakowski notes that some people called to thank her for supporting JStreet, and also people called to tell her not to do so. Some of the concerns raised "were couched in my best interest: be careful, watch out, be sure you don't lose certain support." We need to be able to create space for the kind of debate we need to have, she says; "how can anyone argue that it is not in Israel's best interests, not to have inflammatory namecalling going back and forth but rather for us to be able as friends of the state of Israel to sit down and have a debate about how it's in Israel's self-interest to have a longterm, lasting peace and a two-state solution that will finally make a secure future?"

Rep. Filner reminds us about Jews in Congress denouncing the speeches of Louis Farrakhan, a while back, and points out that we can disagree with Farrakhan but we can't silence him; Jews too depend on the First Amendment right to free speech! So he voted against a motion to condemn Farrakhan -- and started getting phone calls from people saying, "I thought you were Jewish! I'm not going to give you any more campaign contributions. You would have supported Hitler in '33!" and so on. On that vote, he lost $250,000 per election cycle in contributions. "That's intimidating to most of my colleagues! That kind of money that's behind support is an intimidating factor." In the succeeding years, he says, he's raised a lot less money, but his conscience has been clear." The room breaks into spontaneous applause.

Rep. Polis points out the old saying, "If you have three Jews having a conversation, you'll have five opinions among them," so why is anyone surprised that there's a need for this organization alongside others in the American community? "Everybody's trying to figure out exactly what [JStreet] means," he says. "There's some caution; people want to know what you all are going to become. And you-all here today, and over the next few days, will determine what you become." Will we become an organization that supports a secure peace process? Will we make decisions that are contrary to the deeply-held beliefs that some Congress people have? What kind of organization we want to be, he said, is up to us.

The moderator asks Rep. Boustany how he imagines he's going to be treated, as a Republican who's going out of step with his party on these issues. "Remember, I used to do open-heart surgery," he says -- pressure doesn't really worry him. Using labels like pro-Israel, anti-Israel, liberal, conservative: this is lazy thinking. Representatives would do better for the country if they educated themselves and exposed themselves to different views. "I feel it's important to face controversies head on." Controversy can be enlightening and envigorating.

A conversation about labels, and their usefulness, follows. Rep. Schakowsky talks about a congressperson who was slammed for saying that he felt empathy both for Israeli children in Sderot and Palestinian children in Gaza. He got described as "an enemy of Israel" -- this is someone who's voted consistently for funding to support Israel, she stresses. "If we start name-calling, saying that you're 'not a friend,' then I think we endanger the broad bipartisan support that we have." But Rep. Filner notes that Tom Delay is described as pro-Israel, but Delay's theology involves Armageddon and the Second Coming; "I say, why do we want them on our side when they want to destroy Israel?" Applause breaks out. "We need to know who our friends are." 

I ducked out a bit early to make it to my next obligation -- a dinner with my ALEPH community -- so I missed the end of the panel, but I hope these notes have been useful! Thanks to the representatives for their time.