[JStreet] How Jews, Christians and Muslims Can Work Together For Peace
[JStreet] How We Stop Talking to Ourselves

[JStreet] Unofficial Israeli-Palestinian Blogger Lunch Session

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 want to watch the conference as it unfolds, it's being streamed live here.

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.

One of the unofficial JStreet events about which I've been most excited is the Israel-Palestine Blogger Panel orchestrated by Richard Silverstone of Tikun Olam and Jerry Haber of The Magnes Zionist, which apparently got some pretty negative press in the JTA (see JTA Attacks Israel-Palestine Blogger Panel.) The line-up of panelists includes:

Phil Weiss (Mondoweiss) -- Jerry Haber (Magnes Zionist) -- Richard Silverstein (Tikun Olam) -- Dan Sieradski (formerly of Jewschool) -- Helena Cobban (Just World News) -- Max Blumenthal (Daily Beast) -- Laila el Haddad (Gaza Mom) -- Matt Duss (Think Progress) -- Joseph Dana (Ibn Ezra) -- Mark J. Levey (Daily Kos) -- Sydney Levy (Muzzlewatch, Jewish Voice for Peace) -- and Jesse Hochheiser (Across the Border)

-- a pretty impressive range of voices and opinions. These folks are pretty much guaranteed to disagree on some important issues, which is part of why I'm so pleased to see them all in one room. There are also two remote bloggers participating via Skype: Joseph Dana (Ibn Ezra) and Ray Hanania (Ray Hanania's Blog).

"The 3 topics I wanted to deal with," explains Richard Silverstein, "were Iran -- nuclear crisis and all the permutations of that; the Occupation, the Goldstone report, etc; and the relationship of the broad Left Jewish-blogosphere, the Israel/Palestine blogosphere, and JStreet, and how we're going to interact with each other as loyal opposition and give each other room to present our own opinions and to disagree respectfully." (All this over lunch! There's some wry laughter around the room.)

Helena Cobban (Just World News) notes that "blogging has changed the nature of international relations in a way that most people in mainstream media don't understand. For the first time now we can have the accounts of people who are under US or Israeli or other western countries' bombs, and that changes everything." (I'm not sure I would have framed it in quite those terms, but I like her larger point that hearing real people's real voices makes a difference.) "Iran has the most bloggers per capita of any country in the world." (Can anyone confirm or deny?) "What it's like from ground zero, if we attack or if Israel attacks Iran, will be out there in the global blogosphere." Jesse Hochheiser adds, blogs reflect what's really happening on the ground.

"Citizen journalists showed the death of the young woman Neda in Iran, and this moment went around the world as an example of the brutality of the Iranian regime," Max Blumenthal (Daily Beast) points out. He's been in Bil'in, where an activist has been killed during nonviolent protests -- shot in the chest with a stealth tear gas grenade. "I find it ironic that this video has never been reported-on by the US media, and the YouTube hit count on it is about 2000" -- much lower viewership than the Neda video. It's a good point that just because something is out there on YouTube or in the blogosphere doesn't mean it's necessarily getting broad attention.

Richard invites Laila el Haddad (Gaza Mom) specifically to speak about life in Gaza. "It's difficult," she says, "because when people tell me to comment on Gaza, I say, I'm from Gaza and I feel so cut-off now." The last time she was physically there was June of 2007; she and her kids have not been able to go back since. Her husband has a Palestinian refugee travel document; he's a physician at Johns Hopkins but he can't travel back even post-disengagement because of the legal status of Gaza refugees. "We don't have family reunification rights," she explains. She and her kids tried to go back in March and were held in the Cairo airport for 30 hours; she blogged and twittered extensively during that time. Then they were deported back to the US. (Global Voices Online covered that: Gaza Mom back in the US.)

"It was very painful for me," she says; "in the past I've blogged about how difficult is it to access Gaza in the first place, how the occupation takes a toll on such mundane details as travel; now I can't even get back to make that kind of statement." The siege has stopped her ability to be in touch with family, with the place she called home.

Her father, who lives in Gaza City, is here visiting; it took him and her mother months to get out of Gaza. They were there during Operation Cast Lead. After four months of trying to get out, it took another four days just to cross the border. He's in the back of the room and would be happy to speak to anyone here.

Richard asks Joseph Dana (Ibn Ezra), who's here via Skype, about what's happening in the West Bank and the anti-settlement activities there. "What's going on with Ta'ayush is mostly the same," he says. It's fall, so there's olive harvesting happening across the West Bank; settlers are making their voices heard and trying to keep the harvest from happening. His work is mostly escorting farmers to their olive harvest to protect their livelihood. East Jerusalem is also quite an issue, he says; everyone here has heard about the recent attacks there.

In the build-up to the conference, the attacks on JStreet, and the attitudes we as bloggers have taken toward JStreet, have been interesting, Richard says; "the status of this panel is interesting, since it's not endorsed by JStreet!" We have a symbiotic relationship with them, he notes. Does anyone want to reflect on how all of this is developing?

Jerry Haber (Magnes Zionist) notes that many of us blog as individuals. We form relationships with our readers and with like-minded readers, and that's very powerful. "It gives us a chevre," he says -- a group of colleagues and friends -- "and gives us more influence." Regarding relationship to JStreet, his own take is that there are "very major issues and very major questions and very major problems which are 40, 60, 100 years old. The most pressing issue I see is ending the Occupation and relieving injustice."

Max Blumenthal (Daily Beast) mentions the Jeffrey Goldberg interview with Jeremy Ben-Ami. (I think he means J Street's Ben-Ami On Zionism and Military Aid to Israel.) "Goldberg's appointed himself the Chief Rabbi of a one-man island," he says. Goldberg challenged Ben-Ami to effectively prove his Zionist credentials by repudiating Walt and Mearsheimer and their work on the Israel lobby. It's legitimate to disagree with Walt and Mearsheimer, Blumenthal says, though he thinks they provided cover for JStreet to come into existence; but Ben-Ami capitulated, said "yeah, they're anti-Semites, they wrote the modern version of Protocols of the Elders of Zion." That was a serious disappointment to Blumenthal. "If you can't stand up to Jeremy Goldberg, how can we expect you to stand up against the settlers, or against the Lieberman/Netanyahu government? Also, it cheapens antisemitism and makes it harder to call out real antisemites like John Hagee!" Why is Michael Oren speaking to Hagee and not to JStreet?

Sydney Levy (here representing both Muzzlewatch and Jewish Voice for Peace) wants also to touch on the Goldberg/Ben Ami interview. Goldberg was hoping that Jewish Voice for Peace would attack JStreet. "Let me put it here on the record in the unofficial session that we are not interested in attacking JStreet, or in not-attacking JStreet! We have our own position, and we'll put it forward here as in any other place." The issue of mainstreaming, he argues, is important. There's a gelling of a new understanding of what it means to be able to critical of the Israeli occupation. "What does it mean to be able to speak with a different voice on this issue? New lines in the sand are being drawn." It's a wider circle of "who is kosher and who is treif," he says. "Our role at Muzzlewatch and JVP is to ensure that the circle is even wider."

Smear campaigns are not good, he says; we need to refrain from repeating what the right-wingers are doing. "I hope and pray that we will get to a moment where we will be able to talk about Israelis and Palestinians, and will not be able to say that in order to speak about this item you have to start the sentence by saying 'I love Israel very much.'" Not everyone can begin with that disclaimer and those voices need to be heard too. "We need to make sure that the circle is wider."

Richard moves us along to the subjects of the Goldstone Report, human rights, and the BDS movement (boycott, divestment, and sanctions.) "These are topics that, if they're dealt with here at all, will not be dealt with in a substantive way." He's intrigued by the attack on the Goldstone Report by the pro-Israel right. "The lion's share of the attack has been to impugn Judge Goldstone's Jewishness, which considering that he's been a Zionist all his life is...kind of odd." And, of course, that argument fails to address the content of the report.

"For those of us who follow events closely in Israel, the Goldstone Report was obviously important but didn't tell us anything we didn't already know!" says Jerry Haber (Magnes Zionist.) All kinds of human rights reports had been coming out of Israel previously. The Breaking the Silence reports that came out over the summer also received this same kind of treatment -- angry right-wing rhetoric which largely didn't touch on the substance of those reports either. "When human rights reports come out in Israel, you don't have to agree with everything they say; there may be methodological issues..." but it's incumbent on us not to kill the messenger. "Peace is a distant objective, but human rights and human justice: those we can do something about every minute of every day."

Helena Cobban (Just World News) adds that while it's true that there've been plenty of reports on this, there's something especially important about the fact that the Goldstone Report came out of a UN fact-finding mission, and given Judge Goldstone's cutting-edge work in international inquiry into human rights abuses and into combating apartheid. She's hoping that the Goldstone Report will provoke a crisis of confidence among members of the pro-Israel right, as his previous work provoked a crisis of confidence among those who had supported apartheid in South Africa.

"For me the Goldstone report brings up a sentiment I'd been feeling recently, as a young American Jew -- when we talk about how young American Jews aren't relating to Israel, we don't talk about how in the face of things like the Goldstone report we're being asked to defend Israel by undermining the international system of human rights and justice," says Dan Sieradski (formerly of Jewschool.) To posit that the international system is more broken than Israel is and therefore has no right to prosecute Israel -- "I'm a grandchild of four Holocaust survivors, two of my sisters are Israelis, we benefit from the international system of human rights," Dan says. "That's the way I'm supposed to identify as a Zionist and supporter of Israel, to say that international human rights and justice are broken?!" There's cognitive dissonance there that's hard to ignore."

Ray Hanania (Ray Hanaia's Blog) is asked to speak about the alliances he's made, as a Palestinian-American, with American Jews. "Most American Jews arent used to that happening," Richard points out.

"I think the most important think about the Goldstone Report is that [what happened there] should be viewed as an attack against justice. Palestinians have to stop using the Goldstone Report as some kind of battering ram to attack Israel. It isn't about Israel! It's about justice. What brings us together is, we all support justice." A strong JStreet, he says, "is going to strengthen the Palestinian community to be more active and successful to join together and achieve great things." It's not easy to be a moderate Palestinian -- or, he imagines, a moderate Israeli! But we moderates need to band together against "them," extremists. "I see no difference between extremist Israelis and extremist Palestinians. They're both enemies of peace." We need to work together toward two states, compromise on both sides, and standing up against violence.

"Sometimes we operate as a support group for the moderate camp which still believes in peace," says a blogger in Israel participating via Skype -- that's how he feels, after the most recent elections. "The question we should ask ourselves is, how do we reach out with effective political action?" JStreet can play a big role in changing the attitudes in the US, and hopefully later on in Israel, with regards to the 'Palestinian Problem.' "In Israel there's denial of the problem right now." People argue that there isn't any Occupation. He's hopeful that JStreet will help us reshape the dialogue, "even if we have our differences with the stands they take on certain issues."

Phil Weiss (Mondoweiss) offers "one and a half cheers for JStreet on the Jewish identity piece." In that interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, Ben-Ami was compelled to make clear that he's a Zionist. Jeffrey Goldberg's apprehension was that "under the skirts of JStreet there were lurking non-Zionists and even anti-Zionists." Ben-Ami's response sent a chill up Weiss's spine because he was "assuring this McCarthyite, 'no no no, I'm a Zionist.'" Weiss isn't sure whether he himself is a non-Zionist or anti-Zionist, but he's long felt alienated from the Jewish community because he can't identify as a Zionist.

"One of the joys of this conference, for me, is that rather than feeling alienated, I come here and...JStreet knows that there are Zionists, non-Zionists, and anti-Zionists in this room." The pleasure of the conference, for him, is that in these rooms we're all coming together and addressing these issues. That's where we as Jews get our energy: from questioning. What do we do with the reality that the great Jewish idea has created a situation where Leila's parents can't get out of Gaza? These are questions we need to be asking.

"I think we should challenge the conventional wisdom that there's somehow a group that represents moderates and a group that represents extremists," says Laila el Haddad (Gaza Mom). "I consider myself a Palestinian progressive moderate, but I'm an observant Muslim; does that make me an extremist?" She doesn't support the Abbas administration, but that's who JStreet wants to work with, even though that's not who most Palestinians recognize. "The Palestinian political spectrum is very diverse; people don't realize that enough." For her, the imperative for justice is so important -- and settlements, the separation wall, are mitigating against justice. Like most Palestinians, she says, she can no longer support a two-state solution, because it doesn't feel real or possible. In her mind, the two-state solution isn't viable anymore.

"As Jews, we have privilege in this conversation, which is that people listen to us more. It's not fair, but it happens," says Sydney Levy (Muzzlewatch, Jewish Voice for Peace.) We need to use our power to bring the disempowered voices into the conversation so people will listen to them too. Remember when Obama was campaigning and people accused him of being a Muslim, and the response was "no no, he goes to church!" It's the same when people accuse Goldstone of being antisemitic and we say "no no, he's a Zionist!" It misses the point. We have to use our privilege to get others into the conversation.

Obama administration, settlement freeze, where US policy is going, do we think Obama can succeed -- Richard asks whether the panelists have responses to these questions.

Matt Duss (Think Progress) notes that the settlement freeze idea was met with complete intransigence from Netanyahu's government. Having a president who's committed to moving the process along, though, can really change things -- even if he meets with difficulty. "The Cairo speech -- many Americans may not understand how significant that was." (I wrote about the Cairo speech at this blog in a post about the Cairo speech and the J-blogosphere.) Max Blumenthal (Daily Beast) counters that giving great speeches makes one a terrific toastmaster, but Obama needs to use the weapon of financial pressure, not the weapon of rhetoric, which obviously doesn't have any impact on Netanyahu at all.

Jesse Hochheiser (Across the Border) points out that there was excitement after the speech, but things haven't really changed in the settlements. What about the positions in the outposts; have those in Israel seen anything change since Obama's speech in Cairo or since Obama's been in talks with Netanyahu? Joseph Dana (Ibn Ezra) confirms that the situation on the ground is getting worse by the day. "The situation in Israel doesn't look that encouraging."

Asked a question about activism and working online, Dan Sieradski (formerly of Jewschool) notes that there's a group of people using the #jstreet09 hashtag on twitter to make fake tweets "from the conference," spreading misinformation. Obviously the tools of online activism can be used in either direction. The questioner asks about balance between online activism and offline activism. "We have to go back and look at our tactics, see what kind of actions are really going to be effective in moving things forward," Dan says.

Someone is passing around little tearsheet flyers for a Gaza Freedom March. Sydney Levy (Muzzlewatch) adds, you don't have to go to Gaza; there are things you can do to support Gaza without having to be there on the ground! (There are suggestions for how to do that at Jewish Voice for Peace.) Helena Cobban (Just World News) says there's nothing that can replace the energy of meeting people face to face; she's a Quaker, and going to Meeting with others and sitting in silence is completely different from sitting at home.

An audience member asks: how do we put political pressure on people to help this move forward? Whether the solution is BDS or not, one state or two-state, what's the way to move?

"Power is in Washington; we need people on the ground," says Sydney Levy (Muzzlewatch.) "It's hard work. We need to demand attention." Jerry Haber (Magnes Zionist), who is a college professor, quips, "the way to make a difference is to write a book!" He made aliyah to Israel 47 years ago, and his positions have changed over the course of those decades, as a result of people who are writing in a serious way. "Those people who are very good activists, who can do the political organization, will get strong results and God bless them. But I think that what is very important is that each person do what he or she can do. Whether it's writing a blog, signing a petition, writing a book, whatever you can. Make sure that people don't sink into apathy."

"I blog, and I think you blog, first and foremost in order to vent; to express our pain... this allows people who care to retain their sanity," Jerry says. (I'm not sure I agree with his assessment of why everyone blogs -- it's not why I blog, for instance -- but I appreciate his expression of emotion.)

An audience member, who's a print journalist, speaks about the difficulty of getting accurate information. (For instance, the population of Greater Jerusalem isn't listed anywhere -- at a certain point the map moves to the settlements of Judea and Samaria, and it took her several phone calls and many hours to figure out how many people live in the broadest reaches of the city.) How do we work with that, as journalists and as bloggers? In response, Jerry Haber (Magnes Zionist) talks about the Breaking the Silence reports -- how those reports were slammed for being anonymous, "as though no one had ever read a newspaper!"

Another audience member notes that "there's a lot more information out there than you think there is -- it's just in Hebrew." Leaks, he quips, are how Israelis communicate! And much of what's out there has also been translated, but we in the States may not have access to it. He'd like to see the creation of a repository which would make it possible for progressive journalists and bloggers to access this material and quote from it.  Someone else points to wikileaks.org as a partial such repository. And with that, we're out of time; we've already gone many minutes into the next session, and we have to vacate the room. Thanks to all who were present!