Zeek moves Forward
Roundup of JStreet conference posts

Reflections on the first JStreet conference

I'm writing this post on the train home from the first JStreet conference. Not surprisingly, I'm exhausted. (Oddly, I seem to have been the only very pregnant woman who decided to attend!) Still, I'm really glad to have been there. Like many other participants, I was amazed by the size of the crowd and the excited buzz of energy we generated in coming together. I suspect that most of us had never before been in such a large gathering of people who self-identify as "pro-Israel, pro-peace." It's exciting to think that together we can articulate a different way of relating to Israel.

My time in Israel last year gave me a sense of just how broken the situation is, and how urgent is the need for repair. The Occupation has been disastrous for Israel on levels both practical and spiritual. Unilateral actions like the building of what some call the "separation wall" and others call the "security fence" move the region further away from the possibility of a viable Palestinian state. So does the policy of supporting settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank (there are more than 300,000 settlers in the West Bank alone -- most of whom planted themselves there after the peace process was ostensibly underway, which has not given the Palestinians any trust in Israel's inclination to make peace.) And if a viable Palestinian state cannot arise, Israel herself is in deep trouble which can only worsen.

Primary responsibility for Israel's decisions lies in the hands of the Israeli government. But as a Jew with spiritual connection to the place, its people, and its history, and as an American whose tax dollars provide military support for Israel in its various choices, I feel both entitled and obligated to speak out when I understand that Israel's actions are making matters worse. I believe that a two-state solution is key to the healthy self-determination of both peoples, and that Israel's actions have often run counter to this goal -- as has support from the United States which fails to take these realities into account. It was remarkable to attend such a large gathering where these basic stances were largely shared.

On Tuesday afternoon, Israei politician Haim Ramon argued that the greatest threat to Israel's security is the status quo. If change doesn't come soon, the window for creating a peaceful resolution to this conflict will close, and the resulting "one-state solution" will be disastrous for Israel, which will have to choose between being a "Jewish state" and being a democracy where all citizens are enfranchised to vote. Hearing that was a powerful wake-up call. I suspect it's a message which most Americans, and specifically most American Jews, don't generally hear. I'm grateful to JStreet for creating a context within which these realities can be named.

It's been interesting to watch the fuss over JStreet unfold. One of the most fascinating critiques I've seen leveled at the conference is that it was an intentionally inclusive space. Jonathan Chait spoke along those lines in the session entitled What does it mean to be pro-Israel? If I understand his argument correctly, he thinks JStreet needs to draw firmer limits around who's "in" and who's "out." We'll accomplish more if our identity is more clearly-defined. (In other words: we need to have verifiable pro-Israel bona fides if we want to assert our pro-Israel, pro-peace position. If we let people in the door who don't have those bona fides, we're hurting our cause.)

I see things differently. Part of what's valuable for me about JStreet is that it offers a big tent beneath which many can gather. Some of us may identify as Zionist; others as post-Zionist; still others as non-Zionist. But we're all part of the conversation about relationship with Israel and about the best way to use our ethical, spiritual, and political clout to help create a just and secure future in the Middle East, and I think that's a good thing. For many of us who support JStreet, Jewishness and/or Zionism are in tension with a global and cosmopolitan sensibility. I think that makes us better participants in dialogue, which matters a great deal to me.

I want to be in dialogue with people who, like me, feel a strong love of Israel and also strong sorrow at how Israel's policies have created and perpetuated injustice. I also want to be in dialogue with people who maybe aren't sure whether they love Israel because their hearts have been broken too many times. And with people who maybe aren't sure whether they support a two-state solution -- including those who've already given up hope of Israel ever allowing Palestinian self-determination to unfold. We all need to be talking with one another, and JStreet is a great context in which to have those conversations. The drawing of boundaries around who's "in" and who's "out," and the concomitant caricaturing of dissenting opinion, are pernicious and have contributed to the silencing of many voices who could, and should, have been part of the conversation about Israel all along.

The conference wasn't perfect for me. I come to this conversation from a primarily religious perspective, not a political one. I'm interested in the moral, ethical, and spiritual implications of American connection with Israel; I'm not all that excited about hearing congresspeople offer political speeches, though I understand that for many attendees the formal congressional support matters a great deal. Then again, when I attended the URJ Biennial, I remember being largely bored by the big plenary sessions and energized by the smaller panels which allowed more opportunity for connection, so it's not surprising that I felt similarly here.

I'm sorry that the planned poetry performance was canceled because a case was made that the poet in question wasn't sufficiently pro-Israel in his rhetoric. I'm troubled by the notion that poetry should held to standards of appropriate political discourse; like prayer, poetry operates on levels beyond the purely intellectual. I would have loved to have seen a session featuring multiple poetic voices, both Israeli and Palestinian, who could have spoken to the situation from their various perspectives. That said, I applaud the organizers' decision to include theatre performances and film screenings, even though I didn't make it to them.

But on the whole, the conference was a good experience, and I would have liked to have experienced more of it. There were a number of sessions (including the artistic programming) which I wanted to attend but couldn't, because I chose something else compelling which was happening at the same time. For me, though, that's a good sign: if there's more programming that I want to attend than I can actually be present for, then the organizers are doing something right. (I only wish there had been other livebloggers there! I would love to read an account of the sessions I missed, but liveblogging conferences seems to be a rare art these days. Twitter, while delightful, just doesn't offer the same kind of depth.)

The best sessions, for me, were How Jews, Christians, and Muslims can work together for peace, How we stop talking to ourselves, and Dancing on the head of a pin: the role of rabbis in the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement. Those three panels by themselves were worth the price of admission and the fourteen hours of train travel. I'm excited by these conversations about interfaith work, about broadening our dialogue beyond even the big tent of those who self-affiliate with JStreet, and about how clergy can best serve both our communities and our ethical imperatives to teach and do what is just. I hope these conversations continue now that the conference has passed.

Some conversations are already starting to arise in the blogosphere. I recommend Rabbi Ezra Weinberg's guest post at Jewschool, What I Didn't Notice, which speaks to his wish that the conference had balanced religion and politics in a different way. Also worth reading is Rabbi Shai Gluskin's Response to an Assertion that Promoting a Two-State Solution Supports the "Hamas Terrorist Base". Rabbi Gluskin wasn't at the conference, but he was following along closely via blogs and twitter, and his post is a useful addition to the conversation.

Rabbi Brant Rosen has written,

[T]here is a steadily growing demographic in the American Jewish community: proud, committed Jews who are deeply troubled when Israel acts oppressively, who feel implicated as Americans and as Jews in these actions, and who are galled at being labeled as traitors when they choose to speak out.

(He was writing about supporters of Ta'anit Tzedek, but he could as easily have been describing many of us who support JStreet.) This JStreet conference was a chance for many of us who fit this bill to come together with non-Jews who share our passions and our concerns, and to celebrate the hope and the potential for transformation which our combined voices represent.

I came away from the conference with the the strong hope that this could be the beginning of a sea change in the way that American Judaism (and the United States writ large) thinks about / talks about / relates to Israel. It's important and it can't happen too soon. And I'm happy that I'll always be able to say, "I was there at the first conference when JStreet was just getting off the ground -- it was a scant six weeks before our son was born..." I hope and pray that the addition of our voices, our politics, and our perspectives will help create the change that the Middle East, and the world, so desperately need.