Nearly 2,500 peaceniks came together Saturday night at the Convention Center in Washington, D.C., for the third annual conference of leftist pro-Israel lobby, J Street. In the upcoming two days, the participants will listen to speeches, participate in debates, pray, and brainstorm together - until the traditional finale – the storming Congressional offices on Tuesday, trying to make the case for both Israel and peace.
The title chosen for the conference - "Making history" seems quite ambitious in a year in which the peace process is in a deep coma, and even the relevance of the axiomatic two-state solution is questioned more than in the past.
J Street is still young, although some conclusions can be already be made about the organization. They did help change a discourse on Israel in the Jewish-American community –less so on Capitol Hill and the White House. Hopes were high for their success in 2008, with a new liberal president in office. A president who visited Sderot but also seemed well-aware of the Palestinians woes. J Street claimed to be aligned with Obamas values. But changing the course proved to be difficult, with some mud fights along the way and some possibly faulty moves.
In 2012, during a very different election year, Barack Obama made a speech at the annual AIPAC conference, attended by 13,000 people. At J Streets conference, the U.S. administration will only be represented by Vice-President Joe Biden's National Security Advisor and President Obama's senior advisor Valerie Jarrett. At the AIPAC conference, both Israeli President Shimon Peres and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke. J Street conference attendants will have to make do with Peres's video address complemented by one by deputy head of the mission of the Israeli Embassy in Washington. This is certainly an improvement, since last year there was no one representing the embassy.
But the crowd at J Street did not come to hear officials speeches and the repetition of the slogans regarding "ironclad," "sacrosanct" or "unshakeable" support for Israel. They came to hear activists like Stav Shaffir, one of the intrepid leaders of Israel's social protest movement. They came to hear about the real Israel, with its internal struggles, threats and fears.
Lobby founder, Jeremy Ben-Ami, boasted that this year, there was 25% increase in registration for the conference. Student activists opened the conference, calling out the names of the universities that sent young Jewish activist to Washington this weekend. However, Ben-Ami admitted that many stayed home this year as it is hard to have hope under the current conditions.
"We are dissatisfied with the status-quo. The status quo is simply not sustainable, Ben-Ami says. Give the land for the Palestinian state, or keep the land and sacrifice the democratic and Jewish nature of Israel. The history of our era rests in no one's hands, but our own. What we are going to do with the closing window of the two-state solution? There is a cause for despair - the Israeli government is paying lip service to the peace process - undermining it on the ground with settlements expansion."
Ben-Ami also spoke about the U.S. elections: "We know how high the stakes are in terms of social justice, economy, status of women, healthcare. In terms of the U.S. and Israel, some say being pro-Israel requires supporting every policy of the present Israeli government or going further to the right. And some congressmen are introducing legislation supporting the annexation of Judaea and Samaria in the name of being pro-Israeli, but this is the end of the democratic Israel.
In 2012, we have to fight this trend. Its up to us to inspire our community leaders to do what's right. We have the power to rewrite the rule book of the US politics," Ben-Ami said.
Leading Israeli Author Amos Oz didn't go light on complementing his hosts. "J Street, I've been waiting for you all my adult life," he said.
"I've been traveling in the U.S. for 45 years and they always tried to hush me that in Israel you can have your difference, but here we should be united. I say, yes, but why united under militaristic hawkish banner of AIPAC, and not peace-loving J Street? There is more than one way to be a good Jew, a good Zionist, to stand for Israel. No one can claim Zionism to themselves."
"Compromise is lack of integrity? Oz asked. "Not in my vocabulary. In my vocabulary it's synonym of life. The opposite of compromise is fanaticism and death. It's unreasonable after 100 years of bitterness to expect that Israelis and Palestinians will jump into honeymoon - but painful divorce. And nobody is moving out. We are destined to split our house into two smaller apartments. Czechoslovakia should be our example."
"One day," he predicted, "there is going to be a Palestinian Embassy in Israel and the Israeli Embassy in Palestine, and they are going to be in a walking distance from one another, because they will be in East and West Jerusalem. We are not seeking a happy ending. We are seeking Chekhovian, not Shakespearean ending.
"There will be a dispute on Holy places. My grandmother explained it in simple words. Why can't everybody just wait and see until the Messiah comes and see who was right? Until then, live and let live."
Oz compared the two-state solution to "painful surgery," where "the doctors are cowards." "The problem is the leadership on both sides. If beloved Mr. Netanyahu and his right-hand Mr. Barak said, yes to the two state solution and 67 borders with modifications - they have majority at the current government and the people."
Peace will come, he assured the audience. "The leaders who will make peace are alive - I wish I knew how old they are. As for the Palestinians, my slogan has always been - make peace, not love."
He said that an Israeli strike on Iran would be a mistake. "The Iranian regime is one of the worst, but it's not true of the Iranian people. They have a secular pragmatic middle class, they are enemies of their own regime, not Israel."
Last summers social protest leader Stav Shaffir took on Netanyahu's AIPAC speech: "He shamefully compared our life to life of our grandparents in ghetto. We don't want this. We want hope. Our grandparents built under far greater threats a country. Many of our friends who live abroad came to stand side by side with us, to take back Israel. They came back to fight for our future. We are fighting for a society's values, mutual respect and concern. Our grandparents came to the Middle East with their great beautiful dream - we must remember them and have no fear.
We will never give up. Sleep is not an option. Despair is not an option. We are here to stay and we plan to be everywhere - the streets, the Knesset, the government."
She concluded her speech by telling her audience of Jewish-American peaceniks: "You are the missing link and the cross-communities work. Let's work together toward a crazy and beautiful dream of the new Israel," and was greeted by applause.
Michael Biton, Mayor of Yerucham, a city with a population of 9,500 in southern Israels Negev desert, spoke about the corruption and the neglect of the Israeli periphery. Biton also discussed the way in which Israels external threats and the Arab spring are "used to marginalize seekers of peace."
Those opposing peace, he said, have no answers for the burning questions Israel is faced with. Most Israelis, he said, actually agree with J Street's ideals and goals.
Biton advised his audience to "show empathy," while at the same time being unequivocal on the issue of Israels security. "You are the only ones brave enough to have this difficult conversation with us," he said. "I am proud to be your partner."
The conference kicked off nicely. Nuances so often lacking from the Jewish-American discourse on Israel on Israel were heard. Some inspirational words were uttered. The question that still remains unanswered after the evening drew to a close is: What change J Street can effect in the short term.
One speaker featured in the video screened at the beginning of the plenary session said J Street activists want to help Israelis open a conversation about peace. In Israel, such conversation is going on for years - with the left wing bleeding since the Second Intifada. In the Jewish-American community it is quite a different story.
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