Having 'Real Conversations About Israel' at J Street's Conference

Peter Beinart's call to boycott Israeli settlements causes controversy, while Israeli social protest leader Stav Shaffir finds common cause with the younger generation of American Jews.

Left-wingers are often accused of being naive and all talk, as their aspirations are often incompatible with reality, at least in the short term. Aaron Weinberg, a Brandeis student whom I met at last year's J Street conference, is well aware of this stereotype - and is ready to confront it this year. "I can tell you that I did a lot this year," says Weinberg. "I started a J Street branch at our campus at the beginning of the year, and through community organizing, one-on-one meetings, the Brandeis delegation to the conference is now one of the biggest: 20 people. There is a great appetite for J Street's views, and we are changing the dialogue on campus; we are making it depolarized."

Weinberg says the Jewish community should embrace nuances, and that, yes, it can still love the imperfect Israel, exactly as Weinberg does. "I love Israel deeply, I am committed to the Zionist project - I just don't like the occupation of the Palestinian land," he says. Weinberg goes on to add that he feels "incredibly at home" at the conference, and - as uncomfortable as he felt last year over the lobby's decision to call for the Obama administration not to veto the UN Security Council resolution condemning the Israeli settlements - this year, he is proud.

Jacob Silverman, founder of J Street U at UC San-Diego.
Natasha Mozgovaya

This year, J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami clarified that he admires Peter Beinart, but rejects his calls to boycott settlements. Beinart himself, who on Sunday night presented his book, "Crisis of Zionism," explained that he called to boycott settlements because of the need to challenge the threat of the one-state solution, also saying that he doesn't think donations to the West Bank settlements should be easy. He even gave Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a chance to absolve himself, saying he doesn't believe the Israeli prime minister is a "hopeless case." "He just hasn't had the epiphany that [Former Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert had yet."

Olmert is due to speak at the J Street Gala on Monday night (some unfriendly people have wondered what this says about his relations with AIPAC). But his brother Dr. Josef Olmert, who is currently teaching at the University of South Carolina, was so angry at Beinart over his recent New York Times op-ed that he offered to come to Washington to debate against him at a forum. But he didn't make it to the J Street conference.

"Beinart’s article and his book clearly require a response, even if it is doubtful whether free-speech, good-hearted liberals like him are even interested in a debate, as they believe in a boycott of hundreds of thousands of settlers," Joseph Olmert told Haaretz. "It's collective punishment, and I was under the impression that peace-lovers hate collective punishments. Well, apparently only against Palestinians," he said.

Josef Olmert wondered where a proper settlement boycott ends. "What is the case with those who believe in the right of Jews to live in their historic homeland, while they themselves still live inside the Green Line borders?" he asked. "Are they not more dangerous than the settlers themselves, for it is their political support which brings pro-settler governments to power in Jerusalem? And what about those who vote for these governments even if settlements are not necessarily their main agenda? Don't they deserve to be boycotted by virtue of their political blindness?"

"And last, but not least," Joseph Olmert continued, "What about those, like me, who believe that Jews have a right to live in Judea and Samaria - but also believe, as painfully as it is, that most of these territories will have to be under Palestinian control, if and when the latter will be ready to compromise on 'just' 95% of the disputed lands? Should not we be boycotted for the sin of using Biblical names, thus cultivating, though inadvertently, support for the settlers? Boycott, Beinart should know, is something that you know how it starts; you never know how it ends." He went on to say that that political scientist and activist Norman Finkelstein called upon the organizers of the BDS campaign to "say the truth: that it is their goal to destroy Israel, not just to boycott it."

Another question Joseph Olmert had for Beinart was how effective the boycott would really be. "Take the Arizona example," said Olmert. "Governor Jan Brewer was reelected in 2010 with a landslide. Her voters were not impressed with the boycott." (During my last visit to the West Bank, some business owners boasted that their sales had skyrocketed since the calls to boycott their products).

Some J Street conference participants do support the idea of a settlements boycott. Jacob Silverman, a student at UC San Diego, is still trying to figure out what he thinks about it. I meet him near the J Street U merchandise, which included t-shirts with messages like "I [heart] two states." He isn’t wearing one of those, but does have a black yarmulke on his head - certainly not typical for this conference.

"It's important to put pressure on the settlements enterprise," says Silverman. "That's also what the Palestinians at the conference said. I do believe that economic pressure is a way to fight occupation. But I am still trying to figure this out, and there is always room for conversation and disagreements. That's how we have healthy Judaism."

Silverman comes from a Conservative background and became more involved in Judaism at college. He admits his political positions are not necessarily typical for the Orthodox movement, but that his religious and political views "developed quite independently," of one another. However, Silverman sees no contradiction between the values in the Torah and his support for a Jewish state alongside Palestinian aspirations.

"The peace prospect this year is compromised," he says. "But this is the place where people have real conversations about Israel. It's not restricted, like in many others. And for me it's very exciting."

Michael Biton, mayor of Yerucham, who told the audience at the opening plenary Saturday night that he is proud to be J Street's partner, told Haaretz he hesitated when he got an invitation to attend the conference.

"Peace is not terribly popular in Israel now," said Biton. "This organization was heavily delegitimized in Israel. But one needs to come here and to see all these young people, involved and highly motivated, that want to act for peace - you understand they were just looking for a moderate home. If J Street existed when Yitzhak Rabin was prime minister, no one would dare to delegitimize it, and it would back the peace process with serious grassroots support. Basically they say the same as Netanyahu: a two state solution. The trick is how to get there".

Biton says the biggest danger for J Street is getting involved with people that hold extreme views. "J Street is in a much better position this year. It used to be presented as extreme, but it is becoming mainstream. That said, I don't like the idea of a boycott. This lobby needs to be moderate. Those who do not agree that Israel needs to be Jewish and Zionist shouldn't be at a pro-Israeli organization, period. As for the settlements - leave this issue to the actual negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians".

Of course, there was the inevitable question of Israel as a wedge issue in the U.S. presidential elections of 2012, discussed at one of the panels. Jim Gerstein, a partner at the firm GBA Strategies, said only about 15% of Jews might vote on the issue of Israel - although they are "really vocal ones." As for support for Israel, he said, "for candidates, the threshold is so low they have no difficulty passing it."

And finally for this second day of the conference, I was personally curious how Stav Shaffir, one of the leaders of the Israeli social protests of 2011, felt about J Street's reaction to her speech regarding Israel's domestic troubles. Are American Jews really interested in hearing about the Bedouin villages and cottage cheese? What sort of support did she come to ask for?

"First of all, we came to tell our story," she told me, after speaking at three synagogues and several panels and before making her way to TribeFest, Nevada, San Fransisco, and other places.

"Because it's rarely told here. Netanyahu comes here to talk about the successful economy and blooming democracy in Israel. We want to get people out of this box. It was hard for us to find time for this visit, we rejected many invitations from abroad, because in Israel we are spending 20 hours a day meeting people, getting to every possible corner; we are obsessed with this idea that if we don't take advantage of this awakening, in several years it might be too late to change the direction of this country. And here, there is a community that is concerned about Israel too. And people here in the U.S. are excited to see the young generation in Israel getting involved - and at J Street, you see the young American Jews that are getting involved. And you know what we hear from people we meet in the U.S.? 'We feel we have the same problems.'"