The annual J Street conference kicked off in Washington D.C. on Saturday night with the launch of a campaign aimed at forcing Jewish communal institutions to resuscitate the moribund Green Line on their maps of Israel – and to account for funds that are being spent on Jewish settlements beyond it.
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J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami asked an audience of over 2,000 delegates: “How can the American Jewish community hope to promote a two-state solution if we don’t distinguish between the state of Israel within the Green Line and the land occupied in 1967?”
But the main focus of the conference, and the buzz that is driving its energy, is not the somewhat boy-scoutish operation to revive the Green Line, which was conceived several months ago – but last week’s surprise elections victory of Benjamin Netanyahu and the controversial statements he made on his way to achieving it. “We would like to believe that the prime minister of Israel supports a two state solution – and is not a racist,” is how J Street Chairman Mort Halperin framed the issue at the start of the conference.
J Street is holding its annual gathering at Washington’s Convention Center, in the same venue that AIPAC held its conference earlier this month. The juxtaposition of the two works in AIPAC’s favor – it has five times as many attendees as J Street, its organization is superb and its lineup of speakers is far more impressive. But J Street features a far less formal, and thus far more “Israeli” atmosphere and an impressive contingent of 1,100 students from the group’s student body, J Street U, who infuse the gathering with youthful energy missing from most other Jewish communal events.
Rather than the controversy over Netanyahu’s statements, which are infuriating the adults, the students seem to be incensed far more by Hillel director Eric Fingerhut’s last-minute decision to pull out of the conference despite his earlier agreement, because of what is largely viewed as pressure from Hillel donors. In response, J Street U flaunted the agreement of over 40 mainstream Hillel chapters from some of America’s largest universities to be listed as sponsors of the conference. And Ben Ami slammed Fingerhut, saying his refusal to speak to J Street publicly “calls into question whether Hillel is appropriately engaging its target audience and providing a welcoming home for all on campus.”
Ben Ami and Union for Reform Judaism’s Rick Jacobs were the featured speakers of the opening night, though its moving moments were provided by two Israeli-Palestinian pairs: Representatives of the Parents Circle of bereaved parents - Bassam Aramin, whose daughter was killed in 2007 by Israeli Border Police and Robi Damelin, whose son was killed by a Palestinian sniper in 2002 – who called for a moment of silence “for all the people killed in last summer’s war;” and Roni Keidar, of the southern moshav Netiv Ha’asara and Maha Mehanna who is a senior Arabic-English translator in Gaza for Applied Information Management, who spoke of their deep and enduring friendship across the Gaza border and the psychological gap of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Ben-Ami, for his part, delivered a fiery address to an appreciative audience, telling the prime minister: "We say to Netanyahu, who claims to speak for all the Jews of the world - you do not speak for us.” He said that J Street is not only feeling disappointment at the election results - “It’s anger and it’s pain that we’re feeling at having watched the Prime Minister of Israel use fear mongering and scare tactics tinged with racism to claw his way to 23 per cent of the vote.”
Ben-Ami also blasted Netanyahu, Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer and House Speaker John Boehner for the “partisan gamesmanship” that enabled Netanyahu’s speech to Congress – and damaged U.S.-Israeli relations, according to Ben Ami.
Ben-Ami told his audience “being pro-Israel doesn’t mean you have to be anti-Palestinian.” He said that J Street would urge U.S. leaders to declare the settlements illegal, to publish a set of parameters for a two-state solution and to support a United Nations Security Council resolution that would provide guidelines for reaching a final settlement.
Jacobs, for his part, blasted the Jewish establishment’s rejection of J Street, saying that he was “stunned at the vituperative criticism of some who seem to imply that the greatest threat facing Israel and the Jewish people is not Iran, Hamas, or Hezbollah’s missiles but rather this pro-peace, pro-Israel group known as J Street.”
Jacobs said “progressives” should continue to fight for a two-state solution because “the occupation threatens the very Zionism that we hold dear - the living expression of a Jewish democratic state; it causes pain and hardship to the Palestinians and alienates Israel from friends and allies around the world. Sadly,” he added, “we are further from the goal of two states for two people than we were a week ago.”
“My Jewish values insist that a non-democratic state is inherently un-Jewish. But a democratic state that is not Jewish would be a betrayal of our people’s two-thousand year-old dream to restore Jewish sovereignty in Eretz Yisrael.” Jacobs said.
But he struck a balanced note, telling his audience “progressives are at fault for labeling Israel as the sole culprit in scuttling peace initiatives.” He also criticized both Netanyahu and U.S. President Obama for their recent handling of relations between the two countries, saying: “Let us remind president Obama and prime minister Netanyahu that the U.S.-Israel relationship is a partnership between nations, not between individuals. It transcends partisanship, and belongs equally to Democrats and Republicans, to Likud and Labor.”