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Impressions from J Street, 2017

Ron Skolnik
March 13, 2017

by Ron Skolnik


EVERY J STREET conference has its rock star, that one figure whose presence elates the crowd and gives them hope amidst the gloomy reality. In 2013, for example, it was VP Joe Biden: The appearance of the man a “heartbeat away from the presidency” signaled to J Street’s activists that the organization had now come of age and was poised for greater things. In 2015 it was young Israeli Labor MK Stav Shaffir, who offered hopes for a liberal renaissance in Israeli politics. This year’s gathering in Washington DC (February 25-27) was #FeeltheBern time, with Senator Bernie Sanders easily drawing the loudest, most sustained applause of the conference when he was introduced at its final plenary session.

The Vermont senator proceeded to deliver a sharply-worded speech, which opened on a Jewish theme: A condemnation of the rise in antisemitism in the United States in recent weeks, with repeated desecrations of Jewish cemeteries and bomb threats directed at Jewish community centers and day schools. Sanders decried Donald Trump’s glaringly insufficient response to such acts, as well as the White House’s intentional omission in its Holocaust Day statement of the six million Jews murdered during the Shoah.

After discussing his domestic agenda, the Iraq war, and the nuclear deal with Iran (giving thanks to J Street for its efforts on the latter), Sanders moved on to the question of Israel-Palestine. He praised Obama’s decision to abstain on, and allow the approval of, UN Security Council resolution 2334 (on Israeli settlements) late last year, noting that the resolution reflected the international consensus on a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders. This, he said, was also consistent with bipartisan U.S. policy. He bemoaned Trump’s “carelessness” and amateurism in suggesting a deviation from this policy and an openness to a one-state future for Israel/Palestine. Sanders delighted the crowd with his balanced call to respect the “legitimate rights” of both sides, and to recognize that Palestinians and Israelis were equally deserving of security, self-determination, civil rights, and economic well-being.

Bernie’s biggest applause line came when he echoed an argument made by Barack Obama during his 2008 presidential campaign: “To oppose the policies of a rightwing government in Israel,” Sanders bellowed, “does not make one anti-Israel [major applause], just as one can oppose Donald Trump’s policies without being anti-American, and just as one can oppose policies of Islamic extremism without being anti-Muslim.” Without using the word Naqba (“catastrophe” in Arabic), Sanders acknowledged the “painful historical . . . displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians” at the time of Israel’s creation. But he insisted that such acknowledgement “doesn’t delegitimize Israel,” just as recognizing what American governments did to Native Americans does not amount to delegitimizing the United States.

Sanders called upon progressives in Israel to make common cause with American progressives, arguing that they were united by the same core values: Democracy, equality, pluralism, the rights of minorities, and opposition to xenophobia. “Your fight is our fight,” he said. Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg and others had earlier made similar appeals for a trans-Atlantic political alliance of the left.


SANDERS’ TYING TOGETHER of resistance to both American and Israeli policies around a theme of shared progressive values was thematic of the J Street conference as a whole. Since November 8, the organization has understood that American Jews, including its supporters, would increasingly focus on the threats to democracy and social justice at home. In response, J Street has stretched the scope of its mission so that its activists won’t have to look elsewhere to oppose Trump’s domestic agenda.

Asked at a press briefing whether J Street now intends to become a catch-all liberal Jewish organization that addresses the full range of domestic American issues, organization president Jeremy Ben-Ami said that was not their intention: They would not be campaigning on issues such as gun control or health policy, he said. But as a “values-driven” organization, J Street would deal more than in the past with issues such as refugees, immigrants and the status of Muslims in America -– issues that resonate with Jews’ core identity and history of persecution. J Street, Ben-Ami explained, could add “political muscle” on this front and thereby help other American Jewish organizations who are active on these topics but which lack the same networks and connections. The message was reiterated at the Monday evening gala dinner by J Street’s board chair, Mort Halperin.

The conference featured a greater focus by J Street on domestic U.S. issues than ever before, including a breakout session on “Combating Islamophobia” and a nuanced and provocative panel that looked at Black-Jewish relations within the context of the Black Lives Matter movement. (One key observation at that session: American Jews haven’t shown up enough in the #BLM struggle, but ward off criticism of the community by citing its storied involvement in the early civil rights days, using the classic image of Heschel marching alongside Martin Luther King as nostalgic cover. Watch the entire session here.)

J Street U activist Eva Borgwardt wowed a plenary session when she declared that the same values applied by American Jews to questions of injustice at home should also be applied in the case of Israel. Similarly, Ben-Ami suggested that if Trump is once again greeted with standing ovations at this year’s AIPAC conference, predominantly liberal (on domestic issues) American Jews will develop a greater openness to J Street as a truer representative of their values.

Muslim-Jewish cooperation in the U.S. was emphasized repeatedly during the conference, with the fundraising work of Palestinian American Linda Sarsour, to repair the vandalized Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, being cited on many occasions and drawing great applause each time. Sarsour was also praised for her organizing work on the Women’s March. Several speakers called for Jews and Muslims to make common cause against antisemitism and Islamophobia in America.


ON MY TRAIN RIDE to DC, I perused the lengthy program for the J Street conference in order to plot out which breakout sessions I’d be attending over the next two days. The first thing I noticed was how many centrist, mainstream Jewish organizations and figures were participating: HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) and Hillel International, for example, were marketing their wares at exhibitor tables. At the last J Street gathering in 2015, Hillel International CEO Eric Fingerhut had canceled his participation and refused to address the conference –- despite the attendance of one thousand J Street U students, his ostensible target audience and constituency –- because PLO chief negotiator Saeb Erekat was to be there as well.

The Reform movement, the largest stream of American religious Judaism, was out in strength, too. Back in 2009, at J Street’s first conference, the Union for Reform Judaism president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, took the stage and referenced his strong disagreements with the new dovish organization over its positions on the 2008-09 Gaza War and the subsequent Goldstone Report. Some J Street participants responded with boos. This year, at J Street’s sixth national conference, the Reform movement hosted an official reception, two of its institutional arms, ARZA (Association of Reform Zionists of America) and the American Conference of Cantors, were participating organizations, and the directors of the movement’s Religious Action Center and Israel Religious Action Center were prominent panelists.

That’s not all. The centrist Israel Policy Forum, which was brought back to life in 2012 as a response to J Street’s exaggerated leftism, as IPF’s organizers saw it, this time hosted a breakout session that focused on the two-state solution security plan it has been promoting in recent months. Barry Shrage, President of Combined Jewish Philanthropies (the Jewish federation of Boston), took part in a plenary discussion on “American Jewish Leadership in the Trump Era” (though the scuttlebutt has it that he took plenty of heat back home for doing so), as did Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women.

On the other hand, there was no one speaking at this conference on behalf of Jewish Voice for Peace. In 2011, J Street drew intense criticism from the mainstream Jewish community after including JVP director Rebecca Vilkomerson on a panel on BDS, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement. Nor was there any real effort to assess the viability or feasibility of the two-state solution or to muse about possible alternative final-status arrangements. There was certainly nothing akin to the 2015 plenary session, “Does Liberal Zionism Have a Future?”, in which former Israeli MK Marcia Freedman, the founder of Brit Tzedek V’Shalom, questioned the need for a “Jewish state” and raised the possibility of Jews having a refuge and “protected minority” status in a democratic, but not necessarily Jewish, country.

I raised the question of J Street’s mainstream acceptance in the press briefing with Ben-Ami, wondering if this might have something to do with the Trump election and the recognition that J Street needed to be an ally in the defense of American democracy. Ben-Ami had earlier reported that 75 percent of American Jewish voters had not voted for Trump, and that his disapproval rating among American Jews was almost that high. Replying to my question, he surmised that if J Street has received a more mainstream organizational acceptance, it’s probably because it has been around long enough for others in the Jewish world to properly understand what it stands for. He pointed in particular to Hillel International: Its campus directors, he said, had learned what an asset J Street’s student activists were and were communicating this up the pipeline to national leaders. He imagined that the changing political environment in the U.S. might have also had a certain amount of impact.

Later on I had another, more troubling, thought: What if mainstream groups had become less hostile to J Street because, with Trump now in office, it was less of a threat. With no one expecting the White House to press Israel toward any significant concessions, perhaps J Street’s activity had now become “harmless” and could be humored. A speculation for further analysis.


J STREET did not shy away from the fact that, in the wake of the Trump victory, it’s headed into the political wilderness in the near term. The conference featured several sessions that dealt with the organization’s new role “in the opposition.”

Asked what reasonable policy goals J Street might now have, Ben-Ami focused on playing defense: protecting the nuclear deal with Iran and, at the Congressional level, preventing the defunding of the Palestinian Authority and of the United Nations. Board chair Halperin added at the gala: preventing the Trump administration from moving the American embassy to Jerusalem and prevailing upon it to disavow a one-state arrangement for Israel/Palestine.


I GOT A CHANCE to see three segments of a new documentary by Shimon Dotan called The Settlers, which will be premiering this Friday at the Film Forum in New York (and has been reviewed by Mitchell Abidor here on our website). In his film, Dotan probes the background and history of the settlement movement. Most importantly, he lets the ideological settlers speak directly to the camera. This does not serve to humanize them in any way: When the settlers are allowed to speak freely, an ugliness emerges. One settler says with pride that he’s a racist. A second validates the Arab perception of Zionists as the aggressors. Another suggests that Baruch Goldstein’s Hebron massacre was an act of self-defense. A fourth smugly recalls his participation in the mid-1980s plot to blow up the mosques on the Temple Mount and expel the Arab population. What stands out are the settlers’ confidence, arrogance, and sense of dominance and victory.

Dotan, in his remarks, referred to the struggle in Israel as one between a “Zionism of the Land” and a “Zionism of the State.”


No one from the Likud party showed up at this year’s J Street conference, but one of the four MKs in attendance was a member of the Netanyahu coalition: Akram Hasson, a Druze member of the center-right Kulanu party. Hasson might be in for a rough welcome when he gets back home after telling a plenary session that “no one knows” what Netanyahu wants in terms of the Israel/Palestine issue. Once, at his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech, Netanyahu spoke of a two-state solution, Hasson explained, “but now he’s saying different things.” Rejecting Netanyahu’s “outside-in” approach, the MK also said that the prime minister won’t get far promoting relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Coast countries if he doesn’t deal with the Palestinians. And if young Palestinians have no hope, he warned, they would resort to knives and guns.

Hasson made clear that Netanyahu’s coalition, as currently configured, was not built to advance peace. He expressed regret that the center-left Zionist Union had not been brought into the coalition last year, when Secretary of State Kerry made Netanyahu a breakthrough offer, as recently revealed by Haaretz -- an offer from which the prime minister chose to walk away.


Several speakers called on the left to take the idea of political power more seriously. A panel of up-and-coming Israeli activists rejected a feel-good approach to protest, saying it didn’t mean much unless it was translated into eventual electoral victory. In one of the better lines I heard at the conference (see others below), author Bernard Avishai argued that we will neither fact-check nor satirize Trump out of power -- and we will neither fact-check nor satirize the two-state solution into existence.


Columnist Tom Friedman, serving as plenary discussion moderator: Welcome to the Conference of Presidents of Major Non-Right-Wing American Jewish Organizations (a reference to J Street’s exclusion from the Conference of Presidents framework).

Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg on the basis for grassroots political organizing: Martin Luther King said “I have a dream;” he didn’t say “I have a strategy.”

Mikhael Manekin to American Jews who are skeptical about the possibility of achieving a two-state solution: Cut out the negativity about our future. It’s not helpful. We’re optimistic we can still win.

Former U.S. Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations, Martin Indyk, on the dormant state of the two-state solution: In the Middle East, there’s a difference between being dead, and being dead and buried.

J Street Board chair Mort Halperin on whether Trump will move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem: From my compulsively optimistic perspective, I declare this battle won.

Ron Skolnik (@Ron_Skolnik) is associate editor of Jewish Currents. He’s attended every one of the six J Street conferences, starting in 2009, and has written about most of them. His columns have been published in Haaretz, The Jerusalem Report, Tikkun, Palestine-Israel Journal and elsewhere. He previously served as political adviser to the British Embassy in Israel and as director of Partners for Progressive Israel (formerly Meretz USA).