The first session of J. Street’s 2nd National Conference has just come to an end. The first plenary session, held at the Washington Convention Center, was attended by about 2000 delegates, many of them — at least 500 — young people from J Street chapters at different campuses across the country.
The main speaker was Rabbi David Saperstein, director and counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. After his presentation, the organization honored three “heroes”: journalist Peter Beinart, Israeli activist Sara Benninga, and Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, a physician whose three daughters lost their lives during the Gaza war in 2009.
Rabbi Saperstein began by laying out what he said was the main focus of J Street. There are two visions of America: that which sees the government as an enemy — a clear allusion to the Tea Party and Republicans — and that which sees the government as the agency which carries out the ethical needs of people who live in society. Peace, he argued, would arrive through those who lived true Jewish values: those of “social justice,” which God required. One could not, the rabbi said, fulfill the destiny demanded by God and be holy, unless one fought for “justice, peace and equality.” In other words, Saperstein was essentially arguing that to be Jewish, one has to be on the left or be a liberal. The reason Jews still exist as a people, he argued, was that they were called to help shape a better and more hopeful world, by feeding the hungry, speaking out against injustice, and working on behalf of a fair wage for working people. What any of this had to do with Israel might be a question those not in J Street are asking themselves.
Jews, he continued, have a thirst for social justice. They worked to develop standards for just war, and strive to use moral means when fighting a war. That means giving full rights to Israeli Arabs and working for a free and viable Palestinian state living alongside a Jewish state in peace. One could use the military in the short term to fight Israel’s enemies, but, he warned, a military approach could not defeat terrorism.
He then made an assertion some would challenge. Israel, he said — ignoring the reality that terrorist attacks in Israel have declined tremendously since Israel built the security wall — had fewer attacks in the last few years of the Oslo Accords. The only way to achieve peace, he told the audience, was to make a real two-state solution take place. He said that both the U.S. and Israel had to have this as their policy, and Israel had to be pressured not to expand any of its settlements. American supporters of Israel, therefore, had to criticize policies of the Israeli government they felt were wrong, since that was in the best long-term interests of Israel itself. We could not be, he said, “idle bystanders of Israel’s role.” J Street, he told them to applause, was the single greatest contribution made by the American Jewish community in years.
After softening up the audience with constant praise of their group, Saperstein suddenly turned and presented a tactical criticism that did not go over well with the surprised audience. How, he asked, should we apply our values? How do we decide when to make tactical decisions that do not have great support in America’s Jewish community? “When,” he asked, “do we push the envelope?” Saperstein then let the audience know he was referring to the organization’s recent decision to favor the recent UN resolution condemning Israel, which the Obama administration vetoed in the United Nations.