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.
J Street, he told the delegates, was a group of the center-left that embodied people on various parts of that spectrum. They could not win their fight, he suggested, unless they kept the center and got more, not less, support from it. By not supporting the U.S. veto, he told them, they became “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” Many centrists who had supported them have broken ranks and dropped out of J Street. “We,” he said, “made them move away from us.” J Street therefore pushed the mainstream of the Jewish community away from them, rather than towards them. This meant that when they said the right things, they would have little impact, since the Jewish community would not trust them.
Saying that he understood that J Street’s leaders made a tough call, Saperstein argued that if they had supported the veto, they would have been in a position to wage a successful call for a new movement in America to oppose Israel’s settlements. Now they were undercutting their own program to help the Obama administration advance the peace process.
Saperstein, in other words, was saying that J Street should have tactically not taken the position they believed in, simply because they lost potential allies in doing so. He said they needed to wage an effort to fight the Tea Party and those who wanted to end U.S. foreign aid and especially aid to Israel. Claiming that he was concerned with those who wanted to delegitimize the Jewish state, he said they needed a broad tent that would give credibility to their effort to be both pro-peace and pro-Israel. They had to oppose those who sought to support the BDS campaign — boycott, divestment and sanctions — favored by many of the far left in America.
The pro-Israel forces, he concluded, needed their vision of a pro-peace position. This is not, he said, “a time for retreat, since our vision will prevail.” That vision, he ended, stood for “dignity, social justice, and peace.”
Saperstein was followed by J Street’s polished director, Jeremy Ben-Ami. Reiterating their principles, Ben-Ami argued that Israel had to choose between being isolated because of its policies of occupation and working relentlessly for Palestinian rights and a Palestinian homeland. That meant a willingness to give up Palestinian land that it now controlled and give it back to its rightful owners. Israel’s long-term security, he argued, necessitated a Palestinian state and achieving a two-state solution. It was clear that he believes that the reason this does not exist depends entirely on Israel, and not one word was uttered by him or Saperstein about what the PLA might be doing that harmed Israel and prevented a Palestinian state from being created. Israel’s own policies, he said, ruin its democratic character and cause its international isolation. Thus only vigorous criticism of the policies of the Netanyahu government was needed to save Israel from itself.
When the young man who introduced Peter Beinart spoke, he said Beinart inspired him, because while he loves Israel, he did not love its actions during the war in Gaza. Current policies of the Israeli government, Beinart said, were a moral failure and harmed Israel and put the country at risk. One had to wonder, what policies of Israel’s enemies, if any, does he think had the same effect? Does he really believe that a change to the “peace” policies he espouses would end Arab intransigence? Israel had to create a vibrant, democratic Israel — not the kind of Israel now led by the reactionary Netanyahu government. Then and only then could the true holy mission of the Jewish people be realized, he said.
The crowd seemed to love it. As for myself, I wondered how this arrogant, so-called pundit had the nerve to tell the Jewish Israelis what was in their interest, and to tell them that he knew more than those who elected the center-right government what was in their own best interest. Beinart had not one word to say about the actual threats facing Israel from the new Middle East being created as we speak, from Iran, and from the very real threats to Israel from radical Islam.
The latter is hardly a surprise, since J Street’s own statement of principles says it opposes “efforts to demean and fan fears of Islam or of Muslims.” In their eyes, evidently, any criticism or mention of radical Islam is verboten, since it reflects the kind of understanding liberals and the left can never comprehend.