First thing this afternoon at the JStreet conference there was a town-hall plenary session, within which there was space for dialogue among participants, and questions about important policy issues. Interestingly, it seemed to give an equal platform to Jeremy Ben-Ami, representing JStreet, and to Rabbi Eric Yoffie of the Union for Reform Judaism. All of Rabbi Yoffie’s comments did not concur with my understanding of JStreet’s political leanings. For example, “The day after the withdrawal Gaza should have become the Singapore of the Middle East.” This was not the tight message control I had come to expect from the emails I’ve been receiving from JStreet this past year.
After each of them spoke questions were posed for discussion. If you didn’t already know, the questions that were officially posed would have made it clear that JStreet is on the defensive against attacks from the right and not the left (not that there aren’t critiques from the left). For starters, how does a “pro-peace” group reconcile itself to the need for self-defense? “Pro-peace” is not pacifist, but I’m sure plenty of people would like to confuse the two in order to paint JStreet as naive. Next.
Is it true that many liberal Jews don’t recognize the threat from Iran? And was the Goldstone report fair to Israel? Rather than take the defensive, in both cases Ben-Ami agreed with the bias implicit in the questions. JStreet won’t rule out sanctions if diplomacy doesn’t work some time vaguely soon. And Ben-Ami agreed that the Goldstone report was a problem, although that shouldn’t prevent us from “looking in the mirror” and investigating human rights concerns.
I was bothered by some of the rhetoric I heard condemning the Goldstone report. Jeremy Ben-Ami agreed with Rabbi Yoffie that it’s used against one side and one side only, it focuses on this over all other issues on the globe, it was a flawed process coming from a mess of a UN system. Why do these arguments sound familiar? This is the same logic used against any criticism of Israel to label it as anti-Semitic. It can be really hard to walk that fine line of working within a framework that rejects all criticism, but still be critical. I hope that JStreet can manage to do this without being co-opted.
Naturally for JStreet to gain the mainstream traction that they require, they must play into the mainstream narrative of Israel as the primary victim. In other words, you must convince people within the framework of their existing worldview if you wish to accomplish anything in politics. That is the role of JStreet. It’s also worthwhile to fundamentally challenge that worldview, but that is work that can only be accomplished on longer timescales, most likely on a local level.
Meanwhile there is the longer-term project of real dialogue. Earlier I attended an excellent session on “How Jews, Christians and Muslims Can Work Together for Peace”. Many of the lessons discussed in this session could also apply to how we interact with people in our own community with whom we disagree. Dialogue is not easy. You must be willing to listen. First you must build relationships and only later address the difficult questions.
The questions that were asked at the end reflected the kinds of questions asked in both of those stages. At one point a Muslim on the panel was singled out to explain that Muslim groups do in fact condemn violence and anti-Semitism. You’d hope that it wouldn’t have to be said, but apparently some people need to hear it. Then came a question about how justifications of violence can be found in the texts of all three traditions. It can’t be denied, and they didn’t deny it. That’s the kind of thing that’s harder to do among people with whom you are not yet comfortable. The panelists did a good job of modeling what we should all aspire to in these kinds of dialogues.
Open-minded dialogue and political pragmatism each have their place. I’m excited to see so many people who want to do something to create some real change.