This guest post is by occasional Jewschool guest-poster Treyfe. Treyfe works with the pro-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions group Jewish Voice for Peace. Given the controversial nature of BDS, now is a good time to quote the editorial policy, as displayed on the Masthead:
“The ideas, thoughts, and words published on Jewschool.com by Jewschool contributors and/or commenters are the opinions of those individuals only and do not represent the views or positions of Jewschool….”
My blogging career began at J Street a year and a half ago, so I am forever indebted to the organization, even if my first post criticized their dis-invitation of a trio of spoken word poets. This time around, there were no spoken word poets on the program. There were however, numerous Israeli activists whose work I draw inspiration from, and, most controversially Jewish Voice for Peace Executive Director Rebecca Vilkomerson. She was present to tackle the hot-as-latke-oil topic of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. When J Street got predictable flak over this–to their credit–they did not un-invite. Their skins have presumably grown thicker after episodes like their own shul-banning and Hillel-banning. (Full disclosure: I do consultation work with Jewish Voice for Peace, edit their blog The Only Democracy?, and am a former board member.)
Below, video of JVP Executive Director Rebecca Vilkomerson’s talk at J Street
J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami did present a justification: he was bringing Vilkomerson there in order to discredit the BDS movement! And indeed the panel was stacked, with Ameinu’s Kenneth Bob, a Berkeley student named Simone Zimmerman, and champion of global capitalism Bernard Avishai–all opposed to BDS. Hopefully, Ben-Ami did not actually believe that the best way to discredit someone was to stack the deck against them. In any case, it did not succeed.
I was sent with a press pass to cover the conference. I missed the first night panel where director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center David Saperstein praised J Street for defeating divestment, even as he chided them for backing a UN Resolution that would have actually enforced US policy on settlements. Sounds like you could do pretty well doing the opposite of whatever Saperstein suggests. I also missed, but later watched on video the panel of Knesset members. I did hear the female member of Knesset Orit Zuaretz introduced by how many children she had, but missed the question about BDS where the moderator responded “Oh, is this about delegitimization?” but the crowd hissed in disapproval at her for characterizing it that way.
At the New Israel Fund panel I attempted to ask Naomi Chazan (without drawing horns on her head) if the same forces in Israel were demonizing BDS and NGO’s. Chazan ignored my question, and the moderator, taking them in bunches, did not prompt her.
At the optimistically titled “Revival of the Israeli left” panel, several other people posed BDS questions. However, the moderator (and excellent blogger) Didi Remez instead focused on “nonviolent direct action.” In the time since the last J Street conference this has actually become pretty noncontroversial. Remez promised us he would get to BDS, but in the end tapped his watch: “Oops, look at the time….” But don’t worry, there’s a panel for that!
The next day began with Dennis Ross droning on in the token “US Government Official, Special Platitude Agent” role. However, J Street had a trio of critical respondents including Daniel Levy. Levy stole the show by suggesting permanent residency rights for settlers and refugees alike, a federation alternative to the two state solution, Palestinian control over their borders (“I doubt Egypt would have signed a deal if we asked if we could police their border with the Sudan”) negotiations with Hamas, and refraining from emphasizing “Jewish and democratic” as it ignores Palestinian citizens of Israel. This was a stark rejoinder to Ross, who used the phrase “biological clock,” which managed to be both racist and make the Arab citizens of the region sound like thirtysomething women concerened about their fertility.
Finally, the BDS panel itself made news (and it did make allthe majorJewish presswriteups of the conference) for its civility. While Simone Zimmerman clearly hit an emotional chord with her claim that BDS divided her campus and made peace more difficult, Vilkomerson made a totally coherent case and refuted some misconceptions about BDS, while lamenting the limits of Jewish-only discussion of this issue. She could not have been a better contrast to Kenneth Bob’s reluctance to inconvenicence settlers and Bernard Avishai’s hopes that investment bankers were going to solve the conflict. Vilkomerson also provided a good perspective on Zimmerman’s focus on the feelings solely of Jewish students at UC Berkeley as trumping all other concerns, including those of Palestinian-Americans on campus. The packed crowd of 300 angled around 3 sides of the room to ask questions.
This was the only moment of real discussion I saw at the conference. The moderator, Kathleen Peratis, handled the panel extremely well, taking one question at a time and trying to ensure that each panelist received questions. But people had more questions for Vilkomerson, and why not? She was the only one saying something they hadn’t heard. The room was divided, but interestingly so. It was the most interesting hour and a half of the conference. And outside of Mona Eltahawy’s truthtelling, it was the most honest and electric moment.
A year and a half ago, I read Jonathan Raban’s account of a Sarah Palin rally in which he described it as like nothing so much as a family reunion, right down to the visual resemblance of the participants. I was reminded of his words at the first J Street conference in 2009, as countless speakers exulted in seeing other Jews exactly like them. Simone Zimmerman would have been an even bigger hit that year . But I heard much less of that sentiment this time around, because things had become more like, well, a real family. One pretty divided down the middle between people rising to applaud Eltahawy and those who thought she was condoning hate. And everyone was much less certain than they were in the triumphal wake of Obama’s election. At least now the doubt was authentic. What could be more Jewish?
So credit to J Street for growing up, for growing wider. However, maturity is not a substitute for an actual purpose, and the vast attention to BDS, the outright enthusiasm for alternatives, for new ideas, may swamp the organization itself, which seems still wedded to its 2008 talking points. I cannot think of a movement of self-proclaimed centrists ever transforming American politics.