I was fortunate enough to get interviews (on video!) with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf of the Cordoba Initiative and Mona Eltahawy, both incredible thinkers and speakers. The internet at my hostel (and at the conference) is incredibly slow, so I’ll post them once I’m back at home.
More generally, though, the conference this year has a different feel than the last. The moments of complete inspiration are a bit fewer, but there’s much more of a sense of cohesiveness between sessions. J Street has really matured as an organization, and I think a lot of the credit for this goes to the work of the locals, who provide a reference to the real conditions that activists face in attempting to advance the Israel-Palestine discussion on the ground. This isn’t to enforce the view of all Washington politicians as part of a bubble, totally disconnected from the outside world, just to say that a connection to those who are actually the constituents is an invaluable asset for an organization that values its supporters’ views.
Now more than ever, I feel that J Street values mine.
This weekend, several of us from Jewschool will join over 2,000 other people in DC for the 2011 J Street conference. The reasons for my continued involvement with and support for J Street are complex. On the one hand, I harbor deep moral reservations concerning the idea of religious or ethnic states. Yet I find the idea of a binational state completely unworkable, in that I don’t think it would materially improve Palestinians’ lives (I tend to think it would worsen them).
So what’s a Jew to do? I realized early on in my activism that J Street was a unique organization. Unique not only in its policy positions, but in its belief of how those positions should be articulated, advanced, and discussed. J Street’s dual function – advancing a liberal view of Israel that treats Palestinians as partners in nation-building rather than obstacles to Jewish self-determination while simultaneously establishing a robust space where Israel-Palestine activism can stem from real, respectful discussion – is often criticized as a weakness, but I view it as a strength. Having spent the last few years getting more and more deeply involved with J Street, and, as a consequence, surrounding myself more and more with like-minded Jews, it’s easy for me to forget the guttural fear and hatred that J Street still inspires in some of its foes. That fear, itself a symptom of close-mindedness, is what convinces me that J Street is doing something right. It’s what keeps me passionate about my activism. And it’s what keeps me excited about the vast amount of work that still remains to be done.
Working with J Street has caused me to question how the traditional pro-Israel narrative is presented, and to reflect on how this narrative permeates so many aspects of Jewish cultural and religious life. This weekend, I’m looking forward to fresh inspiration from people who’ve dedicated their careers and lives to democratizing that narrative and opening it to criticism, revision, and ownership by those of us who for too long were defined out of its constituency.
If you’ll be at the conference, let us know! We’d love to see you there.
Leon Wieseltier’s piece over at TNR is really really good!
So with our eyes wide open, it is important to assert that Israel’s vision of its future cannot be premised upon an eternity of Arab authoritarianism and an eternity of Palestinian statelessness. Such a vision is wrong, and it will not work. It is painful, for someone who admires the Jewish state for its democratic character, to see it emerge as an enemy of democratization. Jews should not rely on Pharaohs.
One interesting side effect of the situation in Egypt has been to force defenders of Israel (I use this to mean anyone who doesn’t solely blame Israel for the perpetuation of the conflict) to decide where their sympathies lie: with people struggling for democracy against their own Pharoah, or with Netanyahu’s initial position of support for the Mubarak regime, which he’s since walked back (like the US). Israel is now coming into the phase of its nationhood where it has to grapple with the real issues that calling yourself a democracy brings – namely, supporting democracy in other places (something that modern democracies have in general been pretty bad at). This is to say nothing of the profoundly undemocratic nature of the occupation, but the situation in Egypt is a lot more visible, and poses more immediate diplomatic questions to the Israeli leadership.
As any of us who are at all politically involved can attest to, it’s pretty damn hard to stay optimistic about world politics. We’re surrounded by immense amounts of pain and suffering, and the governmental structures that supposedly exist to improve those conditions usually move far too slowly, often doing too little too late. I observe this dynamic everywhere I look – on Israel-Palestine, US domestic issues, foreign policy, and global financial problems. Particularly for progressives, who by definition are interested in “progress” – that is, substantive change in the way the world works – it’s incredibly frustrating to have to abide by the glacial pace of most policy discussions. Read more »
Jack Wertheimer and his team of sociologists and researchers have just released an incredibly informative report (PDF) examining the demographics, experiences, and work of young Jewish leaders, stemming from hundreds of interviews and thousands of survey responses. Notably, it avoids characterizing all activities undertaken by such people as necessarily “anti-establishment,” while delving far more deeply into the actual views they hold than any such study or article I’ve seen before. It covers just about every aspect of Jewish life, sorting Jewish organizational endeavors into three categories: protective, progressive, and expressive. The report files most older established organizations (AIPAC, AJC, ADL, etc.) under the “protective” category: they exist to protect some component of Jewishness (or Israel). Progressive organizations are those focused on causes such as environmentalism or social service, and expressive organizations are those specifically oriented toward new methods of Jewish expression.
It’s also notable that the report spends a fair amount of time analyzing how “establishment” organizations have been extremely important in actually creating these leaders: many have gone to day school and Jewish camps, and newer cutting-edge Jewish organizations are to a great extend funded and supported by older ones.
This dynamic receives less attention within the Jewish community than it should, in my view with important consequences. New organizations are often responses to perceived deficiencies in the existing system, not necessarily attempts to reject it out of hand. So even while older Jews and establishment organizations fund the newer ones, Jews at large often perceive the two as diametrically opposed. This isn’t to say “there’s more unity in the Jewish community than you think” (I hate the “we actually all agree” argument – it’s stupid to try to sugarcoat internal divisions), just that young Jews get a bad rap as being uninterested in anything establishment. The flip side, which the report also covers, is that young Jews need to be less reactionary in distancing themselves from the establishment.
Check out the full report for more in-depth analysis of current trends in Jewish organizations and communities.
P.S. I used the word “establishment” six times in this post. Actually, now it’s seven. Anyone have an idea for a better word? I’m a bit tired of it.