Very few people attended both J Street’s second conferenceand the Jewish federation’s young leaders soiree TribeFest within the same week. I may have been the only one. At the intersection of upstart and establishment worlds, I saw firsthand the tides of change swirling within the North American Jewish community. (See my report on J Street’s moving opening session.) Suffice it to say, I saw division. But I also saw buds of convergence.
J Street’s second conference was a celebration of comeuppance for the fastest-growing new institution on the scene. The parade of new campus chapters and expanding activist teams beneath the teal street sign logo were jubilant. Under duress to halt the trickle the young Jews leaving institutional Jewish life, TribeFest too brought together 1,200 excited young faces to Las Vegas to prove that the establishment could regain its groove yet. At a purported loss of $250,000, the conference is heralded by organizers as a success.
I didn’t realize quite what a child of the emergent Jewish community I was until I stepped into the bosom of federation culture that was TribeFest. The “emergent sector,” coined by Jumpstart, is everything this formerly unaffiliated Jew has come to call my Jewish life: independent minyanim, online communities, the social justice orgs, political initiatives and culture creators. While Jumpstart’s report noted a 14% overlap between mainstream-emergent audiences, it certainly has caught our elders’ attention that large numbers of their children vote with their feet and leave the communal fold for alternate ventures. Engaged young Jews today are purportedly divided 50-50 between the emergent sector and the institutions of our parents — federations, the legacy orgs, or the denominations. The latter’s donor pyramids look upside-down as more dollars are raised from fewer donors.
TribeFest is at long last an acknowledgement that the existing model isn’t sustainable. They moved the previous 300-person elite young donor summit from DC to Las Vegas, partnered with cultural groups like JDub Records, brought in divergent voices to panels on unlikely topics (like yours truly) and enfranchised court bloggers to cover it. They threw open the doors and recruited (read: subsidized) heavily to quadruple the number attendees. And succeed they did. More »
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. More »
Update: videos are now embedded in the post. Enjoy!
As I mentioned in my brief first-day J Street conference round up post, I secured interviews with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf of the Cordoba Initiative (best known for the Ground Zero Mosque, which is neither at Ground Zero nor a mosque), and Mona Eltahawy, the Egyptian journalist and activist who rocked the socks off the J Street conference. Those videos are now online; the YouTube playlist is here. There are three videos – Mona Eltahawy on social media in the Jasmine Revolution and its potential in the future of the Arab and Muslim world, my question for Imam Rauf on the religious justification for his work, and footage of a few other press-folk asking him questions. Check them out!
Mona did a superb job of addressing the straw man argument made by most of the prominent critics of the social-media-as-organizing-tool theory (Malcolm Gladwell, Evgeny Morozov, etc.). That is, she made a strong case for how Twitter and Facebook were essential in helping garner support for a mass meeting and demonstration of a kind that was quite rare under Mubarak. Notably, she doesn’t claim that it was Twitter or Facebook that toppled the regime. No, that distinction belongs to the brave Egyptians who risked their lives to claim their basic human rights of freedom of speech and assembly. But if you look closely, most of us arguing for social media’s importance in democratic movements aren’t saying that it’s the Internet itself that overthrows regimes, just that it’s a tool for those who desire to do so. The key to any organized resistance movement, especially one that aspires to nonviolence, is organization. Today, the Internet is often one of the last places where free exchange of ideas can take place. Its fast pace and adaptability mean that dedicated users can often stay one step ahead of those trying to shut down the flow of information. This is what makes it important and in some ways game-changing.
Imam Rauf, who’s been one of my personal heroes for a long time, spoke beautifully about the religious underpinnings of his peace work. I hadn’t planned to ask him about this – the question came about as a result of a topic of discussion on the panel on Jewish-Muslim community relations on which he’d just spoken. One Jewish community leader explained a program called “Iftar in the Sukkah,” in which local Muslims and Jews gathered at an Orthodox shul to share the evening break-fast meal during Ramadan, which for the past few years has overlapped with Sukkot. The image of Muslims and Jews taking part in this ritual together was, for me, amazing, and reminded me of the phrase “ufros aleinu sukkat shlomecha” – “spread over us your sukkah of peace.” This is pretty much one of my favorite liturgical lines ever, and I felt that I just had to ask Imam Rauf about it. So I mentioned that connection, and asked him what scriptural or Islamic theological justification he found for his work. His answer, that it’s rooted in the very word “Islam,” coming from “Salaam,” was completely in line with his messages of peace and mutual understanding.
I continue to be inspired by the work that both of these courageous activists do every day. Mona Eltahawy speaks truth to power, and Imam Rauf (and the Park 51 project overall) has handled himself with incredible grace in the face of one of the worst smear campaigns I’ve ever seen, and more generally in a climate of increasing American Islamophobia. May they both continue their work and dedication, and may their efforts be rewarded.
I am loathe to make Passover references at this point in the year, but this one is most applicable. Recently, someone referenced Reb Mimi Feigelson on cleaning your house of hametz-in addition to the removal of physical materials, you should also be cleansing yourself of narratives that no longer apply to you. I spent this weekend at the J Street conference, hoping to find new narratives, people who could supply me with inspiration, and the ability to confront my anxieties about peace and what it would mean to make real concessions for it.
Sometimes I scare myself with my knee jerk reactions. Example: in a session on American Jewish and Muslim efforts to work together, Edina Lekovic of the Muslim Public Affairs Council discussed the idea of having preconditions in relationship building. Convergence is the result of meaningful relationship building, and so we can’t have preconditions if we want people to sit together sincerely and purposefully with this goal in mind.
Chanel’s brain: But I need there to be the precondition that we all renounce violence so that I feel safe sitting with you.
Chanel’s other brain: Yeah, well, Muslim and Arab folks probably need you to check your assumption that they all support terrorism and re-evaluate who has power in this situation,so, there you go. How does it feel to need?
I am worried about J Street and the potential for leadership saturation. As in, we’re so happy to see it that we expect it to fix everything, the way we expect Obama to reverse 8 years of stupidity and trauma within the first 20 minutes of being President. And at the same time, what I most wanted in the moments following my two brain dialogue was someone to raise the question of how, in order to do this work, we have to confront the anti Arab and Muslim rhetoric, that, consciously or not, we all believe. (I know, I could have asked the question myself.) We’re not exempt because we’re peace activists, in the same way that progressive, feminist identified men aren’t incapable of sexist behavior. In spite of our efforts to resist it, it’s made it in, and triggered by feelings of vulnerability (real or perceived).
On a panel regarding the American role in the Middle East, J Street cofounder and Senior Research Fellow at the New America Foundation Daniel Levy spoke of the need to create confidence “between the occupier and occupied 18 years after Oslo,” and “the need for a new language. You can’t treat the Arab population as a demographic threat and also advocate for equality within Israel.” It’s not okay to express opinions from the press box (clapping, booing), but my colleague and I almost passed out with surprise and joy. Hypocrisy named, exposed, opened. I found myself smarting with how hard Levy’s words struck me. There are so many layers of work to do, so much facing of ourselves and what we’re willing to put on the line in the name of peace, so easy is it to get lost in the abyss of process and policy and theory and fear.
I find myself overwhelmed. My heart has been bursting with pride for two days. Tomorrow I lead two delegations to legislators on Capital Hill, bouyed by the show of grassroots power I just witnessed. Check that, no, that I have helped build. This weekend, I remember why I do what I do. And I celebrated with the fruition of our planting.
At opening ceremonies on Saturday night, J Street flexed 16 months of growth since their last conference for show. That’s what political conferences are for, after all. And what a showing – purportedly among the top five largest gatherings of Jews in America. (AIPAC’s annual showing is 7.5K, the General Assembly is roughly 5K, URJ’s Biennial is too, and J Street is over 2K.) Waves of cheers erupted as each of 40 local chapters took shout outs. Then a parade of beaming students marched across stage calling out each of the 138 campuses represented. Waves of cheers. The who’s who of progressive global Jewish life was there — including Canada and the UK. The 30 sponsoring groups included Israel’s leading human rights leaders, like Naomi Chazan and Hagai El-Ad. Rabbis, grassroots leaders, campus heads all gathered under one roof.
Rabbi David Saperstein enthusiastically delivered the opening address, a preacher in his element. Saperstein’s fast-paced and booming voice evoked a Judaism of aspirations: freedom, social justice, hope, and spirit. Peace is God’s work, we remembered. Peace wasn’t a wussy buzzword. Peace was power. Compared to the sullen crankery of Rabbi Eric Yoffie last time, Saperstein was inspirational.
Like his boss before him, he delivered criticism as well, warning attendees: More »
I’m not going to do an extended post here, but just to put up a few choice quotes.
Yesterday, I sat in on the Knesset roundtable on Israeli Politics and Policy in 2011. The six Knesset panelists from Kadima and Labor are Yoel Hasson (Kadima), Shlomo Molla (Kadima), Amir Peretz (Labor), Nachman Shai (Kadima), Daniel Ben Simon (Labor), Orit Zuaretz (Labor).
They all had a great deal to say worth hearing, including lots of ongoing praise for Tzipi Livni as a courageous leader. The message though, is really this: When we criticize Israeli policies, we are part of the Jewish conversation. Israelis are not afraid of criticism and many of them are aware that change must come.
Here’s a few quotes from one of the speakers – but they were all brave and funny and had lots of pithy things to say:
Daniel Ben Simon:
I don’t share this campaign about delegitimization – I am suspicious about its nature and motivations. I trend to not trust the honesty of politicians in Israel when they say that the main problem is that the world community does not accept us. The problem is Israeli policies. To hear Barak come to our party meeting and say don’t be naïve the problem is Israeli delegitimization – I am suspicious. Israeli government cannot continue with these policies – we must change course. We are back to the old rhetoric of the world is against us. -The world does not like us? What the hell are you talking about? We are a world power. We are not in the Warsaw ghetto, we are a world superpower…. Suddenly coming and saying the world hates us, the world does not accept us, we have to stop the peace process… This is not honest. This is from the paranoia of the right wing politics.
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.
Zoo Minyan, an independent minyan that meets in the neighborhood around the zoo in DC, is not meeting for davening this week. Why do I care? And why is this interesting? Let me back up:
I’m on the Bolt Bus, headed down to DC for the J Street Conference. The conference proper doesn’t start until Saturday night, but I’m heading down to spend Shabbat in DC, hoping to get some good shul-hopping done for your reading pleasure.
My plan was to go to multi-denominational, non-membership, convention-defying synagogue Sixth and I tonight and to the still-extant, just had their 40th birthday, proving all the “indie minyans will never last people wrong,” first-wave chavurah Fabrangen tomorrow morning.
But then, while emailing back and forth with Mah Rabu blogger and fellow Jewschooler BZ, he suggested the I try out Zoo Minyan instead. Apropos my post from the other day about feminizing the theology of Kaddish Shalem, he thought I might like Zoo Minyan. During their service, they apparently alternate between masculine and feminine names for God. So I got a little excited to see that in practice.
But it’s not a total waste because I have some thoughts to share that came out of this failure to launch. The first time I heard such an attitude from an indie minyanaire was from an organizer of the ultra-lightweight London minyan Wandering Jews. They don’t organize anything other than a place and time. They refuse to beg people to be hosts. If no one volunteers to host, there’s no davening. If not enough people bring stuff for the potluck, there’s no communal dinner. Etc.
I heard a woman speak about this approach at Limmud Colorado a couple of years ago. She said, if people value Wandering Jews, they will make it happen. And if they’re not making it happen, then it isn’t valuable and they should just let it go and slip away. This stands in about the starkest contrast possible to the synagogue continuity-obsessed folks.
And at Zoo Minyan, it seems there is a somewhat similar attitude. And now I don’t get to go. Oh well, their loss. And Fabrangen’s gain.
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.