The J Street conference was one of the most intellectually and physically taxing experiences I’ve ever had. I learned an incredible amount, met amazing people, and feel compelled to keep educating myself on the issues.
I had an idea for a post near the beginning, and ended up not being able to write it until now because of how tired I was at and following the conference. So this post represents a thought that matured throughout the conference, undergoing numerous changes in perspective as it did so.
The core question I want to ask is: What’s the relationship between a Jewish identity and a political identity?
For a long time, this has had a very particular answer, or at least a very particular accepted one. Jews have been expected to unequivocally support of the actions of the State of Israel, and, more fundamentally, to support the institution of the religious state of Israel. J Street isn’t particularly interested in changing the second part of that, but they definitely are interested in changing the first.
Frankly, that’s old news. People here and elsewhere have long been claiming the right to call themselves pro-Israel while maintaining subtly or extremely different stances on Israel. So what does make J Street so exciting?
I heard someone say at the conference that Israel has become a partisan issue. It’s considered right-wing to “support” Israel and left-wing not to. But that’s under the very narrow definition of what constitutes “supporting” Israel that we’ve heretofore operated under. By very nature of our insistence, that partisan relationship is being transformed fundamentally. It will take time for the public opinion to follow, but it’s irreversible.
How does a Jew’s political identity change with this shifting definition? Well, there are numerous ways. Two Jews, three opinions. So might it be for political concepts.
At this point I need to stop and make an important disclaimer. I’m pro-Israel. But I’m pro-Israel for what, again heretofore, would be considered the wrong reasons. The same is true of being a two-stater.
Full disclosure: I’m in support of a two-state solution only, and when I say only I mean it, because I think that without it, civilians will die. Without a viable Palestinian state and an end to the occupation and the humanitarian travesty that is the blockade, Palestinian civilians will continue to die in military operations and in terrible living conditions. Israeli civilians will continue to live in fear of having their daily life interrupted and possibly permanently jeopardized by terrorists.
It’s hard to weigh human lives. Is two lives lost twice as bad as one? A good analogy is the mathematical concept of infinity. If I hold the value of human life as infinite (which Judaism arguably does), then no matter how many infinities you add together, your answer is of the same order. The only way to get a higher order infinity in this case is to raise it to a power, which has no equivalent in our practical situation. So by this analogy (which I’m pretty comfortable with), any loss of human life is as bad as any other.
Going back to my feelings about being pro-Israel (again for the historically “wrong” reasons), I think that without a state to call their own, there will continue to be Jews who will not accept a single binational state. So there will be no end to tensions between the Jews and the Palestinians, then living in the same state. I mean, they don’t get along now in forced separation, so imagine how bad it would be in forced integration. And, more importantly, in the long decline into this situation, Israel, as the militarily superior power, will do incalculable damage – damage of a far, far greater magnitude than the kind we’ve seen so far in maintenance of the ever-declining status quo. As soon as Israel realizes that its existence is threatened by a growing Palestinian majority, and if it hasn’t moved towards a peaceful two-state solution, the violence will become much, much worse.
Clearly, this is an unacceptable situation. So I find that the two-state solution is a way to prevent those casualty figures from climbing higher and higher.
But I don’t believe that the Jewish people have the right to a state. This, I believe, puts me solidly to the left of J Street. And if articles like this one from Haaretz by J.J. Goldberg (who was at the conference, and was terrific) get their way, that will drive a wedge between me and J Street. But that’s not going to happen to me. However much the religious and political right would like to splinter J Street’s supporters and turn us against each other, we’ve got something they don’t even understand.
J Street wants us there. Yes, AIPAC, that’s right. J Street wants us there, and not to change or corrupt our opinions. Not to convince us of the ultimate truth of their way, but to assure everyone that those differences cannot be ignored. Goldberg is wrong that it’s J Street that is trying to spread too large of an umbrella while sugarcoating our disagreements. No, it’s the right-wing that for too long has only accepted their own definition of pro-Israel. I mean, look at their slogan. “AIPAC – America’s Pro-Israel Lobby”. Doesn’t leave much room for debate or discussion, does it? By their definition, they’re the pro-Israel lobby, and no one else.
J Street’s approach, is, frankly, empowering. The idea that a large organization with which I may have substantial policy difference is still interested in hearing what I have to say, and in making me part of a movement is refreshing. It’s not for everyone, and there may be people who feel that their differences are just too large, but I think that number is way smaller than people are making it out to be. I, for one, do not feel at all alienated by J Street, and in my experience, I’m about as far left on Israel’s right to exist as they come. J Street brings together people of different ideologies and recognizes that we share the common goal of human rights. Where AIPAC (yes, I’m comparing the two) would accuse me of being anti-Israel, J Street takes at face value my implicit declaration that I support human rights, and engages me in a difficult, probing discussion of what the best way to achieve that is. And we ultimately agree that that’s a two-state solution. Anyone out there of my political persuasion want to argue against that? Bring it on. There is no doubt in my mind, that, despite my high-minded philosophical belief in absolute secular governments, a democratic Jewish state alongside a sustainable Palestinian one is the only way to peace.
Where does that leave me? Well, as an American Jew, I’m going to be associated with Israel no matter what I do. People may form misconceptions about my beliefs in it, they may think I don’t care because I’ve never been, but I’m going to be connected to it in some way. To pretend, as the radical right does, that there’s only one thing that can be done with that connection (unequivocal support), is regressive, ineffective, and just plain stupid. To pretend, as the radical left does, that Israel is fundamentally evil and I should be judged by its actions no matter what is also stupid. This leaves me with the responsibility of making that connection into something meaningful. That means different things for different people. For me, it’s this type of political and humanitarian activism. For others, it’s a religious connection to Israel as a holy land, and I have deep, deep respect for that. For some, it does mean defending Israel’s positions or unequivocally calling for its dissolution. As Jews, we have to decide.
I retain no less a belief in what I see as an ideal world. J Street does not, as its critics would like us to think, brainwash people out of their opinions. Having strong ideological differences from some of the key players and many of the supporters of J Street, I still feel that we have a common goal of peace and security. To be honest, that’s incredible every time I remember it. That there is a movement that still wants me. At that conference, people wanted to talk to me. I didn’t have to convince them to. They came there expecting to hear from people like me.
So critics of all flavors, beware. We’re coming for you. We’re educated, we’re passionate, and we’re connected. Try as you might, the majority of us are going to stick together. Try as you might, we will not be demonized and reduced to infighting.
This is not a group with homogenous political, social, or religious opinion. It is not a group with a unified vision of the future. But it is a majority of American Jews, the 76% who support two states and the 69% who support active and engaged American diplomacy to get us there. That’s an extremely substantial majority.
And as Jeremy Ben-Ami proclaimed , “This majority will be silent no more.”