You can find me (overwhelmed) on J Street

J Street Conference 0026
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:

“You matter politically, you matter media-wise. And all of your members can feel they are part of something that has influence and impact. You will on the one hand lose your energy if you lose your dovish activists. But you lose your political and media clout if you lose your mainstream wing. In assessing strategies and tactics, you need consider not only the theoretical positions you take, but the tactical impact of those you choose.
…But if you alienate the mainstream religious and political core of US support, you risk losing everything. Are there going to moments in the history of Israel-US relations with a significance of momentous decision that will really make a difference require you to push the envelope? Perhaps even alienate some of your mainstream religious and political constituents? Yes. But they must be few and far between, of the utmost importance where you really have a chance to change the outcome by weighing in, and where you work diligently with your supporters on the Hill to bring them around to this decision.

This would be only one of the first of many moments when conference speakers would issue challenges to J Street, which would include lefty Middle East commentator Mona Eltahaway and Kadima members of Knesset. Here J Street role modeled for a narrow-minded and intellectually stifled mainstream how open conversation strengthens, not weakens. Over the weekend, panels would feature speakers greatly at odds with J Street’s (and the mainstream’s) positions, yet who were greeted respectfully. Even Noah Pollak, director of the Emergency Committee for Israel and a lead hater of J Street’s activities, was welcomed and treated without disrespect. If only the AIPAC annual event and the General Assembly could even flirt with such open-mindedness.
After J Street founder and director Jeremy Ben-Ami warmly thanked Saperstein, and turned to the three voices being honored: Peter Beinart, Sara Benninga and Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish. An American, an Israeli, a Palestinian. Each spoke for the unique modern day experience of Israel — not the dreamy and perfect Israel conjured by mainstream white washers. J Street U student leader Mori Rothman said by way of Beinart’s introduction, “I love Israel. But I did not love the war on Gaza. I love Israel, but I do not love the way it treats its minorities. I love Israel, but I do not love the occupation of Palestinian land.”
Beinart himself began his speech by dating the foundings of new progressive Israel organizations paced with the population increases within “non-democratic Israel,” his clever reframing of the settlements. While he paid due to J Street’s partners and predecessors he warned:

And so we come together knowing we are not the first group of American Jews to gather in defense of the principles in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. But make no mistake: we are the last. There will be no next J Street. If we fail, our children will meet in halls like these not to defend democracy in the Jewish state, but to mourn democracy in the Jewish state.

Benninga represented the many leaders of the Sheikh Jarrah protestors, a new generation of young Israeli activists who have breathed revived energy into the Israeli left. While Beinart’s words were about Jewish sovereignty and Holocaust legacy to preserve Jewry, Sara spoke to human rights, called out Jewish privilege, denounced racism in Israeli society, and spoke truth to power. It was a reflection of a new paradigm on the left — to hell with demographics, this is about simple equality.

Lastly, Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish reminded us of tragedy, relating the loss of his three daughters to a tank shell in Gaza. Whereas tears of hope and pride wet my eyes throughout the night, Abuelaish reminded me why I’m a peace activist in the first place: to stop death on both sides. Not a dry eye was present in the room. I remembered every Israeli and Palestinian I’d ever met who’d lost someone they loved. That is why I fight for peace, make it my daily work, even rely on its meager rations to pay bills. Abuelaish lost his three daughters — yet has not lost sight of the goal, an end.

It’s time and nothing is impossible. I don’t believe in impossible things. It’s not in my vocabulary. The only impossible thing I [don’t] believe in is to bring my daughters back [sic].

Whatever criticisms one may have of J Street as an organization, you cannot minimize the sheer demand for it. Barely two years ago, I was the NYC head and a national board member of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, holding and planning an annual lobby day just like this. We had at most 300 people, a rump oft-dismissed by mainstream types. Who would have thought that now there would be so many of us? The number of attendees and quality of speakers confirm the words of Hadar Susskind, “J Street’s success is half Jeremy Ben-Ami, half the vacuum it filled.” The establishment failed to include us; now we come ‘a calling. So much for those predictions of J Street’s demise. The greatest refutation of the attacks on J Street is recent months is on the beaming faces of the people here: we are the future of the Jewish community, here to get even bigger.
More conference coverage to come.

19 thoughts on “You can find me (overwhelmed) on J Street

  1. 1/ 136 campuses?
    I count 30 colleges. Even if you assume more than 1 campus for a few of those places, it still doesn’t add up.
    Anybody can yell out the name of a campus.
    2/ If JStreet is so welcoming how come no Ortho (modern through haredi) clergy amoung its speakers. They had Christian and Muslim clergy there. NK at the very least will show up anywhere they’re invited.
    3/ Peter Beinart is identified as an ‘author’ (see above). What book has he written?

  2. Boxhead,
    J Street U official chapters on 30 campuses, but there were students from many campuses present. Many are from very small schools where there isn’t a big enough population to support a second Jewish organization aside from Hillel. Some come from larger campuses and will, no doubt, go on to create new J Street U chapters in the coming months. Remember that the organization isn’t that old and that 30 chapters and interested students from so many more is unparalleled on-campus growth on the Jewish organizational world.
    Anybody can yell out the name of a campus.
    Indeed. But not just anyone is going to travel away from school in the middle of the semester for a long weekend of conferencing and lobbying. Unless–and I hope this isn’t the case–you are actually implying that this list of campuses was faked and that some of the people cheering when their school was announced were lying. Which is a serious charge. I can tell you that the number of people walking around with “Student” on their badge matches the numbers announced at the opening plenary and repeated all weekend by J Street and J Street U staffers.
    NK at the very least will show up anywhere they’re invited.
    J Street’s welcoming atmosphere seems to be about welcoming others from the pro-Israel worlds whose particular positions they don’t necessarily agree with. I don’t think they’re interested in hosting those who are not pro-Israel at all. Hence, no Neturei Karta.
    What book has he written?
    I don’t know if he written one of the top of my head, but if your question is out of real curiosity, rather than merely rhetorical, I suggest you open a new tab and Google him. In other news, authors are people who write things that get published. Those things may include books and they may not. He is certainly the author of many articles and editorials that have been published in mainstream publications.

  3. Beinart has written two books: The Good Fight and The Icarus Syndrome. This is easy to verify on Amazon, not sure why anyone would need help.

  4. I might post this on my own, but since KFJ started, here goes:
    R. David Saperstein essentally said that the call of prophetic social justice Judaism is to shut up 99% of the time so that you can have a meaningful role 1% of the time. That might be good political strategy, but invoking Jewish tradition for such a course of action feels quite self-serving.
    Not a hint of that super thoughtful ‘be cautious’ approach around Darfur, eh David?
    J Street brought some great street level activists from Israel and gave them publicity and praise. What about Jewish American street level activists? Yes, bringing JVP head Vilkomerson was good, but as ED of an organization with 100k supporters, it would be wrong to make her the American equivalent of Sarah Benninga.
    Yes, that’s a rhetorical question. Obviously, supporting direct action by young people acting on the basis of ethical imperative would be a total violation of J Street strategy. It’s a case of we love Israeli activists but we don’t want to be like them.
    Finally, three boos for the professional peace industry. Thanks for taking hundreds of millions of dollars since Oslo and giving us… the destruction of the Israeli electoral peace camp. Amazingly, at least one guy was able to claim that all that money successfully purchases a pro-peace Israeli public opinion. Just not one that will vote for a pro-peace Prime Minister.
    Much like Charlie Sheen’s salary, there’s an argument to be made that less money might have been healthier. Israel’s peace movement can be found in Sheikh Jarrah, not in cushy offices funded by European embassies and wealthy American donors. Yes Ron Pundak, I’m talking about you and your ‘Peres’ peace center.
    Peres. What a joke. Boy do I miss Rabin. Now there’s a man who learned the power of a bullet when it comes to making peace. I bet he wishes he kicked the settlers out of Hebron in ’94.

  5. @DAMW
    1/ Why would an alum, calling out the name of his/her old campus be ‘lying’ when saying that’s where they were from?
    Columbia ’28. That was the bee’s knees and the cat’s pajamas.
    And wouldn’t that completely explain the discrepancy between the number of campuses mentioned by the ‘shouters’ and the number mentioned at jstreetu’s own website?
    2/ So JSteet doesn’t like NK because they are anti-Israel and not because their Ortho. And I suppose they don’t like Kach because they’re pro-Israel and not because they’re Ortho.
    How about that ‘Rabba’ person people here like so much, or Avi Weiss, or anybody of that ilk? Why wasn’t she on the dais, or any of her friends? Any Orthos allowed?
    And why hasn’t anyone asked JStreet why no Orthos?
    At the next AIPAC ‘unwelcoming’ convention there will be Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews up front, unlike this ‘welcoming’ JStreet event.
    @ Justin. Yup numbers again. They always back me up.
    And some more numbers: In the 3 days that JStreet had its event, over 15 Jews were born in Kiryas Joel alone.
    JStreet is the future of Jews in the US? Not if they keep out the Orthodox.
    Kiryas Joel creates about the same number of Jews in one year as there were people at that JStreet event.

  6. Boxthorn,
    your numbers mean nothing. orthodoxy, despite its birthrate is shrinking. plus, numbers don’t equal engagement nor does being born into an orthodox home mean they will grow to be frum adults. I’ve never supported or defended JStreet. I’m not saying it’s the future of anything. All I’m saying is you’re a lousy statistician and a lousy analyst and you prove it repeatedly every time you bring up numbers.

  7. Peres. What a joke. Boy do I miss Rabin. Now there’s a man who learned the power of a bullet when it comes to making peace. I bet he wishes he kicked the settlers out of Hebron in ‘94.
    If Rabin hadn’t have been murdered, you wouldn’t like him any more than you like Peres.
    Rabin probably would have won a very narrow victory over Bibi in ’96, and then the Second Intifada would have probably started around ’98, rather than ’00, and you’d be saying the same things about Rabin that everybody says about Ehud Barak today.

  8. @ Justin
    So do Orthos stay Ortho when they become adults? I have no American data, but the results of Israeli elections (only adults can vote) clearly shows growth among adult Orthodoxy in Israel.
    Elections Percentage of vote for religious parties
    1951 3.6
    1955 13.8
    1959 14.6
    1961 13.8
    1965 14.0
    1969 14.8
    1973 12.9
    1977 14.1
    1981 11.8
    1984 9.8
    1988 14.6
    1992 13.3
    1996 19.5
    1999 17.2
    2003 22.23
    2006 16.67
    2009 19.61
    Currently out of 120 seats, religious parties hold 23 (19.2%), made up of Shas, United Torah Judaism, National Union, and the Jewish Home

  9. Boxthorn,
    you once again prove your complete inanity when it comes to analyzing numbers. believe it or not, there are non-orthodox people who vote for orthodox parties. ESPECIALLY shas. what’s more, the numbers you presented don’t represent an increase in voting trends, which they should according to your analysis. give it up, man. you’re just embarrassing yourself.

  10. furthermore,
    If children born into orthodox families stayed orthodox, then the orthodox movement would be the largest by leaps and bounds. but it is not. it is the smallest of the mainstream factions. gee, do the math…

  11. If children born into orthodox families stayed orthodox, then the orthodox movement would be the largest by leaps and bounds.
    Is that true? How many orthodox Jews were there in Israel in 1948, relative to the rest of the population? I’ve been hearing a lot of scaremongering from the left that the orthodox demographics will mean the end of a secular, democratic Israel. Is that narrative a lie?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.