Attending the annual J Street Conference for the first time, I wanted to be
Supporters of Israel within the Jewish community had
ridiculed the newly created lobby group for launching harsh and unfair attacks
against Israel. As a supporter of Israel who is also firmly opposed to increased
settlement building and in favor of ending the Israeli occupation in the West
Bank, I believed J Street would be my perfect home.
Street’s refusal to honestly showcase the complexities of the current situation
in the region and its hard-core student activists make it impossible to feel at
home there, at least for someone who values Israel’s pursuit of peace in
addition to Israel’s genuine security concerns.
When Jeremy Ben-Ami
founded J Street in 2008, he wished to provide an alternative voice within the
mainstream American Jewish community for pro-Israel supporters who were also
deeply invested in reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians. These aims
are important, as AIPAC, the larger pro- Israel lobby group in Washington, often
does not focus enough attention on the Palestinian’s plight, alienating a large
segment of the young American Jewish population.
However, at this year’s
J Street conference I saw a different picture.
At one of the endless
sessions on the Israeli occupation, Fatah’s Husam Zomlot exclaimed, “As for the
refugee issue, how do you want me to sign a deal with my own hands that would
compromise the rights of two-thirds of the nation? Why do I have to compromise?
What do the refugees want? Some of them want to return to their original home,
but all of them want one thing: full recognition of the nakba [“catastrophe”]
that has befallen our people.”
Zomlot’s declaration for the right of
return and refusal to compromise on the contentious issue of refugees received
sustained and loud applause. Zomlot’s wishing for the right of return, that
would allow millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees from 1948 to reenter
Israel, would provide the Arabs with a majority within Israel and destroy the
Jewish state. This sentiment was received with cheers among J Street’s extremely
In addition to the accusatory sentiments among many
of the participants, the sessions chosen by J Street also reflected a similar
One breakout discussion was labeled “Conquering the divide: racism,
exclusion and ultra-nationalism in Israel,” while another condemned Israel’s
policy in Jerusalem.
Four sessions included “new or changed” perspectives
on the region, with these speakers all being of the same extreme-left political
persuasion. Interestingly, there was not one session that focused on
Hezbollah, which even the State Department labels a terrorist
organization and which has launched scores of rockets at Israel from Lebanon
following the Israeli withdrawal in 2000, was barely, if ever,
Furthermore, while there were many condemnations of Israeli
policies that were perceived to be destroying the peace process, I do not
remember hearing even once that Hamas had shot dozens of rockets at Israel this
year after Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005.
The speakers and
participants were arguing that if only Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would
stop being so obstructionist, a peace accord would be reached
In the J Street worldview, the Palestinians have no
responsibility for the continued violence between both sides. Nuance is not
allowed regarding this deeply complex conflict, as instead everyone must follow
the party line of bashing Israel at every moment.
During one of the
plenary sessions, I raised the point on Twitter that J Street was refusing to
present alternative narratives about the role Hezbollah and Hamas have on the
peace process and on Israeli security fears. Immediately I was attacked by a
roomful of participants on Twitter.
One wrote, “How much longer can we
excuse the daily suffering the occupation causes? It sounds staler every day?”
Another commented, “Hamas and Hezbollah are no excuse for the occupation, which
is what her speech is about?” Each time one of the J Street supporters launched
their attacks on me via Twitter, their messages were immediately “retweeted” and
marked as favorites by scores of activists in the room. No matter what the issue
is each response was automatically, “Israel is wrong because of the occupation.”
It was as if I was speaking to a group of robots that had checked their
intelligence at the door.
The time has arrived for another lobby group to
enter Washington and allow an open and intellectually honest dialogue about the
challenges Israel faces. Regrettably, J Street isn’t it.
The author is an
MA candidate at Harvard University in Middle Eastern Studies.