The J-Street convention just ended with limited media coverage. This reflects the growing realization that despite its self-promotion, this political organization is marginal, dwarfed by the 13,000 liberals, moderates, and conservatives at AIPAC’s policy conference. Not having heard much about what was said or not said, applauded or booed, here is what I wish the J-Streeters heard – and how I hope the participants reacted.
I write as someone who believes in Big Tent Zionism, welcoming a vigorous Zionist Left and Right, and who endorses a two-state solution. But I also write as someone who heard the rumor that at last year’s J-Street convention, the Israel bashers consistently received the most enthusiastic applause. Although I hope the rumor is false, it is believable; I have seen such politically correct, enthusiastic self-loathing in too many corners of the Jewish Left too frequently over the last decade.
Were the names of Rav Yonatan Sandler, age 30, his sons Aryeh, 6, and Gavriel Yissacher, 4, on everybody’s lips, three of the Tolouse terrorist’s victims? Was the image of the Islamist terrorist pulling eight-year-old Miriam Monsonego by the hair, then executing her at point blank range, burned into attendees’ consciousnesses, as it is into mine? Did they struggle with the problem of anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist hatred that transcends the rational, that spawns such barbarism, that won’t be solved by border swaps or apologies, and is not our fault?
Did they mourn the three French paratroopers, two of Arab descent, noting that Arabs frequently suffer from the brutality of fanatic Islamist terrorists?
I wonder if Yasir Arafat and his war against Oslo were discussed honestly, fully. So many of us wanted the Oslo peace process to work, and felt betrayed when Arafat led his people away from negotiations back to terror. A frank conversation would not just list Israel’s mistakes. It would acknowledge Palestinian responsibility for the current stalemate too, starting with Palestinians’ bloody repudiation of Oslo. True liberals should respect Palestinians as real people, who can affect their fates, rather than reducing them to stick-figure victims, always bystanders never actors, condescendingly freed from any moral obligations or historical responsibility by a self-involved narrative that only sees Western and Israeli sins.
I hope there was some discussion of the Boycott Boomerang. Historically, calls to boycott Israel, and the broader delegitimization campaign, jinx peace efforts. The 1975 Zionism is Racism resolution emboldened Palestinian terrorists, encouraged more settlements, and hurt the United Nations – which continues sacrificing its credibility with its biased anti-Israel obsession, expressed this week through the UN Human Rights Council’s “fact-finding” farce scrutinizing the settlements. Sweeping categorical attacks demonize, polarize, alienate. They encourage extremists not compromisers, haters not reconcilers. Fighting delegitimization, like fighting anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, is fighting for peace, for the mutual dignity of all parties.
Was there a mature conversation about Iran? Did anyone ask why the Iranians want nuclear weapons, why do Ahmadinejad and the mullahs threaten the United States – Big Satan – and Israel – little Satan? Did anyone wonder why fighting nuclear proliferation, long a core value on the left, somehow has not stirred passion when it comes to fighting Iran’s rush to go nuclear?
Was any good news about Israel allowed into the convention hall? Did J-Streeters hear about the miracle of Hadassah Hospital that has Arabs and Jews healing together and working together so naturally? Were J-Streeters aware of the 90th birthday celebrations last week of the pioneering Zionist entrepreneur David Azrieli, who proudly proclaims himself a Zionist and expresses his Zionism by helping Israel thrive economically and culturally, on par with the best of the West, while donating much of his fortune to the Jewish people and humanity via his foundation? Was there room on the program to discuss Identity Zionism or Israel as Values Nation – how the existence of the State of Israel can root modern Jews in an idealistic project that is a counter to the selfish, self-involved, I-ness of our iPad, iPod, iPhone era?
These issues are not frivolous sidesteps from the only “real” issue, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As with any country, some balance, some context, is essential. And, as with any real mess, acknowledging complexity rather than simply sloganeering is important. Just as we do not define the United States solely by racism, and we have to understand that an unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin can be gunned down unjustly in the same country which elected a black man president, so too, we do not define Israel solely by its troubles with the Palestinians. Moreover, we see the multiple dimensions there, too. If the solution is so clear, why do so many Palestinian Jerusalemites want Israeli identity cards? And why are the radical Islamic Israeli Arab citizens of Umm al-Fahm offended whenever someone suggests they should join the Palestinian state they demand so aggressively?
Finally, I hope the J Street convention emphasized what unites us as Israel lovers not just what divides us. My conversations both formally and informally with J-Streeters have affirmed our common belief in the Jewish right to a state and in Israel’s need to survive. As J-Streeters evaluate what they heard as they return home, and think about what stirred the crowd, they should think about the messaging that occurred during the convention. Was the right tone, the right balance, struck? Did the group dynamic pull out the shared love of Israel or a harsher, distorted view of the Jewish state?
All conventions encourage groupthink and mass messaging. I hope the J-Street convention showed a maturing organization, not afraid of complexity, willing to embrace the positive as well as the negative, understanding nuance. That is what the Jewish world and the Middle East need, not self-righteous posturing or supercritical Blame Israel Firsters.
The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and The History of American Presidential Elections. Follow Gil on Twitter: @Gil_Troy