Encountering Peace: Learning from J Street

Why can’t we bring 2,000 Israelis together for an intensive three-day seminar focused on justice, democracy, peace and security?

J Street conference (photo credit: .)
J Street conference
(photo credit: .)
I am writing from Washington DC, where I’m attending the second annual conference of J Street, together with more than 2,000 American Jews from all walks of life, four MKs from Kadima and one from Labor.
There are a number of other Israelis representing various peace and human-rights organizations.
The opening evening was dedicated to honoring heroes of peace and courage who most Israelis would not know. Each of them received a standing ovation. One of them was Peter Beinart – author, journalist and Jewish philosopher who, in June 2010, wrote an essay in the New York Review of Books, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” that now serves as the manifesto for liberal American Jews, and provides them with a voice against accusations that they have abandoned their Jewish identity and affinity for Israel because they are critical of the policies of its government.
Another was Sara Benninga, a young Israeli who, growing up in west Jerusalem, was not particularly engaged in any political activity until Israel decided to remove several Palestinians from their home in Sheikh Jarrah, a few kilometers away. The blatant injustice was the claim that the original Jewish owners from prior to 1948 had the right to reclaim their property, while the Palestinians who had been removed from their homes inside Israel in 1948 had no right to reclaim their property.
This act of injustice touched the soul of Benninga and hundreds of others, who decided to raise their voices, and have done so every Friday afternoon for the past two years in Sheikh Jarrah, and now in Silwan and in other locations. Benninga and many others have been arrested several times, and face trial on charges of illegal gatherings and trespassing.
The third was Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish from Gaza, who is better known to the public. His three daughters and one niece were killed by tanks shells in their own home during Operation Cast Lead. The shelling was an error by the IDF. Abuelaish, a physician who also worked at Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer, has now dedicated his life to preserving the memory of his daughters by seeking justice, not revenge. His translation of seeking justice is to bring peace.
It is hard to imagine these three heroes being awarded such an honor within Israel. The first two would likely be considered “self-hating Jews.” Many Israelis would be glad to see Benninga and her friends (this writer amongst them) behind bars for treason. Abuelaish received wide exposure in Israel immediately after his daughters were killed. It was later reported that he decided to emigrate to Canada. I spoke with him after the ceremony, and heard a man with a burning desire to reach out to Israelis and make them understand that we must put an end to the conflict.
ON SATURDAY I attended a demonstration of several hundred American Arabs in front of the White House calling for freedom, democracy and liberation from dictators. The various communities took the megaphone in turn, shouting out: “Free Libya!” “Free Bahrain!” “Free Yemen!” “Free Syria!” and one young Palestinian woman with one small Palestinian flag shouting “Free Palestine!” It was fascinating to watch these people with their nations’ flags chanting “the people united will never be defeated,” each one of them with deep concern about their loved ones facing the violence of despots who refuse to give up their thrones.
How sad that the men in the White House have supported those despots and tyrants over the years, defending stability and oil rather than human rights, democracy and justice.
I raise my voice in support of the three heroes of the J Street conference, and with the heroes of the Middle East from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya to Bahrain, Syria and Yemen.
Their struggle for freedom, human rights and dignity is my struggle. Abuelaish called it the struggle for human values.
They want what I want, and what most Israelis want. We would not want to live without human dignity and justice.
What could be more appropriate for us as Jews than to celebrate people in the region standing up against oppression and for freedom? When the Palestinians ultimately take to the streets (because the revolutions throughout the region will not stop at the gates of the West Bank and Gaza), I hope they will also use the power of nonviolence. If they do, I and many others will be on the front lines with them, liberating them from our occupation, and liberating us from occupying them.
I felt at home in the J Street conference. The passion of expression there emanated from a deep sense of Jewish identity and a love of Israel. The criticism against the government – and the policies of most governments since 1967 – came from a sense of deep pain, concern and fear that Israel is becoming the kind of state they will no longer be able to support. As that happens, a piece of their soul is being destroyed.
I can only ask myself, why aren’t all Jews here? What don’t all Israelis support the principles of J Street? Why can’t we bring 2,000 Israelis together for an intensive three-day seminar focused on justice, democr acy, peace and security? We have a lot to learn from J Street.
The writer is co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (www.ipcri.org), and is in the process of founding the Center for Israeli Progress (http://israeli-progress.org).