Sharp turn on J Street
American Jews have created a liberal lobby group to campaign for a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, reports Trends magazine.
February 1, 2010 6:10 by Orly Halpern
In the line to enter the gala dinner at the Grand Hyatt in Washington stood a young man with dark wavy hair and a black and white checkered keffiyeh around his shoulders.
Behind me stood Amjad Atallah, a former Palestinian peace negotiator, and his fiancée. And at my table was Jerusalem’s Aziz Abu Sarah, who, when I sat down, jokingly complained: “I am Palestinian and you have occupied my seat.” He gave it to me despite my repeated attempts to return it.
No, this was not a Palestinian fundraising event. In fact, most of the people attending were American Jews. This was the first annual convention of the recently founded Israel lobby, J Street. And everyone who supported a two-state solution was welcome.
Looking around, one could see rabbis with kippahs, a couple of Jewish women wearing headscarves, a religious Muslim wearing a skullcap, and a few Christian clergymen. Unsurprisingly, there were no Jewish settlers and no Christian evangelicals (at least, they didn’t identify themselves as such).
A year ago, it would have been hard to imagine Arabs at an Israel lobby convention. The powerful right-wing Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), has long monopolized the definition of being pro-Israel as a zero-sum game: If you are pro-Palestinian, you must be anti-Israel – and vice-versa. Not so at J Street.
“It is our goal to change traditional conversations when it comes to Israel and to broaden the notion that there is only one way to express love and concern for it,” the founder of J Street, Jeremy Ben-Ami, said in his opening speech. “We are here to redefine and expand the very concept of being pro-Israel. No longer should this ‘pro-’ require an ‘anti-’ as well.”
Indeed, instead of the usual call for “taking action against Iran” or “fighting Palestinian terror to make Israel secure,” Ben-Ami told the large audience that Israel’s security depends on the creation of a Palestinian state.
“The only way forward to a better future is a win-win solution that leads to two states for two peoples,” said Ben-Ami to the crowd as he called for American pressure – ostensibly on Israel – to make that happen.
If Ben-Ami’s speech marked a watershed for an Israel lobby, the participants’ reactions were the antithesis of an AIPAC convention. When one congressman on a panel talked of the need to act against Iran, no one applauded. But when Ben-Ami said American Jews want a peaceful end to the conflict “not just because it is in our interest but because Palestinian children deserve a future and freedom and hope,” the house came down. The well-heeled crowd banged on their tables, hooted, shouted, and whistled.
At last, they had found a home. And this point is terrifying J Street’s foes.
For years, the only Israel lobby with major influence was AIPAC, because it had a political action committee that raised and contributed money for political campaigns. Its right-wing, support-Israel-no-matter-what policies ended up sidelining left-wing Jews – who were labeled as “anti-Israel” – or, worse, “self-hating Jews,” because, although the land of their forefathers held a special place in their heart, these Jews were not “anti-Arab” and they opposed some aspects of Israeli policy.
Some Jews did not even call themselves pro-Israel, feeling that it meant they cared for certain people (theirs) more than others. As one Jewish woman said in one of the panel discussions: “I don’t call myself pro-Israel. I’m pro-human beings.” Such Jews have long been silent.
Then J Street arrived on the scene – an Israel lobby with an action committee that supports a two-state solution. It declared that it is okay – even necessary sometimes – to be critical of some of Israel’s policies. They say this is part of classic Jewish values: To argue, to question, and to seek justice.
And in just a year and half since its founding, J Street has a $3 million budget and 1,500 participants attending its first convention, a level which took AIPAC many years to reach.
It also has support from the Obama administration, which sent National Security Advisor Jim Jones to represent the president at the conference.
The reactions from the right have ranged from hysterical to belligerent. Numerous attempts have been made to delegitimize J Street and to scare away its supporters. Employing the same fear-mongering methods used by Republicans against then-presidential candidate Barack Obama, some right-wing and neo-conservative commentators and bloggers have said that Arab support for J Street means that the new lobby is anti-Israel. They pressured congressmen not to attend – and some did cancel.
But as Rebecca Abou-Chedid, an Arab-American supporter of J Street who took AIPAC to task in an article in Foreign Policy, wrote: “It is possible [for Arabs] to be both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine, not out of some blanket support for either government, but out of a sincere belief that peace is in the best interests of both peoples. I hold that belief as a result of years of work within the Arab and Jewish American communities.”
Indeed, hours before the convention began and just a few streets away, the Arab American Institute opened its Leadership Summit with its first panel being a joint session with J Street on “advancing a pro-peace agenda.”
“There have been those in both of our communities who have called us sellouts and traitors,” the Arab American Institute’s president, James Zogby, said to the audience of Americans of both Arab and Jewish descent. “That’s just so wrong because they don’t get it. They don’t get the fact that we respect our communities and their distinct traditions.
“We don’t agree on the past … what we both agree on is that we’re stuck in the mud together and we have a choice,” he said. “We can either stay there or we can find a way to get out and move forward. That’s what brings us here; that’s what brings us together.”