Photo by Cherie A. Thurlby
All the presidential candidates (minus Bernie Sanders) appeared at the The American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington, DC, in March. Donald Trump got a standing ovation. A few weeks later, another American Jewish lobby group held a conference with a very different message.
J Street celebrated its eighth birthday at the group’s annual gathering in April in Washington, D.C. Fresh from leading the effort to get Congress to approve the Iran Nuclear Agreement (which AIPAC staunchly opposed), about 1,000 leaders associated with the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” advocacy group gathered to learn, strategize and build support for a just and peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
J Street’s conference brought together Jews who oppose the U.S. government’s often too reflexive support for repressive Israeli policies.
Vice President Joe Biden’s speech to the gala dinner audience on April 18 made headlines when the Vice President criticized Prime Minister Netenyahu. But there were many more interesting and progressive moments throughout the three-day gathering.
J Street’s PAC hosted a fundraiser for Representative Tammy Duckworth (Democrat of Illinois), who is vying to unseat incumbent Republican Senator Mark Kirk. J Street has taken an increasingly large role in supporting candidates who are unafraid to challenge the untenable status quo in Israel. In her remarks, Duckworth stated that she knows from personal experience being shot down while flying a helicopter when serving in Iraq and losing her legs as a result, that peace and diplomacy are a far better way to solve the region’s problems than never-ending war and violence.
For sheer symbolism, the most notable moment was a panel on Monday that included Ambassador Maer Areikat (Palestinian representative to the U.N.) sitting next to a minister of the Knesset Ksenia Svetlova of the center-left Zionist Union. Areikat said he appreciated their proximity. Svetlova thanked J Street for working for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Ambassador Dan Kurtzer, former U.S. Ambassador to both Egypt and Israel emphasized the need for the United States to set forth a clear strategy, including clearly opposing Israeli settlement expansion, instead of the muddled strategy that has allowed the Israeli occupation to continue for nearly 50 years.
Later that day, Tamar Zandberg of the far left Meretz party emphasized the importance of Israeli progressives staying true to their values even if it meant that her party has only five seats in the 120 seat Knesset. She asserted that without her party’s honest progressive policies the rest of the Knesset would lean even further right.
The youngest member of the Knesset, thirty-year-old Stav Shaffir, who achieved rock-star status in Israel when she led mass social protests in 2011, spoke to a rapt audience including many progressive members of Congress. The status quo is unacceptable, she said, and she called for a revolution in the Israeli relationship with the Palestinians, including just borders and a two-state solution. The crowd in Washington gave her a standing ovation.
During the gala, I talked with Israeli progressives who were thrilled to see the support from American progressives for their cause. Ksenia Svetlova, who immigrated to Israel from Russia when she was fourteen years old, is a single mother of two children. She left a promising career as an Arab affairs television journalist when she was elected to the Knesset in 2015. While she has mixed feelings about whether she can have more impact inside the Knesset or as a journalist, she remains proud of her progressive roots.
When I asked what she might want to say to American progressives she said:
“Many of our Jewish sisters and brothers around the world, as well as the many friends of Israel, define themselves as unconditionally ‘pro-Israel.’ However, I am afraid these people are actually playing against us.”
“In their support they give our current government complete freedom to do whatever it wants,” she added, “which is to continue the occupation in the West Bank and to expand the settlements in a way that create a real obstacle to peace.”
Real support for Israel, Svetlova said, would mean “to direct our government into doing the right thing: go back to the negotiation table and end the conflict using the two state solution, which is the only way to keep Israel a Jewish and a democratic state.”
That is J Street’s vision, and the vision of a growing number of young American Jews and Israelis.
Jeff Spitzer-Resnick is a civil rights attorney in Madison, Wisconsin. He also Chair of J Street Madison. He blogs at: systemschangeconsulting.wordpress.com