Last week I joined more than 2,400 supporters of Israel — 20 of them from Washington State — at the second J Street Conference in Washington, D.C. The forum in which I found myself was comprised of activists, students, political analysts, members of Knesset, rabbis, and concerned American Jews.
Unlike what the expected detractors have suggested to the media, all of these attendees support a secure and democratic Jewish homeland that reflects the best of our values and traditions. With a broad range of Jewish, Israeli, American and Palestinian speakers, the conference provided an intellectual and emotional incubator for the community of people who support both Israel and Palestinian national realization.
Though the JTA wire service’s article on March 1 inaccurately described the conference as weak in its support for Israeli security, 700 of its attendees went to Capitol Hill after the conference ended to ask our Congressional representatives to support our vision for peace in the Middle East. As part of our lobbying effort, we requested support for the administration’s efforts to prevent reductions in foreign aid that advance U.S. interests in the Middle East, and we asked members of Congress to support President Obama’s budget request providing $3.075 billion in assistance to Israel as agreed upon in the 2007 Memorandum of Understanding between Israel and the United States.
Alongside that appeal was a request for strong and consistent funding to strengthen institution- and state-building efforts in the West Bank. A viable Palestinian Authority able to grow its economy, meet the basic needs of its citizens, and reduce the risk of terror aimed at Israel is essential to achieving a negotiated, peaceful solution with Israel.
A consistent theme in many of the conference discussions concerned the corrosive, trickle-down effect of the conflict and continued occupation of the West Bank on democratic institutions in Israel. We have seen in recent years an erosion of the legitimacy of dissent, a growing intolerance of religious and ethnic minorities, and a rising tendency to label those Israelis (and Jews across the globe) who defend human rights as unpatriotic and even treasonous.
Conference speakers expressed concern for this current that seeks to stifle dissent and impose an exclusive nationalism in Israeli society. They spoke, too, of the many courageous individuals and organizations working to defend the values of democracy — in civil society, in the courts, in Knesset, in the media, and in the arena of public opinion.
In an atmosphere of open discussion and debate, journalists, analysts, directors of NGOs, activists and policy makers deliberated whether the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, in fact, a “core national security interest” for the United States; whether Israel is a Jewish social justice issue; what role the United States should play in creating environmental cooperation, economic development and people-to-people projects in the Middle East; how the sensitive subject of an “indivisible” Jerusalem might be negotiated; what the broader implications of democracy movements in the Arab world may mean for America, Israel and the region; and much, much more.
I am an American and an Israeli. I lived in Israel for 20 years and raised my family there; three of my four children still live in Tel Aviv. The J Street experience reassured me that there is a community that represents and promotes the Jewish values on which I was raised and which inspired my aliyah almost three decades go. Journalist Peter Beinart eloquently expressed this sentiment in his remarks on the first evening of the conference:
“Our parents and grandparents struggled to ensure that the Jewish people would survive, to ensure that we would not be forever at the mercy of the gentile world. And in that awesome struggle, to their everlasting credit, despite the millions of dead, they triumphed. Today, because of them, we not only have a Jewish state, we have power, both in Israel and the United States that they could only have dreamed of. But with that power comes another struggle, every bit as momentous: Not a struggle for Jewish survival, but a struggle for Jewish honor. A struggle to show that we can wield power and still keep faith with the teachings of the Prophets, a struggle to show that, despite everything, the Jewish people still has an ethical message for the world.”