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Why I’m attending the J Street Conference 2011

February 22, 2011 – 6:33 pm78 Comments

By Liam Getreu

J Street has become one of the most influential organisations in American Jewry in recent years – I’m no expert on its efficacy in lobbying Congress, but there can be no doubt that it is creating substantial discussion in the Jewish community, in a way that few other organisations do.

The new kid on the block, J Street is aiming to provide an alternative voice in the American Jewish landscape to push a ‘pro-Israel, pro-peace’ agenda, in contrast, for example, to the America Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) singular, pro-Israel focus. It advocates for a two-state solution and for American assistance in helping both Israel and the Palestinian Authority achieve that aim.

It has raised the ire of hawkish members of the American Jewish community establishment and they, as well as others on the right, in the US Congress and in the blogosphere, have taken aim at the organisation. But I guess that’s exactly what it tried to do – stir the pot a little and offer up an another option.

This week I’ll be attending J Street’s second Washington DC conference, titled “Giving Voice to our Values”. Attempting to bring together and further strengthen the progressive Zionist community in America, J Street has arranged an impressive array of speakers and panellists, including American author Peter Beinart, former Israeli politician and president of the New Israel Fund Naomi Chazan, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen and former Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz.

But why am I going? Because in Australia I believe we lack a strong, progressive Zionist voice, too. In our community there are very many who tout the Israel right-or-wrong line and a much smaller, but very loud chorus of Jews who sing the Israel always-wrong song, with very little in between. There is not much conversation on liberal-democratic Zionism, a belief in Israel as the democratic home of the Jewish people, and a state that should embody the moral code of the Jewish people, of equality, inclusion and social justice for all.

When I told people I was going to the conference I was usually met with a mix of dismay and disgust. Of the many disparaging comments I got fired back at me “why are you going to see those self-hating Jews?” is probably my favourite. Usually it was also followed up with comments on how J Street is just a front, taking money from Soros and trying to con young Jews to back it so they can use their collective clout in Congress to shift US foreign policy against Israel. That the same naïve rhetoric is unthinkingly repeated over and over has now begun to make me chuckle.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not a ‘member’ of J Street, I don’t back everything they’ve ever done and I’m certainly not advocating a copy-cat organisation in Australia. But what I do believe is that the argument put forward by Peter Beinart in his essay in the New York Review of Books last year, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment”, was spot on.

In referring to a study carried out by American pollster Frank Luntz, Beinart wrote: “When [Luntz] probed the students’ views of Israel, he hit up against some firm beliefs. First, ‘they reserve the right to question the Israeli position.’ These young Jews, Luntz explained, ‘resist anything they see as “group think.”’ They want an ‘open and frank’ discussion of Israel and its flaws. Second, ‘young Jews desperately want peace.’ … Third, ‘some empathize with the plight of the Palestinians.’ When Luntz displayed adverts depicting Palestinians as violent and hateful, several focus group participants criticized them as stereotypical and unfair, citing their own Muslim friends.”

That could not be more similar in Australia. While it is true that Israel is far more central to young Jews’ identities here than they are in America, the fact that those Australian Jews who tend to be less engaged in establishment community activities share those same three characteristics is a profound notion.

It’s my belief that not only is the gap between the conservative establishment community and the rejectionist anti-Zionist outsiders present, it’s fillable by something that engages, educates, inspires and activates both those disenfranchised students and the rest of the community that feels alienated. And it needs filling today.

For the most part, I think that’s what J Street has very successfully done. It has taken a group of individuals in the US who couldn’t find their place in the established Jewish community and given them a home to express their views in a safe and welcoming environment. That within hours of announcing their subsequently outlawed Birthright trip, J Street had signed up more than 100 young Jews is testament to that.

We have much to learn from them in Australia. While we don’t need a lobby group, we can take many of the lessons from J Street and its partners in America and put it into action here.

I think in the future we’re going to see a renaissance of liberal Zionist activism in Australia. Hopefully it can show the rest of the Jewish community that there is a place for a pro-Israel message that, when warranted, includes the right to be critical of certain Israeli policies. And hopefully it can also show the wider Australian community that we haven’t totally lost our minds when it comes to Israel, and we are still able to apply to it our wider values set, rather than turning a blind eye in favour of supporting the continued occupation.

In last week’s London Jewish Chronicle, UJIA chairman Mick Davis wrote that “the need to engage and retain the commitment of all Jews, particularly young Jews, takes precedence over misplaced fears that debate weakens us and provides ammunition to our enemies.”

The positions taken by progressive Zionist organisations may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s to be expected. One of which, for example, might be a position that advocates for East Jerusalem to be the capital of the future Palestinian state.

Those who disagree with these stances should feel free to voice that disagreement, but what they must be careful to do is not to lump everyone into the same basket. Being critical of Israeli policy does not an anti-Zionist make. There are many shades of grey between defending Israel at all costs, all the time, and not believing in the state for the Jewish people. Take note of that or risk snubbing committed Jews and Zionists, casting them to the outer.

Those who hold progressive views on Israel may have hitherto felt alone, but no more will that be the case. That is our challenge, and the future success of our community depends on the maximum number of people being welcomed into the tent, regardless of what, in the scheme of things, are minor political differences.

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I’ll (hopefully!) be blogging each night from J Street’s “Giving Voice to our Values” conference in Washington DC next week. You can see my posts at www.liamgetreu.com, or you can follow me on Twitter @lmget.

Liam Getreu is a graduate of Bialik College and Habonim Dror and is a former chairperson of the Australian Zionist Youth Council and the Australasian Union of Jewish Students. He is currently pursuing his Honours in Middle East Studies at Deakin University. These are his personal views.

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