J Street Again

On October 25th, the Arab American Institute and J Street convened a joint meeting, that brought leaders and activists from both communities together as an expression of our shared commitment to advance a just and comprehensive Middle East peace. Two nights later, my wife Eileen and I had the pleasure of attending the J Street Gala Banquet. Because it was such an extraordinary event, I want to share some observations about the night.

First and foremost was the size and composition of the assembled crowd. A week or so before their conference was to begin, with registration nearing 900, J Street leaders were still hoping to reach 1000, their announced goal. Then came a wave of attacks on the group from hardliners in the pro-Israel camp. When I asked a J Street leader whether the criticism was having an impact, he replied “a little negative, but a huge positive impact”. Their event, for example, lost about a dozen of its 160 Congressional sponsors, but retained almost 150. And their registration swelled to 1,500!

As we entered the room it was clear that spirits were high. Jewish activists from the left and center of the political spectrum had spent three days in packed sessions debating policy and program. They had differences, to be sure, but were of one mind in their commitment to project an alternative pro-Israel, pro-peace perspective, and to legitimize a U.S. debate on the way forward toward peace.

As I looked around the room, I realized that I knew many of those present. Some from Middle East peace work we had done together in the 1990’s, and others from civil rights and other progressive coalitions in which we had participated. In his opening remarks, J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami made the observation that while J Street is new, it is made up of thousands of Jewish political leaders and activists who have long been engaged in the struggle for peace and justice. What is new is that they have found one another, and have come together to challenge the status quo–”that up until now has maintained that there is only one way of being pro-Israel

I was reminded of a metaphor Jesse Jackson used back in the 1980’s when he described the millions of unregistered voters he hoped to empower through his Presidential campaign. They were, he would say, like “so many stones laying around” needing only to be put together and built up to become a wall–”an edifice that can provide strength.

I was also struck by the Arabs and Arab Americans who were in attendance, and the profoundly respectful and gracious reception they (we) were given. Several Arab ambassadors were there, one of the evening’s emcees was an Arab American, a video of a message from Jordan’s King Abdullah opened the session, and our joint Arab American-American Jewish meeting was discussed by one speaker and greeted with wonderful applause.

An Israeli friend, with whom I had both debated and worked during the 90s, commented on this Arab presence. She remarked that it was ironic that J Street was being attacked by hardliners because a few Arab Americans had contributed to the group, and some Arabs attended their function, at the very moment when these same hardliners are saying that the Arab world must reach out and declare their interest in peace. They say, she went on, “we have no partners” but here are the partners, and yet they criticize us. I think, she concluded, they don’t want partners.

The content of the night’s program was also quite moving and worthy of note.

The Rabbi who opened the dinner with a prayerful reflection spoke of his personal attachment to Israel, the members of his family who survived WWII to find refuge there, and how they had prospered but still lived in fear and insecurity. He then moved to include in his prayer concern for the Palestinian people noting that if Jews acknowledge one God then their compassion and concern for life must be extended to all mankind, Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Other speakers developed this theme with one of the most eloquent moments of the night coming when J Street’s Director Ben-Ami spoke of his group’s resolve to be, “a voice that cares not simply about our people’s destiny but about the future of the Palestinian people –” not just because it is in our interest, but because Palestinian children deserve a future and freedom, hope and happiness every bit as much as Jewish children.” His remarks, like those of the Rabbi, were greeted with applause.

It was also important to note how significant the entire night was for the dozens of Members of Congress who were in attendance. For those who had long been advocates of a just peace, they found reinforcement, and for those who have been afraid to speak out, they were able to see, and hear, the emergence of an alternative voice that makes debate on Middle East issues possible.

As one attendee noted, “without exaggeration, this is a revolution”. The three days, beginning with the joint Arab American-American Jewish meeting, to the banquet at its conclusion, marks the birth of a movement and, one hopes, a transformation not only within the Jewish community’s internal debate, but in Arab American-American Jewish cooperation.

This effort will, no doubt, face obstacles and be challenged by those on all sides who are locked into old patterns of behavior and destructive ideologies based on fear of, anger at, and exclusion of “the other”. But, what I and many others saw over the three days was that a powerful voice has been born calling for change. And it is new.

In the 1990s, when we came together, we did so because leaders in the White House pressed us to work together and Israeli and Palestinian leaders on the White House lawn validated the effort. This time is different. We emerged and came together on our own, with a will not only to build a partnership, but to export its spirit to the Middle East despite the incapacity or unwillingness of Israeli and Palestinian leadership to do so.