Saturday, March 31, 2012

Keeping the Eye on the Prize

Opening Night

J Street’s third annual conference just concluded and it was a huge success by any measure. It was attended by 2,500 supporters, including nearly 700 college students. President Obama sent two representatives, with his closest confidant, Valerie Jarrett, bringing a packed room to its feet several times. The Israeli government dispatched its number two diplomat to address the conference, the first time one of its representatives appeared at the annual gathering. Ehud Olmert, a former prime minister, presented his remarks at the gala dinner, which was emceed by the legendary Theodore Bikel. And perhaps the most memorable moment was delivered by one of Israel’s pre-eminent authors, Amos Oz, telling a raucous opening night audience: “J Street, I’ve been waiting for you my entire adult life.”

The press coverage was equally impressive. Articles appeared throughout the conference in Haaretz, Ynet, TheJerusalem Post, and the Forward. Notice of the conference was not limited to the Israeli and Jewish press. The New York Times covered J Street’s Lobby Day efforts on Capitol Hill, as 700 activists pressed the case for a two state solution and diplomatic efforts aimed at preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

While the plenary sessions and the panel discussions presented matters of great substance and varying perspectives, the impromtu meetings with Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians who are doing the hard work in the trenches provided the most insight on what is actually happening on the ground.

With all that was packed into the three day conference, reading some of the post conference wraps I can't help but notice some of the attention given to the tangential issue of where J Street and its supporters are found on the left-right political spectrum. First, let me say that I get it.Writers gotta write and bloggers gotta blog. And true, some of the analysis can be interesting to read. But this sort of discussion, like its sister debate in political campaigns, focuses too much on the horse race, obscuring the point that brought 2,500 people together – the urgent push for a two state solution in order to secure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic homeland. Viewed against the existential threat that the lack of a viable peace process presents, trying to place J Street and its supporters along a left-right political spectrum or gauging who earned the loudest, most polite or tepid applause serves only to diminish the dire moment in which we find ourselves.

Israeli Prime Minister and Likud Chair Benjamin Netanyahu has, himself, acknowledged the need for an independent Palestinian state living along side a safe and secure Israel. The former heads of Israel’s security branches overwhelmingly support a two state solution along the 1967 borders with land swaps. A two state solution is both the official policy of the United States government and the PLO. So what’s with the obsession with trying to place J Street, which was founded for the express purpose of advocating for a two state solution, on a left-right continuum? In 2012, a two state solution is simply no longer a left-right issue. It’s a matter that is necessary for Israel’s survival.

Supporters of a two state solution arrive from a variety of perspectives. Many, like former Brigadier General Amram Mitzna, view the matter as necessary from a military-security vantage. Some, like Rabbi Donniel Hartman, come to the conclusion from their understanding of what Judaism requires of us. Others advocate for this solution to vindicate the human rights of the Palestinians. Certainly some see a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians as serving American security interests. And I welcome anyone who is willing to work for a two state solution regardless from which camp he or she comes; although befitting the complexity of human thought many of us find ourselves as belonging to more than one of these camps, or perhaps all of them.

So as we push forward toward the same goal – a safe and secure Jewish and democratic Israel, it is time to move past the false left-right dichotomy. Instead of trying to pigeon hole each other, we should be talking about how to make a two state solution a reality, or at the very least, preserve its possibility. Because we may well discover that while we are taking the temperature of the room, the house has collapsed around us.

Make no mistake. This is what we face if we do not change the current dynamic. Every day that goes by without progress on a two state solution is one day closer to the end of the Zionist enterprise. It is therefore incumbent upon all who care about Israel to ask ourselves every morning what we will do that day to make it happen. The choice now before us is not which path to pursue, but whether we will actually pursue it.

Note: In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a member of the J Street Board of Directors and was privileged to open this year's conference alongside Hannah Fishman of the J Street U chapter at Reed College.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

When Hanin Met Danny

Ami Kaufman of +972 posted a 10 minute clip  of Israeli news anchor Danny Kushmaro interviewing Hanin Zoabi. (Ami's clip provides English subtitles.) For the uninitiated, Hanin is a woman, an Arab and a member of the Israeli Knesset. The clip includes Hanin's brief history in the Knesset as a lighting rod. But what caught me about Ami's post was its title: "WATCH Hanin Zoabi: Israel has no right to live in security."

And indeed during the ten minute segment, Hanin said: "You are not allowed to live in security. An occupying people has no right for a normal life. It has no right." But this brief exchange was not the theme of the interview nor even a major part of it; there was no real followup to this declaration. My point here is not to take issue with or to defend Hanin.What struck me was something altogether different.

I commented at Ami's blog that I found the interview fascinating, but thought the title didn't convey its tenor. When I read "Israel has no right to live in security," I expect conflict. Enmity. Outrage. Though truth be told, what's left to be outraged about? Everything's been said, all the arguments made. But there wasn't even faux outrage. Quite the opposite in fact. I thanked Ami for the post and he responded by asking me what would have been a better title. I replied without offering one. Until now.

The viewer of the aforesaid clip is introduced to Danny and Hanin as they meet cute on the street. The first words you hear from Hanin are playful - "you don't do a warm up talk? You don't want to get to know your interviewee?" The camera follows Danny and Hanin walking through traffic to sit down at an outdoor cafe. The sun is out; they are each wearing sunglasses. Looks like they are drinking mashehu cham (something hot, coffee or tea). They smile at each other and laugh comfortably. What struck me was how utterly Israeli the scene is. Especially Hanin. It's true chevrai. I don't know if she's the most hated person in Israel as the clip suggests, but she may be the most Israeli. Not sure I'm going to win too many friends on either side with that. Oh well, watch the interview and tell me who is supposed to be the "other"?

So Danny asks Hanin how she felt when she was jeered by right wingers in Hebron, who, surprise, surprise, took notice of the fact that she is single. Danny takes his cue and lets us know that Hanin is "almost" 43, has never been married, has no children. A red-blooded Israeli, he basically asks what's up with that? Hanin giggles and explains that she has no plans to marry and no plans not to marry. "I'm very spontaneous on these issues." Danny responds by voice over "this is more or less the most personal we could get to the Balad MK." Not for lack of trying, Danny. But really, this hardly seemed to be the case. Danny tells us that Hanin lives with her parents in Nazareth, has multiple degrees - philosophy, psychology, communications, comes from a well-known family, a former Supreme Court Justice, a former Deputy Health Minister, and former warrior in "God forbid" the Hagganah. (I know some yidlach stateside that would kill for a pedigree like that.)

For her part, Hanin distances herself from her "good Arab" uncles ("now is the time when that oppressed Palestinian lifts his head up and says to you 'Enough'"), sidesteps the oath of allegiance she took to the State of Israel upon becoming a Member of Knesset ("I didn't think about it"), and justified accepting a salary from the state ("a fraction compared to the lands you took from my family"). They go to Hanin's office where she makes Danny coffee. Danny playacts the role of embarrassed guest, concerned about stereotypes of gender and ethnicity, tries in vain to takeover, but ends up submitting to Hanin's "No, no, not yet." All in good fun as it should be. And if you've watched the clip, you know the chemistry is better than I've portrayed.

So what's my take? This looked more like a first date that didn't go all that badly. And I'd definitely tune in to a second. There is hope yet.