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.

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