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The J Street Crowd and its Idiosyncrasies

Peace and security. Nobody should choose between peace and security. The State of Israel doesn’t need to choose between peace and security…. As I’m fighting for peace – and there is a political price for it – in the negotiations room, I’m fighting also for Israel’s security. And I’m here today in order to ask you, this special audience, those who are fighting for peace: In your quest for peace don’t abandon Israel’s security needs.”

Such was the message of Tzipi Livni, Israel’s Justice Minister, in her addresses at J Street’s national conference this week.

J Street, a non-profit organization, held its national conference in Washington DC, and unsurprisingly was full of spirit and controversy.

Livni sent a powerful message to J Street’s progressive crowd, which since its founding in 2008 has come under fire from pro-Israel figures in Washington and Israel for its criticism of the Israeli government.

Indeed, the self-described “political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans” has sparked debate about the parameters and definitions of being ‘pro-Israel.’

Most notably last year American law professor and prominent pro-Israel advocate Alan Dershowitz, accused the lobby group of “totally undercutting American policy toward Iran,” and of misrepresenting the views of prominent Israelis over thwarting Iran.”

In an interview with the Times of Israel Dershowitz said his own views on Israeli settlement policy and on the two-state solution “are closer to J Street in many ways,” but that the lobby group’s position on Iran had taken it out of the pro-Israel camp.

The national conference featured high profile politicians, thinkers and diplomats, and included addresses from US Vice President Joe Biden as well as Martin Indyk, US special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

So what big issues were discussed, and why all the apparent drama?

Husam Zomlot of Abbas’ Fatah party was met with loud applause for his appeal to the Palestinian law of return and call for official recognition of ‘the Nakba.’

“What do refugees want?” he asked. “They want… four options. Some of them might want to stay where they are. Some of them might want to resettle somewhere else, in a third country. Some of them might want to choose to come back to the state of Palestine. And some of them might want to return to their original homes. But all of them- all of them- want one thing. Full recognition of the Nakba that has befallen our people (sustained applause).” (You can hear the address on a recording posted to sound cloud).

Allowing for a Palestinian law of return is considered a non-starter by Israel, and this has been conveyed to successive Palestinian leaders as non-negotiable. This premeditated focus at a ‘pro-Israel’ convention is merely inflammatory.

At the same time, the choice of Zomlot as a speaker is also divisive. The former PLO representative to the UK who last year told +972 Magazinethat “resistance, including armed resistance, is a right [of Palestinians]” hardly seems to perpetuate J Street’s ‘pro-peace’ mantra.

A diversity of views should not only be accepted in this context, but should be encouraged. These sorts of conventions should evoke thought and reflection on the conflict, and are meaningless if they fail to provide room for consideration of the other.

However, it was the audience’s ‘robot-like’ reception of various speakers, and rejection of others, that is causing the most stir.

The Times of Israel reported that when Labor leader MK Shelly Yachimovich said “we believe in a free and democratic Israel with a strong army and secure borders to defend not only our people but our values” she received a lukewarmclapping. And when she paused after adding “this is the true Zionist dream,” there was no applause at all.

If this is the sentiment of a self-proclaimed ‘pro-Israel’ conference, I shudder at the thought of its antithesis.

Social issues also fired up the crowd. Members of Knesset Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid) and Merav Micaheli (Labor) got heated on a panel on “The Changing Face of Politics in Israel: Will Women Lead the Way?”

Their verbal row showed that they both have a vested interest in a feminist agenda, but disagree on how to go about it.

great article in the Daily Beast sums up the crux of the panel. It says while the two female MKs agree that the Knesset is “a boys’ club,” Michaeli went on to describe a time when solidarity between the Knesset’s women failed to materialize.

It says: “MK Hanin Zoabi, a female Arab parliamentarian, had proposed a bill to promote gender parity in Israel’s political parties. To Michaeli’s shock, many of the other female MKs chose not to endorse it. She recalled members of the Meretz party yelling, “How can you possibly not support this legislation?” and one of the members from Yesh Atid—Calderon’s party—answering, “Don’t be so angry, we’re working on a similar bill ourselves, we’re just not going to vote for Zoabi’s legislation.”

Calderon dismissed Michaeli’s claim with two words: “That’s bullshit.” At least they weren’t putting on any pretences for their ‘politically-correct’ audience.

It was also reported that members of the crowd, which was composed largely of self-defined progressives, weren’t very moved when a number of attending MKs discussed rising income gaps in Israel. Pluralism though was a popular subject, and Calderon was greeted by rounds of applause when she mentioned the need for increased religious diversity in Israel.

The J Street crowd’s distinct support for progressive social issues, and seeming disregard for Israel’s right to peace with security, leaves an uncomfortable taste in the mouth.

But hopefully the sentiment of Tzipi Livni will be absorbed somewhat, even if subconsciously.  And Livni can hardly be dismissed as hawkish.

“The Middle East is not… a fairytale or a Hollywood movie,” she said. “We live in a tough neighbourhood and even after a peace agreement is reached… it will remain a tough neighbourhood. Peace — real peace — will not come in the same moment in which we sign, hopefully, the peace treaty.”

“We cannot just throw the keys over to the other side of the new border and hope for good…. “We cannot afford in our region, to be naive.” Touché.

Gabrielle Debinski
Media and Advocacy Director 
Zionist Federation of Australia