The belief that the self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby group is here to stay as a force on Capitol Hill and in the community was the central theme of their tenth annual conference, as over three thousand attendees convened in Washington this week.

As was the case following my experience at AIPAC’s annual conference last month, I observed J Street’s gathering closely and critically and have compiled my reflections below. As a disclosure, I have had fewer engagements with J Street than AIPAC over the years, despite getting to travel with a J Street U group to various West Bank and East Jerusalem sites during an undergraduate semester at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

And as with other organizations, including AIPAC, one must acknowledge the diversity of opinions in such a large group of people, and distinguish between the attitudes of J Street as an organization and its base of community supporters. Observers can attempt, however, to ascertain the base’s common – and diverging – attitudes by way of their collective energy and applause at certain speakers and talking points, as well as trends in audience questions and conversations.

Through my below thoughts – and coupled with my AIPAC analysis – I will arrive at the argument that the two conferences and movements serve in many ways as mirror opposites.

My takeaways:

“Everything would be solved if the Israeli government would just press the two-state button…”

While I identify with the perspective that the Israeli-Palestinian issue (and other geopolitical conflicts) is above all else a political one, the simplification of the obstacles that lie on the path to a permanent status agreement only serves to bolster the status quo and create unrealistic expectations as to what is feasible and viable. For the majority of the conference speakers, both from the organization’s leadership and those visiting from Congress, to downplay these key realities in their remarks not only hurts the credibility of the still credible two-state perspective, but more importantly, it minimizes the impact of tangible policy and progress.

The other dynamic at play is the weighted emphasis on Israeli action. While understanding that the positions and actions of organizations in the Jewish community as a whole do focus almost exclusively on Israel, the insistence on pressuring the Israeli government to initiate action because it is the more powerful actor unjustly absolves the Palestinians of responsibility on their part. It also leads me and many in the community to question if J Street supporters are prepared for what an actual two-state framework would entail: serious compromises reached on behalf of both parties.

When there is rousing applause for Peter Beinart’s insistence on the future of the Democratic party to denounce any support at all for the settlements, I question whether or not these supporters understand, let alone would accept, that at least 80% of settlers will undoubtedly become part of Israel through mutually-agreed land swaps. The settlement blocs themselves are viewed by close to 95% of Israelis as not even controversial, further delineating the divide between J Street’s outlook and that of the broad Israeli consensus.

The rise in influence of student activists is noteworthy and commendable, while also problematic.

The idealism and far-reaching expectations of younger activists and students (including myself) for solutions to formidable conflicts such as this one is of course welcome in the conversation, but it can easily turn counterproductive when it’s allowed to be taken to certain extremes and begins to contradict the very progress it aspires to achieve. We must internalize that the Middle East of 2018 is not ripe for an ultimate deal or any overly-ambitious progressive outlook, no matter how noble and just. While it may satisfy the feelings and worldviews of those safely far away in America, the dreadful scenarios and challenges in the Gaza Strip, Syria, and elsewhere will remain dire and without progress if outside observers and influencers do not appreciate the practical obstacles or necessary actions that lie with each idealistic call to action. Taking the recent strikes against Syria’s chemical weapon sites as an example, there must be an understanding that often un-ideal means such as targeted military strikes do achieve more ideal ends such as decreased stockpiles of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. The two-state solution even, by most accounts, is the preferred policy simply because it is the least worst option.

Therefore, student-led campaigns, movements, and perspectives such as those prevailing among the over 1,000 student attendees, are significantly less likely to succeed if they are more steeped in morals at the expense of practical policy solutions. One of these prominent campaigns led by conference students is titled “Stop Demolitions: Build Peace.” In general a helpful initiative in shining a light on this deeply problematic facet of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the humanitarian-based campaign and others similar are unlikely to lead to any shift in Israeli policy, let alone American actions beyond a quote or statement made by Congressional representatives. However, a more nuanced and practical message could have included the specific policy recommendation for Israel and the IDF to shift small adjacent areas of Area C (Israel-controlled) to Area B (shared control) in the West Bank, thus politically solving the problem of home demolitions stemming from the natural growth of Palestinians.  After J Street U’s national president stated to the whole audience, “If I’ve learned one thing from J Street, it’s that if there’s a political problem, there’s a political solution,” I asked myself, “ What happens when the energized students fail to see a policy return on their advocacy investment?” I worry that the long-term effect is indeed negative.

The genuine empowerment of student leaders in J Street and elsewhere is commendable and a model for the wider community. Yet this can leave organizations additionally vulnerable if the student tent is open to seemingly any viewpoint. The Israel Policy Forum and our partners the Commanders for Israel’s Security were featured on a number of security-related panels, each receiving a consistent stream of combative student audience questions and heckling after the  Israeli panelists presented a security perspective on issues in Gaza and elsewhere. Keeping in mind that all of these presenters are working every single day to advance the two-state solution in Israel and the United States, the conflation of all Israelis with the Israeli government by many students, a prominent phenomenon on college campuses, is deeply problematic and was a strong takeaway for me. MK Merav Michaeli even mentioned this in her plenary remarks to strong applause from the audience, although the students in my vicinity remained quiet. So instead of the #StayWoke mantra repeatedly directed to students by Congressman Lee and other speakers, I recommend something more along the lines of “stay pragmatic and focused.”

Integrating Palestinian leadership challenges – and more importantly, Palestinian governance opportunities – into the U.S. conversation must continue to be fostered in the context of pragmatic, two-state policy and initiatives.

If there’s one thing non-attendees perhaps should know about a shift in J Street’s programmatic and rhetorical presentations from this year, it was their elevation of Palestinian viewpoints, leaders, and organizations. Long criticized by some for infantilizing the Palestinians by downplaying Hamas’ authoritarian rule, the PA’s corruption, and the general lack of democratic values and governance, the 2018 conference featured more break-out sessions dedicated to Palestinian leadership and civil society than on settlements and creeping annexation of the West Bank.

Participants heard civil society leaders like Samer Maklouf, the head of Zimam, ask the questions, “If the Occupation ended today, would the trash mounds in Nablus go away, or our governing institutions any better?” Walid Issa, of the American Palestinian Hope Project, called for a new Palestinian national strategy to improve education and to “build peace as a value and honor, not just a process.” And in the plenary hall, the fan-favorite Beinart emphasized the responsibilities and negative roles currently employed by Hamas and the PA, and J Street head Jeremy Ben-Ami stated in his opening address, “Our partners in Israel and Palestine…must work to bring in new leaders.” While it is nonetheless true that Palestinian Ambassador Husam Zomlot received a hero’s welcome and reception to the PLO talking points, as well as the general fact that the audience energy significantly rises when speakers criticize Israel compared to the above Palestinian objections – the more honest showcasing of Palestinian voices, in clear support for the two-state solution yet in opposition to current Palestinian leadership, in a liberal-dominant setting is an important step to be replicated.

Concluding Thoughts and Where to Go Next

As someone who works every day in a professional capacity not only on the two-state issue broadly, but specifically with many rising volunteer leaders from both the left-of and right-of-center camps through IPF Atid, the increasing shift to the left in liberal young adults is worrisome.

Recognizing that the role of J Street and others in the American peace camp has grown to fill a pivotal hole in Congress in keeping two-states at the forefront as well as maintaining bipartisan pro-Israel support from Democrats, I worry that the Trump Era has already initiated the beginning of the end of this paradigm – of course including the collapse of the window for a viable two-state solution itself. So if the current administration further enables a right-wing binational state into reality, and the base of the peace opposition camp abandons two-states for their mirror opposite version of a singular state, the U.S. Jewish community may be permanently fractured – all while innocent Israelis and Palestinians remain stuck without the core issues being addressed.

In this article’s partner piece from last month, I conclude that a positive step forward would be for the organized Jewish community to genuinely elevate the voices of young adults. Yet if there is broad consensus that our community (alongside the entire country and world) is deeply polarized and that the primary issues facing the future are indeed consequential for Israel and U.S. Jewry, then the additional caveat must be to train and empower these rising young adult leaders to work within informed nuance and centrist pragmatism.

Throughout history, the vision shared by the Israel Policy Forum for a Jewish, democratic, secure Israel has been a unifying message for the Jewish community across denominational, generational, and partisan lines. In order to return to such unity, rising voices and leaders must deliberate on the challenges facing two-states, work with Israeli and Palestinian change-makers, and ultimately build a strong consensus that attracts those coming from J Street’s message of two-states as well as AIPAC’s advocacy of strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship. Only with a commitment to such a vision can the left and right-wing flanks of the American Jewish center realize not only how similar their views are, but how powerful their unity can become.

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