On the Ground at J Street Conference 2019

Pete Buttigieg Interviewed by Ben Rhodes at J Street 2019

I decided to travel to Washington, D.C. for the J Street Conference on the day that Donald Trump coined the moniker, “Disloyal Jews.” I was looking for answers and insights. I found plenty.

J Street has been on my radar since its inception. I interviewed founder Jeremy Ben-Ami in 2008, about Jews and the Obama candidacy. The organization has grown in size and influence since that time, and has offered an option for American Jews who do not identify with the status quo being put forth by many legacy Jewish organizations, nor the politics of AIPAC.

With two days of concurrent sessions, trainings, and plenaries, there was a myriad of topics to explore and not enough time to hear everything. I was surprised to run into an activist I know, who is Jewish, and an unwavering critic of Israel’s policies. She commented on the range and quality of the speakers.

Along with 4,000 other attendees, I heard the ideas of American Jews, Israelis, and Palestinians. Many of them I was very familiar with. Others, I was exposed to for the first time. Throughout the event, the anniversary of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre (October 27) loomed large.

Panels and Trainings

My Sunday began with a Primer on Occupation and Annexation. It was delivered by Frank Lowenstein, former Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations. It was both informative and discouraging. It also helped to explain why the Obama administration chose to abstain on United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334.

Next up was Fighting Antisemitism and its Weaponization in American Politics. It was moderated by Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of T’ruah. The room was packed.

A point of agreement I would hear frequently over the next 48 hours was the premise that “Progressives allow themselves to be divided and impacted by wedge strategies.” Another frequent iteration posited that white nationalism is a “reaction to the strengthening of democracy,” while Trump had “engaged and emboldened White Supremacists.”

Peter Beinart offered, “We don’t have a consensus of what is anti-Semitism.” Rabbi Jacobs underscored the need not to fall into the “trap of false equivalency,” particularly in regard to “legitimate criticism of Israel.” Maya Berry, from the Arab-American Institute, agreed that antisemitism needed to be called out from both the left and the right.

Questions raised included: If Zionism is a response to Jewish global history, how is it to be viewed through a current context? Can an individual be anti-Zionist without being antisemitic? It was mutually agreed by the panelists that an open discussion was needed about these matters, or as Berry remarked, “We have to rip off the Band-Aid and have a conversation.”

While mentally chewing over that dialogue, I proceeded to the room hosting the training session, Antisemitism, Racism and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: A Progressive Understanding of Antisemitism. After a recent encounter with a local colleague who informed me that “Israel was a criminal state,” I was more than ready to learn some strategies.

Cherie Brown and April Baskin led the group in exercises for “coalition work when the Israel/Palestine conflict comes up.” Brown, who co-authored the pamphlet “Anti-Semitism: Why Is It Everyone’s Concern?” focused on the “need to stay in coalition.” She explained how antisemitism is used as a diversion to push groups that should be aligned, into isolation. Brown used the examples of the Women’s March, LGBTQ events, and the flap over the  Black Lives Matter platform.

Baskin, a Jew of Color, who drolly referenced herself as a “professional Jew for the past 10 years,” drilled down on “seeing other parts of the Jewish community. (Jews of Color currently comprise 12 to 15 percent of American Jews.) She has been working across “lines of differences,” and elucidated that “brown people don’t see Jews as oppressed.”

Role-playing was enacted in order to observe reactions. It involved visualizing three concentric circles which included comfort, stretch, and panic. The difference between reactivity on an emotion scale (via triggers) versus an oppression scale was parsed. The person next to me (who was visibly Orthodox) shared his story about attending an anti-Trump rally where he was asked, “Are you a good Jew or a bad Jew?”

Guidance and direction embraced listening fully to others. “Compassionate accountability while understanding that history has brought each person to where they are,” and “Take it from the global statement to the personal,” were takeaways. Conclusion: “It’s not how long we want it to take, it’s how long it takes.”

Feeling empowered by new tools, my next session shifted to the work being done by Israelis — who have been pushing back against their country’s entrenched right-wing actors. Specifically, the work of the New Israel Fund, which presented an interview with Naomi Chazan .

Naomi Chazan: “Can one be overly critical of a country one loves?”

Naomi Chazan, Former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, as well as a previous president of the NIF, was interviewed by Libby Lenkinski. I had previously heard Chazan speak, via streamed events. A staunch feminist who doesn’t mince words, Chazan has addressed “the rise of gender segregation in public spaces,” and the need to “rehabilitate the basic norms of Israeli democracy.”

Naomi Chazan (R) Interviewed by Libby Lenkinski

With dynamism and humor (“I’ve always been astounded that a bunch of Polish chicken farmers started a state.”), Chazan delivered a blueprint of what needs to be done. Much of what she said about Israel and Netanyahu was equally applicable to the America/Trump situation. She prefaced her comments with the rhetorical question, “Can one be overly critical of a country one loves?”

On the threat to Israeli democracy, Chazan underscored, “We are at a crossroads.” Drawing a picture of global illiberalism, neo-authoritarianism and populism, Chazan voiced her alarm concerning “democratic erosion.” This covered the degradation of civil and human rights (legislated inequality with the Nation-State Law), governmental checks and balances being undermined; weakening institutions with attacks on the media and the judiciary.

“This leads to the centralization of power,” said Chazan, “and creates hegemonic authority.” Qualifying that the backslide has been going on in Israel for a decade, Chazan signaled Netanyahu as the leader of that trajectory.

“It’s being done incrementally,” Chazan stated. “It’s meant to numb you. And when you finally wake and realize — it’s hard to reverse.” Chazan’s was adamant that the foundation of Israeli democracy had to be strengthened. “Polarization is the cancer of democratic society. We must find avenues to a shared society…while respecting separate identities.”

Chazan was unambiguous about the Occupation: “Jews should not rule over another people.” Attacked for her views by others with regularity, Chazan dismissed it with, “Just plough ahead. Don’t give up for a minute. If you don’t succeed, try another course.”

Presidential Candidates

There were 5 contenders at the conference. Others delivered video statements. Bernie Sanders was clearly the crowd favorite. He began by announcing, “I am a Jew. I will be the first Jewish president of the United States.” He was unequivocal in his opinions. He warned against conflating criticism of Netanyahu’s Israeli government with antisemitism. He stated flatly, “What’s going on in Gaza is inhumane.” On the current American and Israeli leadership, Trump and Netanyahu, he received laugher and applause on the sentence: “One who’s going to be impeached, the other who’s going to jail.” Sanders also put forth the concept of a “global progressive movement.”

Pete Buttigieg was clear-cut on his views. He supports a two-state solution and no annexation; all funding must be compatible with U.S. law and policy. “You can be committed to a U.S.-Israel alliance without supporting a right-wing government,” he said. He wants to see America reestablish its role as an “honest broker.” On Gaza: “It cannot continue without an explosion.” He commented wryly, “The United States has to be engaging with nuance and good faith ¾ which is not a hallmark of the Trump administration.”

Other points delivered by candidates:

  • No annexation or new settlement building.
  • Reestablish the Iran nuclear deal.
  • Reopen the Palestinian consulate in Washington, D.C.
  • Reopen the American consulate in East Jerusalem.
  • Restart the funding of programs that have been cut by Trump.
  • Restart financial support to UNRA.
  • No more demolitions of Palestinian homes.

“Our Boys” — Art as Activism

The three creators (Hagai Levi, Joseph Cedar, Tawfik Abu Wael) of the HBO film, “Our Boys,” were present to discuss their movie, which dealt with the brutal revenge murder of a 16-year-old Palestinian boy in the aftermath of the tragic kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the summer of 2014. A gut-wrenching and nuanced look at the different elements of Israeli society, the movie was slammed by Netanyahu. In a quest to understand the hows and whys of the “price-tag” killing, Cedar affirmed that for him, the search was, “most importantly, to find the murderers in ourselves.”

Top Quotes

Fida Nara, Co-Director of Mahapach-Taghir. An Arab-Palestinian, Nara was pressured not to take part in the conference. “Can Israel be just [fair] for the [Palestinian] 20 percent of the population? We need each other to make this change.”

Dr. Saeb-Erakat, Palestinian Chief Negotiator. Also discouraged from attending. “To quote Yitzah Rabin, ‘Without a future for Palestinians, there I no future for Israel.’ [A two-state solution] is the only option. Peace must be rooted in justice. It is doable. It is up to us. Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow is what we decide. We have no right to give up. I believe together we can make it.”

Nitzan Horowitz, Chairperson of Meretz, Knesset member. Openly gay. “We must ask in Israel and the United States, where do I stand on democratic values? It’s the same battle everywhere. The same forces. The same money. We have to do it together.”


The energy from J Street U leaders and college students was palpable. They are working on a Democratic Party Platform which will embrace “No annexation of the West Bank” and “No settlement expansion” planks. One of the group’s leaders pronounced to the crowd: “Political problems have political solutions. It’s about organized people, not organized money. It’s time to end a 52-year occupation. We are not disloyal to anyone.”

Progressive Goals

There were numerous exhibitors at the conference. Some are part of the ten-member New Progressive Israel Network” which is working on common aims. Below are groups that I found of particular interest:

Breaking The Silence: This organization was founded in 2004 by Israeli veterans who collect and publish the testimonies from soldier who have served in Gaza and the West Bank since the beginning of the Second Intifada. They offer lectures and also do tours in Hebron or Susiya and Area C. I picked up their pamphlet, “The South Hebron Hills,” a compilation of soldier testimonies from 2010-2016. It’s a must read.

Taghyeer (Change) Palestinian National Nonviolence Movement:
Working on the ground, the mission is to “build a grassroots movement through nonviolence in action to better Palestinian lives and forge a path to freedom.” Their founder, Ali Abu Awwad, wrote a letter to Trump in response to his actions regarding Jerusalem.

Partners for Progressive Israel: Their advocacy includes webinars with top speakers delving into on-the-ground topics, to inform audiences about the realities in Israel/Palestine. Civil rights and social justice for both peoples are the nucleus of their agenda. They organize trips to the area for those who want to learn about Israeli and Palestinian society.

Project Rozana: Their information caught my attention with the “Adopt a Driver” flyer. It is an initiative that supports Israeli and Palestinian volunteer drivers. They transport Palestinian youngsters who need to get from their homes, through checkpoints, to appointments at hospitals located in Israel for medical visits.

Final Thoughts

It can be too easy to throw up one’s hands, either in despair or resignation.

Both the United States and Israel are being subjected to the same playbook, which employs the global anti-democratic trend in government. The conference proved that there are plenty of people that don’t want this scenario. As Naomi Chazan said, “Despair is not a plan of action.”

It’s really about what each of us can do individually, as a link in the chain, to move forward on making a difference.

Photos: Marcia G. Yerman

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