Defining what it means to be pro-Israel was the theme of the third annual J Street Conference that concluded March 27 in Washington, D.C. The 4-year-old, pro-Israel, pro-peace lobbying organization and political action committee has 180,000 supporters across the U.S. Eight Clevelanders were among the 2,500 attendees, including 650 students from 125 universities.
Speaking at the gala dinner March 26 with 60 members of Congress in the audience, J Street president Jeremy Ben Ami called for a renewed commitment to negotiations, both to achieve a two-state solution with the Palestinians and to resolve the situation with Iran.
Keynoting the dinner, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert alluded to the fact that J Street is sometimes critical of Israeli actions, saying “J Street is an organization dedicated to the well-being of Israel,” while noting that “if we’re entitled to have disagreements in Israel about what is best for the state, then you’re entitled to have those disagreements as well.”
First-time conference attendee Karly Whitaker of Cleveland Heights was inspired to hear novelist Amos Oz and political author Gershon Gorenberg insist that “it is not naïve to believe political change is possible,” quoting Oz, who said that “people are open-ended; they are capable of surprising themselves.”
Longtime peace activist Mark Silverberg of Moreland Hills “found the atmosphere electric, being among the pro-Israel, pro-peace supporters.” He resonated with the insights of well-known author and blogger Peter Beinart, who explained why it is important to distinguish between the Jewish, democratic homeland within Israel’s original borders and the non-democratic territory under Israel’s control, and how corrosive the settlement movement has been to the moral fabric, economic and political well-being of Israel.
Among several panels I attended on Iran, panelists disagreed on the likelihood of an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear installations, but the consensus was that such an attack brought with it a high likelihood that it would lead to U.S. military involvement, sharply escalated oil prices and a protracted war that would last months or years, not days or weeks.
Sydney Silverstein, a Brown University senior from Beachwood, deemed her conference experience “amazing and inspirational,” and found the inclusion of Palestinian voices to raise the level of the conversation.
Shaker Heights resident Richard Zigmond found himself moved while watching a documentary describing the eviction of Palestinian family in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem in order to allow settlers to move in.
Debra Hirshberg, J Street’s Ohio advocacy chair was pleasantly surprised by Ehud Olmert, in that the former mayor of Jerusalem came to the conclusion that the city has to become the future capital of both Israel and Palestine because “you can’t have 500,000 residents living with freedoms that are denied 250,000 other residents.
The conference concluded with a visit to Capitol Hill and a request for renewed U.S. leadership toward a two-state solution, as well as recognition of the potentially devastating consequences of a military strike against Iran.
The J Street locals in Cleveland will hold a follow-up meeting in early May for those interested in learning about the issues and taking an active part to bringing about peace in the Middle East. Details will be posted on the local J Street Facebook page and website.
Alan Federman is J Street Cleveland chapter leader.