Category Archives: J street

Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) and the American Jewish Community

By Donna Nevel

Many American Jewish organizations claim to be staunch supporters of civil and human rights as well as academic freedom. But when it comes to Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel, they make an exception. In their relentless opposition to BDS, they leave even core principles behind.

jvp-sodastreamThe Palestinian-led call for BDS, which began in 2005 in response to ongoing Israeli government violations of basic principles of international law and human rights of the Palestinian people, is a call of conscience. It has strengthened markedly over the last few years among artists, students, unions, church groups, dockworkers, and others. Media coverage of endorsers of the boycott has gone mainstream and viral. Recent examples include Stephen Hawking’s refusal to go to Jerusalem for the Presidential Conference, the successful campaign surrounding Scarlett Johansson’s support for Soda Stream and its settlement operation, and the American Studies Association (ASA) resolution that endorsed boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

Alongside BDS’s increasing strength have come increasingly virulent attacks on, and campaigns against it. These attacks tend to employ similar language and tactics – as if the groups are all cribbing from the same talking points – including tarring BDS supporters as “anti-Semitic” and “delegitimizers.”

These attacks simply don’t address or grapple with the core aspirations or realities of BDS. As described by Hanan Ashrawi, executive committee member of the PLO, in a recent letter in the New York Times, BDS “does not target Jews, individually or collectively, and rejects all forms of bigotry and discrimination, including anti-Semitism.” She goes on to explain that “B.D.S. is, in fact, a legal, moral and inclusive movement struggling against the discriminatory policies of a country that defines itself in religiously exclusive terms, and that seeks to deny Palestinians the most basic rights simply because we are not Jewish.”

The use of name-calling like “anti-Semites” and “delegtimizers” is problematic for a number of reasons, not only because its claims are untrue, but also because it takes the focus off the real issue at hand – whether and how Israel is, in fact, violating international law and basic human rights principles – and, instead, recklessly impugns the characters of those advocating for Israel to be held accountable.

Criticisms, even extremely harsh ones, of the Israeli state or calls to make a state democratic and adhere to equal rights for all its citizens are not anti-Semitic. Rather, anti-Semitism is about hatred of, and discrimination against the Jewish people, which is not anywhere to be found in the call for BDS, and these kinds of accusations also serve to trivialize the long and ugly history of anti-Semitism.

Most recently, the anti-BDS effort has moved to the legislative front. A bill, introduced in the New York State Assembly last month, would have trampled academic freedom and the right to support BDS in its quest to punish the ASA and deter any who might dare to emulate its endorsement of the academic boycott. Those supporting the bill were opposed by a broad coalition of education, civil rights, legal, academic, and Palestine solidarity organizations, as well as Jewish social justice groups. The bill was withdrawn, but a revised version has been introduced that is designed, like the original, to punish colleges that use public funds for activities related to groups that support boycotts of Israel, including mere attendance at their meetings.

The Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) worked closely with the sponsors of the New York bill.

Like the JCRC, rather than engaging in substantive debate about the issues raised in relation to BDS, the Israeli government and many Jewish communal organizations choose, instead, to try to discredit and derail the efforts of those supporting BDS.

For example, as recently reported by Ha’aretz, the Israeli Knesset is debating how to continue to counter BDS efforts across the globe, that is, “whether to launch an aggressive public campaign or operate through quieter, diplomatic channels.” It is also considering what the role of AIPAC might be in introducing anti-boycott legislation and how to best bolster military surveillance–which has significant funding behind it–against supporters of BDS.

American Jewish communal organizations have also expended massive resources and energy in their campaigns to demonize endorsers of BDS. The Israel Action Network (IAN)–which describes itself as “a strategic initiative of The Jewish Federations of North America, in partnership with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), created to counter assaults made on Israel’s legitimacy”–has funded the anti-BDS effort to the tune of at least six million dollars over a three-year period.

The IAN website characterizes supporters of BDS as “delegitimizers”and says that, in order to gain support from “vulnerable targets,” which include “college campuses, churches, labor unions, and human rights organizations,” delegitimizers utilize Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) tactics, “the same tools used to isolate and vilify apartheid South Africa, Iran, or Nazi Germany. BDS activists, IAN continues, “present distortions, fabrications and misrepresentations of international law in an attempt to paint Israel with the same brush.”

In another example of name-calling without any substance, the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL’s) July 2013 report attacked Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), featuring ad hominem accusations (JVP “intentionally exploits Jewish culture”), rather than discussing JVP’s actual positions. (A JVP report on the ADL points out that the ADL not only targets JVP but is well-known for its long history of spying on Arabs and supporters of the Palestinian movement.)

On the charge of anti-Semitism, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, in its call to fight the BDS movement, urges it supporters to “learn the facts behind this hypocritical and anti-Semitic campaign,” and the ADL’s Abe Foxman echoed those same sentiments: “The BDS movement at its very core is anti-Semitic.” And most recently, in his speech to AIPAC, Prime Minister Netanyahu, after shamelessly drawing upon classic anti-Semitic imagery of Jews to speak of supporters of BDS, says: “So you see, attempts to boycott, divest and sanction Israel, the most threatened democracy on earth, are simply the latest chapter in the long and dark history of anti- Semitism.”

The demonization of BDS is not only the domain of the Israeli government and the mainstream Jewish community. The self-declared liberal J-Street, in its seemingly relentless quest to stay under the Jewish “tent,” has also jumped on the anti-BDS bandwagon, sometimes in partnership with the IAN, which (precisely because J Street is positioned as a peace group) proudly documents its relationship with J Street in fighting BDS. Discussing how J Street is gaining acceptance in the mainstream Jewish community, JCPA’s CEO Rabbi Steve Gutow points to “its role in pushing back against the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement…

Further, the refusal of both liberal land mainstream Jewish groups to discuss substantive issues around Israel’s actions or BDS also reveals itself in language that admonishes BDS as being “beyond the pale.” Recently, for example, as reported by the director of JVP in an op-ed in the Forward, the director of the JCRC of Greater Boston, who has a history of involvement in liberal organizations, explained that “any organization that supports BDS…doesn’t belong at the communal table. In fact, he was referring specifically to Jewish Voice for Peace. He even argued that opening the public conversation to BDS is roughly akin to welcoming the Ku Klux Klan.”

This attempted silencing of those simply discussing BDS plays out even in seemingly minor local skirmishes. For example, last year, the liberal rabbi of a large New York City synagogue cancelled the synagogue’s facilities-usage contract with a group of Jews who, he feared, might, on his premises, discuss BDS. That, he said, would be “beyond the pale.”

These attacks against BDS appear to be an almost desperate reaction to the increasing successes of BDS, not only in the world at large, but also within the broader Jewish community itself. Respected members of the liberal Jewish community as well as a few liberal Zionist groups that were vehemently anti-BDS are now calling for boycotts against products made in the settlements and are engaging with the issue publicly. Further, the mission and vision of groups like Jews Say No and Jewish Voice for Peace – “a diverse and democratic community of activists inspired by Jewish tradition to work together for peace, social justice, and human rights” – are resonating with increasing numbers of Jews who support BDS as a natural outgrowth of their commitments. And that movement is growing in partnership with the broader Palestinian-led movement for justice.

How should the rest of the Jewish community respond? Ad hominem attacks on BDS just will not do. It is time for BDS opponents to take a deep breath. Consider this: BDS is a principled response to Israel’s actions and behavior as an occupier. It is a profound call by Palestinians – and supporters world-wide–for justice. It is not BDS that should be opposed, but, rather, the very policies and practices that have made BDS necessary.

Donna Nevel, a community psychologist and educator, is a long-time organizer for peace and justice in Israel/Palestine. She was a co-coordinator of the 1989 landmark Road to Peace Conference that brought PLO officials and Knesset members together to the US for the first time. More recently, she was a founding member of Jews Say No!, is a member of the board of Jewish Voice for Peace, and is on the coordinating committee of the Nakba Education Project, U.S.

Originally published on the Tikkun Daily Blog

The poets get the last word

This blog has covered the controversy surrounding the disinvitation of poets Josh Healey and Kevin Coval from the J Street Conference. As you may recall, Josh and Kevin moved their performance to another venue instead.

I was planning to add to the blog an audio recording of the event, just so that people could hear for themselves what the controversy was all about. I am glad I did not. Why? In the meanwhile, Josh produced video recordings instead.

They are absolutely worth a watch. I did not arrive in time to DC to be at the original performance. I confess that watching the videos replenished my soul after a hard Congress Goldstone-bashing week.

Here’s how Josh described the value of Kevin’s poetry:

I know that listening to Kevin provokes a lot in me. Listening to Kevin … makes me want to speak, makes me want to yell, makes me want to cry. It brings out a lot. It brings out more than just reading the newspaper or just reading the BBC — and it brings it out in a way that hopefully we can see more, more in common with each other, more in common with each other’s humanity while recognizing that we are not all the same but we can have the same goals, so for me it is creating a space that is a safe space to maybe not leave the conversation in the same place that you started it.

After you watch these short videos, I hope you will agree that this applies to both Kevin and Josh.

First off, the context:

Josh’s poem that got Michael Goldfarb’s right-wing panties in a bunch:

Now Kevin:

The beginning of the Q&A, with Laila Al-Arian:

Closing thoughts:

If you want to watch more, go to http://joshhealey.org

If you want to read more from Kevin, here’s a start:

Since the Second Intifada I have thought, wrote, and spoke about these issues, but over the course of these last several weeks, I have arrived at a new beginning. Prior to now, I muddled this issue in complexity. But I have come to realize it is actually simple and clear. I am a Jewish-American man in solidarity with Palestinian people. I am in solidarity with Israeli and American and all people who work and risk their lives and livelihood for justice. I am not restricted to working within the confines of the Jewish-American community. Justice and the resistance to imperialism is a global, human concern for all people down to struggle. For Jews, yes, but not Jews alone. For Palestinians, yes, but not Palestinians alone.

OK, if you still you want to listen to the full audio (no video), here it is.

– Sydney Levy

I am not afraid of people discussing the Nakba. I am afraid of people not being allowed to discuss it.

In the “credit where credit is due” department, I was very impressed by Hagai El- Ad, who was representing the Association of Civil Rights in Israel on the J Street Conference panel about the New Israel Fund. He provided what I believe was the only mention of the Nakba [Catastrophe] at the J Street conference, in the context of the Nakba Law, which he opposed in powerful, articulate language. This law, covered here on Muzzlewatch, was originally intended to criminalize with up to three years in prison anyone who dared commemorate the Nakba. The new version was ‘softened’ to bar the Israeli government from providing funding to activities that deny Israel’s definition as a Jewish or democratic state — in essence sanctioning a government boycott of Nakba-related cultural and educational activities.

El Ad opposed this law not just on behalf of the 20% of Israel’s population who is Palestinian, but referred to the Nakba as part of the history of the entire country. El Ad said “I am not afraid of people discussing the Nakba. I am afraid of people not being allowed to discuss it.”

This is a reminder of the stake we all have in opposing muzzling: the threat posed to everyone by those who would suppress or even criminalize criticism. All the more reason to use the privilege we have here to raise our voices as loudly and effectively as we can.

– Jesse Bacon

The Anathema is now the Mainstream

In another, more tolerant world, Muzzlewatch bloggers would have had a space on the J Street panel titled Shifting the Conversation: Jewish Community Dynamics and Israel, which was really a discussion of the muzzling phenomenon in Jewish institutions. In our absence, it was instead “insiders” sharing their experience of being on the receiving end of right-wing attacks for allowing any semblance of debate on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. This was fascinating, and led to some of the most truthful moments of the J Street conference.

The moderator Hannah Rosenthal seemed to come down firmly in favor of “multitasking” a domestic and international agenda, drawing on her experience working at the Jewish Public Affairs Council. She had the funniest muzzling anecdote: being asked to cancel her own birthday party by the Jewish Federation because it featured an introduction to J Street. Her reaction: “You’re not invited!” She then raised a question that J Street would do well to take to heart, how Jewish organizations could have better spent the hours discussing who not to invite or include to their events.

Rabbi Peter Knobel was the first speaker, a pulpit rabbi just down the road in Evanston, IL from Muzzlewatch hero Rabbi Brant Rosen. He was also past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. He made the correct connections, from McCarthyism to the treatment of early peace group Breira, to clergy who lost their jobs for supporting the civil rights movement. It was so powerful to me to hear causes now beloved by liberal Jews in the same sentence as critical stands on Israel. He also uttered the title quote (the anathema is now mainstream), capturing what is exciting about the present moment, and what gives me hope for the future. Rabbi Knobel also reminded me how history can turn by pointing out that his congregation was founded by a rabbi fired for espousing Zionism, when that was a taboo belief in Jewish communities. This legacy led him to basically have tenure, indeed when he was “outed” (his word) by a congregant for going to J Street. The conservative group who discussed “what was to be done” found that indeed the answer was nothing. He concluded by reminding us that the rule on Jewish rebuke, or “tochecha” is for you to frame things in a way that they can be heard.

Daniel Sokatch lamented not being able to cancel people’s birthdays now that he was no longer a Federation president. He quoted the slogan “Think Yiddish, Dress British” as a lesson for clothing one’s authentic thoughts in acceptable garb. His first experience with muzzling came as founder of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, when he wrote an Op-Ed for the Los Angeles Times calling for recognition of the Armenian genocide, contrary to the lobbying position of the Jewish community leaders seeking to curry favor with Israel’s ally Turkey. He was told by the leader of one such organization “We are the foreign ministry of the Jewish people.” Sokatch’s response: “I didn’t vote for you.” Sokatch then added that the Jewish community is even less hospitable to dissent now, attributing this to the economic collapse and Madoff, as well as the strains placed on the relationship between U.S. Jews and Israelis because of their differing takes on Obama. He pointed out a split in Israeli politics as well, with Ambassador Oren only sending an observer to J Street, while Israel’s president and opposition leader send approving letters. These tensions have allowed a “terrified minority” of conservatives to dominate a moderate majority. He retold a meeting with a group of rabbis who all felt powerless to speak about Israel’s actions because of this minority, whom Sokatch appropriately compared to people who believe Saddam caused 9/11. He listed other examples of muzzling, Kesher Enoshi students at UC Berkeley and the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, though he didn’t mention the cause of that. He concluded with his own invitation to J Street, when he still headed the San Franicisco Jewish Federation. Apparently he was the only federation head to accept. It seemed commonsense to him; he had attended AIPAC dinners even though it was not his cup of tea, why wouldn’t he come to J Street? He lost a million-dollar donor, though two million-dollar donors threatened to withdraw funds if he didn’t go! He finally heard from another federation head who was willing to write a supportive op-ed, but not to attend J Street with him, and then as he put it, the New Israel Fund — his current employer — called. It is interesting that Sokatch chose to highlight the reaction over his decision to go to J Street over the intense backlash around the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which many months after the last film was shown still has the Jewish Bay Area community reeling. Then again, the panel seemed to emphasized stories with a happy ending, where muzzling was overcome: Sokatch and Knobel did come to J STreet.

A more conservative speaker, Shula Bahat, concluded the program by mostly using her time to give her opinions about how no one should put pressure on Israel because look what happened when the US made them allow Hamas take part in elections. She didn’t seem to have any actual experiences of muzzling, and was probably just included for added credibility as a former American Jewish Committee Executive Director. Oddly enough, she did say she allowed young people in her organization freedom to say whatever they wanted, regardless of messaging guidelines. Was this a reaction to the Jerusalem Post article claiming that J Street University had dropped the pro-Israel slogan? The point was later clarified by J Street:

The student groups don’t need to say they are explicitly pro-Israel so long as their programming and outreach operate from the premise that the Jewish state has a right to exist as a Jewish state,” says Jessica Rosenblum, a J Street spokesperson.

While the examples of muzzling were extremely illuminating and candid, it was left to friend of JVP, rabbinical student Alana Alpert to call the speakers out on the implications of their statements. She asked why when J Street was trying to encourage open discussion, they insisted that everyone preface their statements with: “My grandfather planted orange groves, I speak fluent Hebrew, etc.” She could play that game, but why should she have to? In a sign of how much her question exposed the contradictions of the conference, the moderator could only respond that “you have to choose your battles.” Apparently encouraging real debate is not a battle worth fighting. But I am optimistic that Alana Alpert represents the real future of the movement, whether or not J Street is able to “shift” in response.

– Jesse Bacon

Doing the math at J Street: Nine is more than four

The most difficult moment for me at the J Street came this morning. I was listening to a panel called Messaging Pro-Israel Pro-Peace.

Jim Gerstein, the first panelist presented good polling data about the attitude of American Jews towards Israel and the US role in the region. Lots of good numbers here, the kind of numbers that AIPAC prefers to ignore.

The survey shows that 7 out of 10 American Jews support US policies that help Israelis and Palestinians resolve their conflict–and this includes the US publicly disagreeing with both sides as well as exerting pressure on both sides (in other words, disagreeing also with Israel and exerting pressure also on Israel).

You can find all the survey info here:
http://www.jstreet.org/page/media-advisory-new-survey-american-jewish-community

Matt Dorf, the next panelist talked about communications and messaging: what we say matters a lot, he said.

Keep this in mind as we move to the third panelist, Dr. Calvin Goldscheider. Here comes demography to help us say what we need to say about being pro-Israel pro-peace.

Dr. Goldscheider did a rapid survey in no more than a few minutes about the changing ratio of Jews to Arabs in what is now Israel. In a few seconds, we heard about the role of Jewish immigration, the Russians (not all of them are Jewish), the temporary workers from Asia (now numbering a quarter of a million) so and so forth. Not a word about the Nakba, isn’t that a bit odd?

But let’s focus on the present. The question on the table, Is there a demographic threat?

The good news, says Dr. Goldscheider, is that in the context of the State of Israel, Arab minorities present no demographic threat unless we include the occupied territories and give the inhabitants there equal rights. Inclusion without equal rights leads to the end of democracy. Inclusion with equal rights leads to the end of the Jewish majority in the state. And that is why a two-state solution is a must: to preserve Jewish democracy.

The Palestinians are of course non-players in this Jewish democratic drama. At most, they are a threat just for being there. At best, they are a minority that we must keep under demographic control.

Oh, but the Palestinians are playing their part well. You see, in the 1960′s Palestinians had an average of nine children per family. Now they only have four. (Phew).

Four children is a lot, but nine is a lot more, explains the kind demographer in case we cold not do the math. Audience laughs.

Now, I am Jewish and I am also a Latino man living in California–a state where we have a pluralistic demographic composition: not one group, not even non-Latino whites, amount to 50% of the population. If I were to hear white people bemoaning the demographic threat that the rise of people of color in the state represents, I would call it like it is, and that is racism, pure and simple. I have no use for the phrase demographic threat. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth and a sharp pain in my gut.

What we say matters a lot; that’s what we were told in this workshop. If we need to use racism to message ourselves as Pro-Israel pro-peace, there is something very wrong here.

Is this the best J Street can come up with?

To be clear, I am not talking now about one-state, two-states, or three. I am talking about saying dayenu to this demographic threat mentality. I am talking about understanding fully and completely that you cannot save Israel’s democracy one bit when you celebrate the fact that 20% of its citizens has an increasingly lower birth rate (yeay!) so that their proportion in the population will not grow (double yeay!). If this is what you believe, don’t waste your time on avoiding the threat; you’ve lost the democratic values a long time ago.

My only consolation is that at least I can bring these issues to the public’s attention — even to the attention of the J Street conference participants.

Were I to be in Israel this very week, I would be furiously fighting against a bill advancing in the Knesset that would bar the Israeli government from providing funding to activities that deny Israel’s definition as a Jewish or democratic state.

– Sydney Levy

Bridging the gap with honesty and transparency

In an earlier post, I referred to a J Street workshop that sought to bridge the gap between Jewish social justice work and Israel/Palestine advocacy.

The gap is real. Take Jacob Feinspan, of Jews United for Justice. His organization works on a range of important local issues, including the challenges facing day laborers. He asked whether there was a litmus test for Jewish organizations: Does Israel have to be at the top of our agenda? He did not think so. He further asked a question that remained unanswered, why don’t we have a reverse panel?, a panel about why J Street is not engaged in domestic social justice work.

Elissa Barrett, of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, drew inspiration from the prophetic tradition to make others uncomfortable and make ourselves uncomfortable. At the same time, she said that during the Gaza attack, the PJA issued a statement that was the source of much debate internally: how far do we go?. Two thirds of the conversation is about whether to have the conversation.

Alana Alpert, a rabbinical student, talked about the moral crisis that we face, and asked,
Is there any issue more important for American Jews to engage in than Israel/Palestine?
Her answer to her fellow panelists: To evade responsibility by claiming a domestic agenda–that’s a false dichotomy.

Alana urged Jewish organizations to be more honest and transparent: If you are not doing Israel/Palestine work, why not? Is it really because you are solely focusing on domestic issues or is it because of funding concerns?

Elissa acknowledged that PJA has lost funders because of its positions on Israel. She added,

“We are afraid to be attacked because we are attacked. A line in the sand is there, and if you step across it, you will be crushed.”

Susan Adelman, a founding member of PJA, drew an analogy to the ACLU’s defense of the Nazi march in Skokie, IL. The ACLU lost thousands of members because of its position, and yet they stuck to its principles. She then asked, How can we not speak about human rights violations in the occupied territories?

A member of the audience talked about the current and possibly growing backlash against anti-occupation activism, and then she asked, Which side will the progressive Jews be on?

The next made-up controversy or orchestrated smear campaign will surely be reported in Muzzlewatch. And when things will get heated, I hope that we will be able to report that the majority of progressive Jews stood with us.

– Sydney Levy

Will J Street be the new gateway drug?

Will J Street be the new gateway drug? The thought has been running through my head ever since I heard Alana Alpert talking at a panel in the J Street conference examining the divide between the Jewish social justice activism and Israel/Palestine work. The panel dealt with the difficulties that organizations such as the Progressive Jewish Alliance and Jews United for Justice have in moving beyond a domestic social justice agenda and addressing the Israeli occupation. Facing the gap between Jewish activism on domestic issues versus Israel/Palestine, Alana asked whether Jewish social justice organizing was the gateway drug to deal with the Middle East.

The thought has been dancing in my head throughout the whole day, only now taking it one step forward: Will J Street be the new gateway drug that will move liberal Jewish activists who are pro-Israel pro-peace into being progressive Jewish activists fully pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian?

This is not just an academic play of words. We are talking about having an agenda that focuses on what’s good for both sides, not just for the love of Israel.

I confess that the J Street’s conference urgency to reach a two-state solution — although I am yet to hear the word viable attached to the Palestinian state — seems to be motivated more by the upcoming facts on the ground (demographic changes that put in peril the concept of a Jewish majority) than by the current facts on the ground (settlements and the rest of the occupation infrastructure).

Will J Street be the gateway drug that moves activists from the demographic head-count into the field of universal justice and human rights? Only time will tell. But the conference certainly offered some signs for hope. Every item that was not in the agenda — BDS, Zionism, Jewish state — came up for discussion one way or another because it was brought up from the floor. These questions have no easy answers, but time and again they will pop up until they are considered with the seriousness they deserve.

– Sydney Levy

Not to be taken literally

I attended what turned out to be the replacement for J street’s disinvited poet panel. Ari Roth from Theater J — who supported the poets by coming out to their reading yesterday at BusBoys & Poets — used the beginning of his time to alert people to the panel that was and delivered a passionate defense of poets from a literary perspective.

Ari urged not taking the words literally and pointed out that one “doesn’t look to poets for rational discourse.” He defended the “right to conjoin symbols,” and asked if “a wonky convention like J Street is comfortable with metaphor.” He dismissed any suggestion that anyone was calling for a boycott of J Street, creating a “truly J Street dialectic: pro-conference and pro-poetry (a play of words on J Street’s tag line, pro-Israel, pro-peace), which led to applause.

He posed two possibilities: we are either entering a “new age of censoriousness” or an “excitement moment,” and noted what great plays have been performed at Theater J, including “Seven Jewish Children,” and a play featuring both Rachel Corrie and Daniel Pearl. All in all, it was a hopeful moment for both art and the conference, whatever the larger moment we live in.

– Jesse Bacon

J Street welcomes you

(Follow JVP’s Twitter feed at the J Street conference at http://twitter.com/jvplive )

The J Street Conference opened yesterday, with over 1,000 people at the table.

The first plenary session was hosted by Jeremy Ben-Ami (J Street) and Daniel Sokatch (New Israel Fund). Jeremy started by reading letters of support from Israeli President Shimon Peres and Israeli opposition leader, Tsipi Livni — a tacit response to the Israeli Ambassador to the US, who had decided to boycott the conference; apparently the Ambassador only goes to AIPAC dinners and the like.

Jeremy and Daniel have both been the target of attacks from the right: Jeremy at J Street and Daniel at his previous post at the San Francisco Federation. In Daniel’s case:

Sokatch found himself smack in the middle of a melee over San Francisco’s Jewish film festival when its organizers decided to screen a film about Rachel Corrie, the pro-Palestinian activist who was killed when she lay down in front of an Israeli bulldozer about to raze Palestinian homes, and invite Corrie’s mother to speak at the event without presenting other viewpoints. That was not Sokatch’s doing and he publicly criticized the decision to invite only Corrie’s mother to speak (a pro-Israel speaker was added later). But the backlash fell squarely on his shoulders.

More recently, Sokatch irked some leaders of the San Francisco community when he agreed to speak at the annual conference of J Street, a new organization that has lobbied for U.S pressure on Israel (and the Palestinians) and criticized Israel’s invasion of Gaza.

It should come as no surprise then, that when they both spoke publicly yesterday, they seemed to have been borrowing a page from Muzzlewatch. Jeremy talked about widening the tent, about respect and tolerance for others. He welcomed everyone to the conference.

(Everyone, except for disinvited poets Josh Healey and Kevin Coval)

Daniel looked at the audience and added, We are not the margins of our community, we are the mainstream… Nobody has a monopoly of what it means to be pro-Israel.

Jeremy affirmed that the creation of a Palestinian state is a core pro-Israel position.

It was a good opening night. The question remains whether those that are both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian will fit into this wider tent.

– Sydney Levy

We will not be silent

Speaking at Busboys and Poets in front of huge comic portraits of Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King, and Gandhi, the disinvited poets Josh Healey and Kevin Coval, together with moderator Laila Al-Arian, showed why it was J Street’s loss that they did not appear at their originally scheduled panel. The duo clearly embodied the “emergent” Jewish identities that J Street desperately hopes to capture, with poems about their families in Israel, why Kevin quit going to shul, and yes, the Holocaust. It was Josh’s invoking of the Holocaust in the same line as the modern American horror that is Guantanamo Bay that occasioned the disinvitation from the J Street conference. As Kevin said, any time a prospective host asks for the full text of your poems, muzzling is usually about to happen. And muzzle J Street did, if regretfully. The feeling seemed to be that J Street didn’t really know what it was getting into, wanting the poets to add a bit of edginess and much-needed “dope outfits” to the proceedings without realizing the force of their honesty.

Sitting in the audience facing these three nonviolent icons, it was hard to feel any threat posed by these poets, even as I was moved by their work. It was certainly true not every line of their poetry exuded the love of Israel so repeatedly invoked later that evening at the J Street conference. But the love of Jews was palpable, and it was nonetheless a real conversation, with the audience actively participating. Josh stressed he and Kevin didn’t always agree. The most critical comment of the night came from a Palestinian, who felt that the Palestine in the poems was a block that didn’t adequately reflect her individual humanity. But this comment from a fellow poet reflected the nature of artistic critique and cross-pollination, worlds away from the smears of right wing blogs. Attendees who identified themselves as J Street were cheered for their presence. One participant in J Street’s student conference said this was the first time he was moved to tears this weekend, a powerful validation of why poetry is different than even the prettiest of speeches. Josh’s mother spoke up in the Q&A to urge people not to boycott J Street, which no one has called for. But I was reminded by her words to see J Street as a work in progress, learning and feeling its way. As Josh posed the question, will it be a two-way street? Later at the opening plenary, I was impressed by the force of J Street’s numbers and resources and real desire to open up the conversation on Israel in Jewish communities. If they are at all successful in that, it will be impossible to keep voices like Josh’s and Kevin’s out.

– Jesse Bacon