“In 100 years, the situation will be the same as it is now. Nothing will change.”
So said a friend of mine on my final night in Jerusalem last summer. She rolled her eyes and sipped a beer.
“What about the demographic issue?” I said.
“Whatever. We’ll just import a million more Russians. Why do you think we did it 20 years ago?”
Her cynicism was neither refreshing nor did I agree with her analysis. Her opinions, however, did not exist on the margins: it seemed then that most Israelis had given up hope for any kind of change to the status quo. She was a leftist like me and we had the same hopes: equal rights for all, a just peace and the ability for Palestinians to live in a sovereign state. But she’d given up on those hopes.
Little has changed since then and speakers at the J Street conference yesterday pulled no punches in asserting that the Netanyahu government’s policy served to keep things the way they are in Israel rather than manifesting an attempt at real change. And J Street rejected that complacency.
Yesterday’s panels and plenary sessions, featuring a number of high-ranking Israeli and Palestinian officials (or former officials), reviewed several obstacles in the way of J Street’s desired path to a two-state solution. Chief among them were the disunity of various Palestinian governing factions and their reticence to negotiate, proliferation of the settlements and the corresponding dearth of popular support for the IDF to evacuate them, the lack of extant Palestinian infrastructure for a state and, of course, the demographic issue: even if we were to assume foundation of a Palestinian state in the next couple of years, the demography of Israel proper doesn’t bode well for a Jewish, democratic and Zionist state: high birth rates among Haredim and Palestinian Israelis mean that within the next couple of decades the majority of Israeli eighteen year olds will not serve in the army because they are not Zionist.
And this is not to mention the reluctance of the Netanyahu government to negotiate, the uncompromising violent stance of Hamas and the inaction of the Arab world on this issue. All of these problems came up throughout the day at the conference.
But in recognizing these issues J Street created a sense of urgency around the timeline to create a Palestinian state. The group’s message: Now or never. Do or die. Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Eric Yoffie, Israeli MKs Ami Ayalon and Haim Ramon and J Street Director Jeremy Ben-Ami all reiterated that the open window for two states may soon close and that if it does, the ensuing calls for a binational state may spell the end of the Jewish state of Israel, something the lobby is by definition against.
Aside from one morning panel proposing various possible frameworks for a peace deal, the sessions yesterday posed more problems than they did offer concrete solutions, but that was the point. J Street does not pretend to have all of the answers; what they’re doing, in their first annual conference, is making sure that American Jews are not comfortable with the status quo, that they realize that things are changing and that there needs to be a voice in Washington to address that change in honest and productive ways. J Street wants to solve the problems but it understands that recognizing and confronting the issues comes first. That’s why the lobby exists.
J Street itself also faces some significant challenges as an organization. Along with many others, they need to define their base, focus on self-obsolescence and figure out their place on campus. In addition, they face a formidable competitor in AIPAC, the older pro-Israel lobby that is one of the most effective in Washington and that commands widespread loyalty in the American Jewish community.
But the lobby cannot achieve perfection in eighteen months and by almost any standard its first annual conference was a tremendous success. J Street attracted preeminent scholars, respected experts and high-ranking government officials; it brought together 1200 people eager to stand under its banner; it staked out positions and did not apologize for its views; most importantly, it changed the landscape of the American pro-Israel community and sent a message:
Like it or not, J Street is here and it’s not going away, just like Israel’s problems.