On Sunday evening at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in downtown Washington, D.C., J-Street opened its first ever-national policy conference. Officially founded over a year ago, the self-proclaimed "pro-Israel, pro-peace" lobby was birthed amid controversy. While J-Street positioned itself as the voice of mainstream American Jewish opinion on Israel, critics (myself included) argued it was a left-wing front far from the mainstream.
J-Street's Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami opened the proceedings on Sunday by saying that among the 1000 or so attendees to the conference there were "doubtless 1000 opinions" with "1000 stories." While surveying over a dozen of those opinions right before the conference officially began, one quickly comes to the conclusion that J-Street's critics might have a point.
Said to be involved in "peace activism" for over 40 years, Barbara Taft came to the conference from Arizona. She sees J-Street "as the antidote to [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee]," the effective pro-Israel lobby which boasts wide support among Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. Taft believes the whole Israeli-Palestinian problem stems all the way back to the way Israel was established by the international community in 1948. Asked whether she thinks Israel committed war crimes in the recent Gaza war, Taft said that "she has seen coverage from overseas which indicates that definitely much of what Israel did was in the category of war crimes." As for whether Israeli leaders like former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Secretary Ehud Barack should face trial, Taft said yes, stating "I think the people who gave the orders that led to harming civilians probably should be [put on trial]."
As for dealing with Hamas, Taft sees the terrorist organization as broad ideologically as the democratic Jewish state.
"Hamas is made up of a fairly broad range of people like the state of Israel is," she said of an organization whose charter calls not only for the destruction of Israel, but the killing of Jews generally. "There are people who can be dealt with and people who will refuse to talk. I think it is important to keep lines of communication open."
Debra Hirshberg of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, said in an interview that in addition to both sides being plagued with weak leadership, settlements were a big hindrance to peace in the region. "The settlements should not only stop expanding but be dismantled," she said.
While she believes both sides have committed war crimes in the recent Gaza war, Hirshberg doesn't think there should be international war crimes trials since U.S. leaders aren't subject to such trials. "I think the U.S. is open to the same kind of charges," she said, adding, "Would I like to see Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld put up for war crimes? Yes, of course I would."
Asked whether she sees one side in the conflict more to blame than the other, Hirshberg said no.
"No. I don't think that there is one side more to blame," she explained. "I think each side has a narrative that is very believable and that you just have to look at it from each perspective."
Hirshberg also feels that Israel should accept the 20-year truce that she says Hamas has offered it. "They [Hamas] have offered a 20 year ceasefire…I think that should be accepted by Israel as a starting point."
Dr. Warren Spielberg of Brooklyn, New York, said he has been working toward peace in the Middle East since 1973 through Americans for Peace Now, a partner organization to J-Street. Asked whether he thought the Goldstone report accusing both Israel and Hamas of committing war crimes in the Gaza War was fair, Spielberg said "it was more than fair." He continued, "I think that Israel as a state with more power has more responsibility and more culpability. I mean, with more power comes more responsibility. Israel was an aggressor in the war."
As to whether their should be war crime trials for Israeli officials, Spielberg said that "failing an internal investigation being done, yea, I think the UN should push it."
Alan Sagner is a major contributor to J-Street and a member of its advisory council. He was emphatic in his belief that American Jews should "back our President" and "not tell him what to do." His restraint with interfering in presidential decision-making didn't extend to presidents who supported things he disagreed with, like President George W. Bush's war in Iraq. Sagner also believes it is important for American Jews to intervene to save Israel from what he sees as its infantile actions.
"As American Jews, we have the same responsibility that a responsible parent has," he said. "If you see that one of your dependents is doing something that is not in their best interest or in the families best interests, it behooves you to tell them that."
Like so many at the J-Street conference, Sagner said he strongly supports President Obama in his push to stop Israeli settlement expansion.
Chava Gal-Or of Maryland considers herself a progressive who came to J-Street to absorb the progressive energy that she found lacking at other pro-Israel groups.
"As a progressive Jew," she told me, "I sort of found that everything that I was learning, growing, gravitating towards was so right-wing...I feel like I need to open up my ears and be more part of the progressive energy."
As for what needs to be done to bring about a peaceful solution in the Middle East, Gal-Or said "we have to listen to each other." Besides the listening strategy, Gal-Or also said Israel needs "to stop occupying Palestinian villages."
Some of the others interviewed were more cautious in their assessments, but Palestinian violence and terrorism was barely highlighted as a serious obstacle to peace and only one person interviewed mentioned the threat of Iran, a threat that Israeli governmental officials themselves see as potentially existential. Stopping settlement expansion was emphasized by many of those interviewed as a crucial issue that needed to be pushed -- indeed, by its emphasis, perhaps the most crucial. Those interviewed often saw Israel and its enemies as at least equally culpable for the conflict in the Holy Land. One Jewish leader at the conference who didn't want to be identified expressing his personal views said he thought that "Israel needs to grow up" and get over the idea that every enemy is the next Hitler.
J-Street says one of its missions is to redefine what it means to be pro-Israel. Is this what they meant? If so, perhaps it is not so surprising that one quartercard being distributed at the "pro-Israel" conference sought participants to help break "the illegal siege of Gaza" on December 31st in the "Gaza Freedom March."