Conference, Gala and Advocacy Day
The excitement was palpable as the 2,800 delegates to the National J Street Conference in Washington, D.C., awaited the keynote address of Vice-President Joseph Biden. Delayed because his private discussion with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu had gone into overtime, Biden’s support of the current peace negotiations was worth the wait.
He emphasized that the United States, J Street and others all have an obligation to press for a “just and lasting peace,” because “If not us, who?” He believes strongly that the current turmoil in the Middle East has created the “best opportunity” for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
This opinion was restated by both the Israeli and the American officials who spoke at multiple sessions throughout the Sept. 28 - Oct. 3 conference – Tsipi Livni, Israel’s Justice Minister and Chief Negotiator; Ambassador Martin S. Indyk, U.S. Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations; Representative John Lewis (D-Georgia), the latest congressional endorser of the two-state solution; and several members of the Israeli Knesset. The MKs were active participants on conference panels and represented political parties along the spectrum from moderate left to moderate right, ranging from Shelly Yachimovich, head of the opposition Labor Party, to Yitzhak Vaknin, Deputy Speaker of the Knesset from Shas.
Livni emphasized that nobody should have to choose between peace and security, and that she is fighting for both. She stated that Arab and Muslim states have shared interests with Israel but can’t acknowledge them because of the continuing conflict. Most noteworthy was her pronouncement that “in order to implement the values of the State of Israel, we have to give up some of the land of the State of Israel.”
Livni’s concern with values – can Israel remain a democratic and Jewish state while maintaining its control over the West Bank? – was a resonant topic of discussion at the conference.
Liz Hollander and Judy Kaye, co-chairs of J Street Rhode Island, Stephen Schwartz, David Lewis, Eleanor Lewis and Harpo Jaeger, all from Providence, comprised the Rhode Island delegation to the conference. Jaeger led a contingent of 30 students from J Street U, the college arm of J Street that has active chapters on 50 campuses across the country. The enthusiastic presence of 900 J Street U members at the conference bodes well for the future of support for Israel among young adult American Jews.
The urgent message throughout the conference was that American Jews must communicate to Congress their support of the two-state solution and of Secretary of State John Kerry’s leadership. On “Advocacy Day,” the last day of the conference, delegates went to Capitol Hill for meetings with their senators and representatives to do just that. The group of six Rhode Islanders met formally with Sen. Whitehouse and Rep. Langevin. Both elected officials and their legislative staff members were well-informed about the issues and indicated their strong and continuing support for Israel and for Secretary Kerry’s efforts. At an unscheduled visit to his office, Rep. Cicilline expressed strong support for Sec. Kerry's efforts. (Sen. Reed’s office was closed due to the government shutdown.)
“I found it energizing to hear both American and Israeli politicians tell us repeatedly that they really do want American Jews to speak out in favor of the peace process and the two-state solution,” says Hollander. “We heard over and over again that this was in Israel’s long-term best interest.”
Throughout the conference, speaker after speaker warned that time was running out for making peace. It sounded like the Neilah service at the end of Yom Kippur: “The gates are closing!” And the opportunity for peace will be a long way off if the current negotiations fail.
In light of that pressure, Jeremy Ben-Ami, the founder and president of J-Street, announced an intense public campaign to mobilize support in the American Jewish community for Kerry’s peace process. The “2Campaign” (promoting two states) will begin by gathering tens of thousands of signatures backing specific parameters of a peace agreement and the compromises which Israel and the Palestinians must make to get there. Core issues of borders, settlements, Jerusalem and refugees are all addressed in the petition, which can be found at 2campaign.org. By making their voices heard, signers state their intention to be counted “as part of the great constituency for peace,” expressing their belief that this is the only way for Israel to secure its future as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people, and for the Palestinians to realize their national aspirations.
For more information about J Street and the conference, go to conference.jstreet.org.
For Ambassador Indyk’s speech go to state.gov/p/nea/rls/rm/214969.htm.
Eleanor Lewis (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a resident of Providence.
Editor’s note: Eleanor Lewis is a member of the editorial board of The Jewish Voice.