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On the Ground at J Street Conference 2019

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Pete Buttigieg Interviewed by Ben Rhodes at J Street 2019
Pete Buttigieg Interviewed by Ben Rhodes at J Street 2019
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I decided to travel to Washington, D.C. for the J Street Conference on the day that Donald Trump coined the moniker, "Disloyal Jews." I was looking for answers and insights. I found plenty.

J Street has been on my radar since its inception. I interviewed founder Jeremy Ben-Ami in 2008, about Jews and the Obama candidacy. The organization has grown in size and influence since that time, and has offered an option for American Jews who do not identify with the status quo being put forth by many legacy Jewish organizations, nor the politics of AIPAC.

With two days of concurrent sessions, trainings, and plenaries, there was a myriad of topics to explore and not enough time to hear everything. I was surprised to run into an activist I know, who is Jewish, and an unwavering critic of Israel's policies. She commented on the range and quality of the speakers.

Along with 4,000 other attendees, I heard the ideas of American Jews, Israelis, and Palestinians. Many of them I was very familiar with. Others, I was exposed to for the first time. Throughout the event, the anniversary of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre (October 27) loomed large.

Panels and Trainings

My Sunday began with a Primer on Occupation and Annexation. It was delivered by Frank Lowenstein, former Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations. It was both informative and discouraging. It also helped to explain why the Obama administration chose to abstain on United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334.

Next up was Fighting Antisemitism and its Weaponization in American Politics. It was moderated by Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of T'ruah. The room was packed.

A point of agreement I would hear frequently over the next 48 hours was the premise that "Progressives allow themselves to be divided and impacted by wedge strategies." Another frequent iteration posited that white nationalism is a "reaction to the strengthening of democracy," while Trump had "engaged and emboldened White Supremacists."

Peter Beinart offered, "We don't have a consensus of what is anti-Semitism." Rabbi Jacobs underscored the need not to fall into the "trap of false equivalency," particularly in regard to "legitimate criticism of Israel." Maya Berry, from the Arab-American Institute, agreed that antisemitism needed to be called out from both the left and the right.

Questions raised included: If Zionism is a response to Jewish global history, how is it to be viewed through a current context? Can an individual be anti-Zionist without being antisemitic? It was mutually agreed by the panelists that an open discussion was needed about these matters, or as Berry remarked, "We have to rip off the Band-Aid and have a conversation."

While mentally chewing over that dialogue, I proceeded to the room hosting the training session, Antisemitism, Racism and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: A Progressive Understanding of Antisemitism. After a recent encounter with a local colleague who informed me that "Israel was a criminal state," I was more than ready to learn some strategies.

Cherie Brown and April Baskin led the group in exercises for "coalition work when the Israel/Palestine conflict comes up." Brown, who co-authored the pamphlet "Anti-Semitism: Why Is It Everyone's Concern?" focused on the "need to stay in coalition." She explained how antisemitism is used as a diversion to push groups that should be aligned, into isolation. Brown used the examples of the Women's March, LGBTQ events, and the flap over the Black Lives Matter platform.

Baskin, a Jew of Color, who drolly referenced herself as a "professional Jew for the past 10 years," drilled down on "seeing other parts of the Jewish community. (Jews of Color currently comprise 12 to 15 percent of American Jews.) She has been working across "lines of differences," and elucidated that "brown people don't see Jews as oppressed."

Role-playing was enacted in order to observe reactions. It involved visualizing three concentric circles which included comfort, stretch, and panic. The difference between reactivity on an emotion scale (via triggers) versus an oppression scale was parsed. The person next to me (who was visibly Orthodox) shared his story about attending an anti-Trump rally where he was asked, "Are you a good Jew or a bad Jew?"

Guidance and direction embraced listening fully to others. "Compassionate accountability while understanding that history has brought each person to where they are," and "Take it from the global statement to the personal," were takeaways. Conclusion: "It's not how long we want it to take, it's how long it takes."

Feeling empowered by new tools, my next session shifted to the work being done by Israelis - who have been pushing back against their country's entrenched right-wing actors. Specifically, the work of the New Israel Fund, which presented an interview with Naomi Chazan .

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Marcia G. Yerman is a writer, activist, and artist based in New York City. Her articles--profiles, interviews, reporting and essays--focus on women's issues, the environment, human rights, the arts and culture. Her writing has been published by (more...)

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