J Street confab shows generational divide on Israel

Young delegates to the J Street conference in Washington enjoying the Rocking the Status Quo party, Oct. 26, 2009. (J Street)

Young delegates to the J Street conference in Washington enjoying the Rocking the Status Quo party, Oct. 26, 2009. (J Street)

Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.), right, speaks at a panel discussion of members of Congress at the J Street conference, Oct. 27, 2009. Looking on is Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.). (J Street)

Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.), right, speaks at a panel discussion of members of Congress at the J Street conference, Oct. 27, 2009. Looking on is Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.). (J Street)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — After all the arguing in recent weeks over J Street, one thing was clear at the inaugural conference of the self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group: Even among the 1,500 delegates who attended the parley, there are crucial disagreements over what’s best for Middle East peace.

On some issues, judging from interviews with conference delegates and assessments by J Street officials of participants’ viewpoints, there appeared to be broad consenus, like the belief that the Palestinians deserve national rights or the United States needs to do more to push the Israelis and Palestinians toward negotiations.

On other issues, however, a stark generation gap was apparent.

Older conference goers appeared to be virtually unanimous in expressing support for a  two-state solution, calling themselves Zionists and saying that while they back more U.S. pressure on the parties, they reject cutting aid to Israel if it does not accede to U.S. demands.

But a number of delegates under 40, especially college students and recent graduates, appeared to be much more equivocal on the idea of two states for two peoples. Some were hesitant about identifying as Zionists, and some were open to the idea of making U.S. aid to Israel conditional on progress in the peace process.

The divide, which J Street officials acknowledged, raises the question of how an organization that strongly endorses a two-state solution can succeed when many of its supporters question its core position.

J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami said he hoped that by engaging younger activists to come and debate the issue, the organization could convince them to back a two-state solution.

“Let them question it here under the tent of a pro-Israel organization" rather than among those who don’t have Israel’s best interests at heart, he said.

The key to winning over such young people, J Street officials have argued, is opening up the debate, even on the most fundmamental issues. Critics of the organization counter that some of J Street’s positions undercut Jewish unity and could harm Israel’s interests, such as the group’s opposition to Israel’s Gaza operation last winter and its reluctance to endorse harsher sanctions against Iran at this time.

Oberlin College senior Danielle Gershkoff and junior Rachel Beck — neither of whom is convinced of the efficacy of a two-state solution — said they were glad J Street encouraged them to participate and ask questions at the conference rather than telling them they were too left wing.

“We don’t want old people telling us what to do and what to think,” Beck said.

Ben Magarik, 25, of Washington, said the conference was an excellent way to engage young people in the Jewish community, allowing them to question what others might consider the orthodoxies of pro-Israel activism.

“There’s a need to be critical of Israel’s policies when they don’t lead to a two-state solution,” Magarik said. “That’s what love is, real care and concern — not solely supportive but willing to criticize."

Both young and old at the conference were united on some issues. References to the creation of a Palestinian state frequently garnered loud applause at sessions, though talk of a Jewish homeland received little crowd reaction. And participants seemed united on the need to keep pushing Israelis and Palestinians toward a solution.

Wendy Kenin, 37, of Berkeley, Calif., a member of the Green Party, said she was less interested in staking out her own views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than in the process of “bringing all different perspectives together.” She called the views of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, J Street and Students for Justice in Palestine, which supports a one-state solution to the conflict, all worthy of consideration.

Rachel Nadelman, 32, of Washington, who works in international development, said she supports the idea of two states for two peoples but demurred when asked whether she considered herself a Zionist.

“It’s a loaded word,” she said. “It’s a word I’ve not been real comfortable with.”

Nadelman added that if Israel didn’t go along with U.S. requests in the peace process, she thought it was reasonable to reconsider aid to Israel. Israel needs to be “accountable,” she said.

Meanwhile, older delegates — many with years of Israel activism under their belt — were less ambivalent about being called Zionists.

“The moral heart of Judaism and Zionism is justice and fair treatment for all people,” said Michael Peshkin, 52, a Northwestern University engineering professor.

A proponent of the two-state solution, Peshkin has been a Chicago-area leader of the left-wing group B’rit Tzedek v’Shalom, which this week merged with J Street.

Kay Elfant, 64, of Silver Spring, Md., said she is a proud Zionist who longs for a settlement of the conflict because she is troubled that “my people could be in any way abusive” and “make life so hard for other people.”

While she wants pressure on the two sides, she has a red line, she said: no cut-off of aid to Israel.

“Never aid, I can’t go there,” Elfant said. “That feels anti-Israel.”

Sally Gottesman, 45, of New York, said thinking about aid possibly being cut off to Israel is like “worrying about a meteor striking Earth.”

“It could happen," she said, "but it is so unlikely that it’s silly to worry about."

(With additional reporting from Rachel Tepper.)

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