Liam Getreu at the J-Street Conference

March 4, 2011 by Liam Getreu
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Yesterday was perhaps the most content-intense and potentially-controversial day at J Street thus far. It was also probably my most enjoyable day. (You can read my previous dispatches on my blog.) In the morning, the Obama administration, having been asked to provide someone to speak at the conference, dispatched negotiator Dennis Ross. In break-out sessions in the afternoon, issues of Palestinian statehood and the boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement were discussed, and in the evening, Naomi Chazan gave the keynote address at the conference’s gala dinner.

A session in progress at the J-Street 2011 Conference

 

I’m going to deal with Ross and Chazan in a separate post because I felt that an afternoon session I went to, titled “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions in 2011: Who‚Äôs Afraid of the BDS?”, deserved its own (long) post. The first thing to deal with is that, as has been made clear by many detractors, J Street’s conference was very inclusive of figures it did not necessarily agree with. For example, while J Street doesn’t support the BDS movement, it is open to engaging many of the people within it. The notion of an “echo chamber” kept coming up, and how President Jeremy Ben-Ami and the organisers felt it was important to avoid their conference turning into that.

I believe that the role of J Street, at its crudest, is to fill a gap between an Israel right-or-wrong group and an Israel always-wrong group. At the end of the day this will include quite a large variety of people, and quite a significant grey area; given how long the former group has dominated the Jewish community in the US (and the same can be said of Australia, I would argue), this gray area is prevalent on J Street’s left flank than its right.

I think it’s a positive effort on J Street’s behalf to be inclusive because it doesn’t discount sunstantial, and often silent segments of the Jewish community. Some would argue there are red lines that can’t be crossed — the JCCV and others felt that the AJDS’s selective boycotting of the West Bank settlements, for example, was a step too far — but by and large it’s not a negative thing to include more Jews into the communal conversation. After all, isn’t that what we’re all about — trying to create the most inclusive and dynamic Diaspora communities possible? Because if it’s not, then count me out straight away.

Source: jewishvoiceforpeace.org

The participants in this particular session were an interesting bunch, and I went to it precisely because of that. I’m staunchly anti-BDS, which I think I’ve made quite clear in my previous posts on the subject. But the debate is worth having anyway; a debate is always worth having.

It was in that vein that Rebecca Vilkomerson, Executive Director, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) was included on the panel. JVP has adopted the call of the BDS movement and, according to Vilkomerson, has done so because it’s a chance to try and have an impact, through direct, personal actions, on a conflict that has so far not been resolved through more conventional means.

Similarly, Simone Zimmerman, a University of California Berkeley student was on the panel. Simone, who I had the chance to speak to a number of times throughout the conference, struck me as an incredible role model for the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement. On her campus, the student senate briefly passed, then ultimate revoked, a motion that divested from companies General Electric and United Technologies. All of this despite the fact that the campus had no actual investments in either company; it was a completely shameless exercise in self-admiration.

But somehow, out of all of this, Simone came out of it with a message of moderation. She was continually frustrated by the campaigns from both sides on campus sinking “further into the extremism of their positions.” The “animosity,” she said, “squashed nuance” and turned what should have been a debate into a yelling match, both sides divided by lines that were very “damaging [to student life], scary and sad to see.”

Simone’s experiences led her to decide that students in the middle — those that didn’t share the rhetoric created by the “ugly binary” — needed to find a voice. “Some parts of the bill spoke to [these students’] progressive values, but their commitment to Israel made them distrustful of the bill,” she concluded, and rightly so. The reality is that most students on campus were left with a “BDS hangover,” unable to engage with students on either side of the debate; Simone also came up with an idea as to what the cause of the hangover might be.

The standard narrative of Jewish victimhood, which clearly no longer applies in today’s Middle East, and is consistently touted in hasbara material from Israel advocacy and other Jewish organisations, has become an unacceptable form of pro-Israel activism on campus. It’s something I tried to limit in AUJS last year because, as Simone noted, it’s detrimental to the pro-Israel cause on campus. Too often, these materials seem to justify the suffering of Palestinians partly because of security concerns and partly as some kind of retribution for past mistakes in not conceding to poor Israeli peace offers (“if only they’d accepted Camp David, we wouldn’t be here today”). These materials failed Simone and moderate pro-Israel students at UC Berkeley, and I’m strongly of the belief they’re failing students in Australia, too. (Luckily we haven’t experienced anything so bad yet, but the day we do, I’m sure we’ll have exactly the same situation.)

Simone’s courage to stand up at a conference of this size and speak her values, but also her acumen to recognise the precarious¬†situation¬†we’re in, paints her as a future leader. For that she earned the praise of all 250 people in the room, and the biggest, longest applause of all the speakers.

Both author Bernard Avishai and Ameinu President Ken Bob spoke in that session, though neither offered particularly new insight into the situation. Ameinu is a mainstream organisation, and has been for a long time. Bob’s defence of Israel and attack on the BDS movement are thoughtful and insightful and present a very mainstream view of the movement.

A London BDS protest outside Swedish retailer H&M (Source: inminds.com)

Avishai too attacked the BDS movement, saying that it actually works against the very outcome. Avishai’s argument is that the companies most often targeted by a BDS campaign are large, Western countries with significant bases in Israel: the Googles,¬†Motorolas¬†and IBMs of the world. These organisations often train Israeli workers in the West and have a Western-style work¬†environment. This, combined with the often very critical universities in Israel, creates a liberal, cosmopolitan backdrop to advance the cause of human rights within Israel.

Forcing the removal of those companies will only limit that environment and reduce the efficacy of any internal movements developing in some elements of Israeli society. Indeed, to top it off, Avishai also noted that it may be fine for UC Berkeley and others to divest and boycott GE for manufacturing the jet engines used in Israeli fighter planes, but it also has the secondary effect of limiting the air conditioners and CT scanners available to Palestinians living in Israel and the Occupied Territories. To me, this summarised two of the three main anti-BDS points: its ineffectiveness and its counter-productivity.

The third point is that while many BDS-ers may purport to remain committed to a two-state solution, in reality the opposite is most likely true. The Jewish Voice for Peace is exemplary in that regard. Vilkomerson, when asked directly on the position of JVP with regard to their support of the two-state solution during the Q&A, provided what was a very clear statement, wrapped in an ambiguous one.

While she said that JVP doesn’t take a stance on it, to me that can only mean one thing: they support a single state between the Jordan and the¬†Mediterranean, they’re just afraid to say it. From what I could understand last night, and bits of informal research I’ve done, it seems that the majority of JVP members think this already, so why not come out and say it? It’s as if by trying to remain neutral they’re able to remain half in the tent, able to take pot shots at Israel while still appearing to support it.

If the majority of JVP members support a one-state¬†solution, fine with me, just come out and say it. Don’t get me wrong, I am vehemently opposed to such a platform, but what I would like is for that organisation, which clearly has already¬†exercised¬†a degree of their own brand of moral conviction by coming out in favour of the BDS campaign, to call a spade a spade. Not doing so is dishonest and lacks courage.

I know that this type of session causes significant angst and discomfort among some people, including among those who think that J Street has some hidden pro-BDS agenda, or some deep seeded desire to unseat the Jewish state from existence. Having that session was brave, but it was also the right thing to do. Further, it paid off; the discussion was vibrant, with the majority of those at the conference understanding the BDS movement for what it is, and understanding why it doesn’t have a place as part of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement. Hopefully having more of an understanding, this dispatch can¬†allay¬†the fears of those people and help to ensure elements of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement are seen for the mainstream voices they are.

Liam Getreu is a Melbourne student and writer, and a former chairperson of both the Australasian Union of Jewish Students and the Australian Zionist Youth Council. He attended this week’s J Street Conference and blogged about it on his website at www.liamgetreu.com. The opinions expressed are his own.

Comments

One Response to “Liam Getreu at the J-Street Conference”
  1. Thanks for sharing your experience Liam. It is refreshing to see your posts. We may agree or disagree with positions but at least you show a strong willingness and example in genuine engagement. It is important that you identify that the “standard narrative of Jewish victimhood, which clearly no longer applies in today’s Middle East, and is consistently touted in hasbara material from Israel advocacy…has become an unacceptable form of pro-Israel activism on campus.” It is good you have “tried to limit [it] in AUJS last year because, as Simone noted, it’s detrimental to the pro-Israel cause on campus”. Although I would phrase it as ‘detrimental to the pro-Palestine and Israel/pro-peace cause’.

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