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24-year old Ada da Silva was excited and hopeful as she entered the bustling Grand Lobby of the Washington DC Convention Center on March 24th of 2012. Banners emblazoned with J Street’s trademark leaning arrow logo and that year’s convention theme, “Making History”, festooned the huge atrium. J Street offered itself as a brash young voice; a solutions-based movement, non-dogmatic and open to dialogue. All of these things appealed to Ada as she prepared herself for three days of intellectual engagement and inspiration. Most of all, Ada looked forward to being amongst fellow lovers of Israel, all like her thirsting for a solution, a desperately needed respite from war and conflict. She found something else entirely.
Why I left J Street: By Ada da Silva
I signed up for the J Street conference in the hope of unveiling a genuine and profound dialogue – something akin to the wealth of nuance and complexity that one encounters when discussing the Israel-Palestine conflict with Israelis in Israel. I hoped to find a space where support for Israel was a given, yet dialogue in pursuit of solutions and effective advocacy would abound.
On the very first night of the conference, I made a comment to my table-mate that I thought would be relatively mainstream, given the recent publication of The Crisis of Zionism: “I’m not such a fan of Beinart.” I was immediately reproached, and told that I was too closed-minded for the conference: the very one I had come to in order to be exposed to new ideas. No matter that I have Palestinian contacts with whom I maintain a dialogue on their views and hopes, and no matter that I seek to encounter every viewpoint on the conflict, and expressed willingness to read any new sources that this individual might wish to recommend. I was instantly and immutably classified as right-wing, and as such, no longer worthy of conversation. Through this and other interactions, my hopes of encountering a moderate and welcoming crowd at the conference were quickly dispelled.
The J Street conference hosted many overtly anti-Israel speakers, both Palestinians and Americans, who were cheered by conference attendees no matter how appalling their statements. Dr. Mustafa Barghouti came to advocate non-violence (a movement that he claims has been current and common in Palestine for the last ten years). When asked by an attendee about the guarantees for the security of Israeli citizens in a potential two-state solution, Dr. Barghouti presented various iterations of the same idea: the Israeli military is the only current obstacle to peace. When the attendee requested that Dr. Barghouti answer the original question, the attendee was shushed by the crowd.
We never did get an answer on Israel’s security, but we were plainly told by Dr. Barghouti that Israel is the sole source of violence in the Israel-Palestine conflict, and that Hamas, and “even [Islamic] Jihad” are committed to non-violence.
Another memorable moment with Dr. Barghouti was this thinly veiled threat, which was met with applause by the crowd: “What you must understand is that we want [a] two-state solution, but if we are told ‘either two states or enslavement and apartheid and segregation forever, no, we will look for another solution, and it will be [the] one-state solution.”
I failed to encounter any expression of concern for the welfare or reputation of Israel that was not booed or shushed
Mohammed Abu-Nimer stated that the real issue at hand is the Jewishness of the state, which “inherently contradicts the democratic nature of the state.” He added that, after all, “we [Palestinians] built the Israeli state.”
I failed to encounter any expression of concern for the welfare or reputation of Israel that was not booed or shushed by attendees. Iain Levine, from Human Rights Watch, stated that his organization’s and the UN’s disproportionate focus on Israel is not moral relativism: “we [at HRW] make it a point not to take the behavior of a country’s neighbors into account.” Alan Elsner (then from The Israel Project), noted in his reply that firing rockets into civilian areas “is against the rules of war,” suggesting that HRW might consider recalculating its coverage of human rights in the West Bank and Gaza. When Elsner commented on the UN’s spending half of its time focused on Israel’s human rights violations: “I refuse to believe that Israel is at fault for half of the world’s human rights violations,” he was heartily booed by the audience.
Concern for Israeli national security and the safety and well-being of the Jewish people seems to have been forgotten
J Street seems to devote more of its time to complaining about the AIPAC “conspiracy” than to outlining why it is pro-Israel, and how it is helpful as an organization to the safety and security of the State of Israel. A frequent talking point among conference attendees was how resolution of the conflict is a key interest for US national security. Concern for Israeli national security and the safety and well-being of the Jewish people seems to have been forgotten, or conveniently omitted. I heard several attendees claim that their only connection to Judaism was through a concern for social justice, as if social justice were exclusive to Judaism, or that a concern for social justice alone qualifies them to speak on behalf of the American Jewish community. The concern that they seem to be missing is for the safety and security of Israel; a concern for not taking Israel’s existence for granted. Strangely, though it is unfashionable for moderate and liberal Jewish Americans to express support for Zionism, many are comfortable unilaterally re-branding Zionism as a venture in which making common cause with anti-Semites is not only condoned, but also seemingly mandated.
This appeared finally to be too much for even Avishay Braverman, a member of the Knesset for the Labor Party, a particularly restrained and meticulously moderate voice throughout his conference appearances, who, at the conclusion of his last speech, felt compelled to respond to a particularly vehement heckler: “Try to point the finger in the right direction.”
I entered the J Street conference with high hopes. Instead I found a forum in which delegitimization of the State of Israel was brushed off as a trivial concern, and pro-Israel sentiment was scarce. The very people who had been concerned about being lumped into the pot with the so-called “Israel-firsters” had become unquestioning “Palestine-firsters.” Not quite the practice to uphold a slogan of “pro-Israel pro-peace.”
I left the conference wishing the road to peace advocated by these self-proclaimed friends of Israel weren’t paved with finger-pointing and one-sided criticisms of the world’s only Jewish state.
Epilogue: Since attending the J Street conference in 2012, I have started donating both my time and my tzedakah to two organizations I initially thought “too right-wing”: StandWithUs and AIPAC. Despite the posturing of the opposition, I have found in them a home that is truly both pro-Israel and pro-peace. In different arenas, they are both simply doing the work necessary in order to ensure the continued existence of the State of Israel. To advocate for anything less than a safe and secure Israel is to renounce your own right to live freely as a Jew anywhere in the world.