Tuesday, May 22, 2012

J Street Makes it to Main Street

For more than two years, I have become increasingly involved with J Street, a pro-Israel, pro-peace organization that shares. discusses, and promotes the belief of most Jews that Israel cannot remain a viable Jewish democracy unless and until an independent Palestinian state is established in much of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Unlike other pro-Israel organizations, J Street believes it is not only permissible but it is actually positive for those who care deeply about Israel to engage in public discussions regarding what we believe makes the most sense for Israel and the Jewish people.

Since J Street was created just a few years ago, leaders of the Israeli government and other American Jews who also care deeply about Israel's future have done their best to frame J Street and its leaders as dangerously misguided.  So much so that they have put enormous pressure on Jewish professionals and rabbis to keep J Street speakers out of synagogues and other Jewish centers.

Nevertheless, J Street has consistently gained traction and credibility.  There are now dozens of J Street chapters around the country and branches of J Street U on dozens of campuses.  More than 600 rabbis and cantors proudly serve on the J Street Rabbinic Cabinet and J Street now has more than 10,000 donors and almost 200,000 followers.

Still, the debate raged on in certain circles over whether J Street should be allowed "inside the Jewish tent" or whether its message was just too toxic and threatening to even be heard.

While not everyone who cares about Israel is part of J Street or will ever agree that its message and approach are a good thing, there now seems to be little doubt that J Street is now clearly inside the tent and the tactics and efforts used to destroy it have failed.

Just a few weeks ago, the Israeli government sent Baruch Binah, the second highest-ranking diplomat in the Israeli Embassy in Washington to attend the J Street National Conference where it was my privilege to sit with him at the gala dinner attended by more than 2,500 people.  In his speech, Binah made it clear that the Israeli government is not a fan of J Street's approach but it was equally clear that the government knows J Street is here to stay.

Just last week , Conservative pundit Bill Kristol appeared in a debate with J Street founding president Jeremy Ben Ami.  The debate, moderated by Jewish Daily Forward editor Jane Eisner, drew a standing room only crowd and there have been no reports of anyone contracting a disease from watching two thoughtful Jews who care deeply about Israel discuss their contrasting views in public.

Israeli columnist Chemi Shalev attended the debate and wistfully wrote that he was jealous that civil and respectful conversation could take place here in the U.S. in ways that it never could in Israel.

"As an Israeli observer," Shalev wrote, "I must admit I found myself envious of the ability of the two debaters and of their audience to conduct such a potentially volatile political debate in an atmosphere of mutual respect. In Israel, I suspect, such civilized debates may no longer be possible."

Shalev attributed the respectful atmosphere, in part at least, to the relatively moderate tone and tenor of Kristol's remarks. He was not vulgar or offensive in reference to President Obama. And he proclaimed his support, in principle, for the two-state solution. Indeed, both debaters strove to eschew emotive extremism in their presentations.

And just a couple of days ago, MSNBC contributor David Goodfriend appeared on the Dylan Ratigan show and told the world why he is a strong supporter of J Street  after Goodfriend returned from a family trip to Israel that was highlighted by his son's bar mitzvah.  Goodfriend's sentiments and reasoning are typical of what I have found among most of my fellow J Street supporters.  It is very different from the way we are portrayed by our many detractors on the outside.

Left to our own devices, we American Jews will revert to the pluralistic values of free speech and trying to find the partial truth in the opinions of others. As I wrote several weeks ago (J Street and AIPAC--These and These are the Words of Being Pro-Israel) we are always well served by having multiple approaches and opinions to sift through.  That's how we have always learned and grown.

Despite the best efforts of many of our wealthiest and most influential leaders, it seems that more and more gatekeepers of the Jewish tent have opened the doors to J Street.  Not necessarily to agree with us but to acknowledge the infinite value of open discussion.

These and these are the words of the living God.

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