On March 21, over 3,000 people applauded after each and every sentence of the “Pro Israel Pro Peace” sentiment delivered at J Street’s 5th national conference in Washington D.C.
The J Street president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, announced that Americans should support a two-state solution because it is good for Israel’s stability, condemn expanding settlements in the West Bank because it is good for Israel’s reputation and think critically of Israel’s government because it is good for Israel’s health.
While I agree that Americans should support two states, condemn expanding settlements and think critically of Israel’s government, I do not think we should do it because we are pro-Israel. I think we should do it because we support the sovereignty of the Palestinian people, because expanding settlements in occupied territory violates the Fourth Geneva Convention and because critical thought is necessary of any government.
I spoke with a lot of people throughout the conference, and many mentioned how hard it is for them to hear “anti-Israel” sentiment. They like J Street because it lets them critique Israel while still feeling “pro-Israel.”
I realized I was not J Street’s intended audience. J Street’s website boasts its “commitment to Jewish and democratic values” and its motto, “Pro Israel Pro Peace.” I am not Jewish, I have never been to Israel and the community I grew up around holds no views towards Palestine or Israel. I wanted to hear stronger language from the speakers, but I recognized that this conference was not catered to people like me.
Shula Ornstein ’16, another conference attendee from Brandeis, grew up with a father who is a rabbi and went to Jewish summer camps from a young age. Ornstein described Israel as being sacred in most contexts in the communities she grew up in, from the time she spent in synagogue to dinner conversations with her family. To her, disagreeing with Israel is disagreeing with her family, friends and religious community, who treat her with nothing but unconditional love.
Ornstein says it is difficult to listen to extreme critique of Israel because it feels like these critiques attack her home, family and value system. She is absolutely right: extreme language can dissuade the very people it attempts to persuade. Ornstein got involved with J Street largely because it uses language accessible to people with similar backgrounds to hers. She can engage in critical discussion without feeling like she is betraying her friends and family by further exploring other viewpoints.
We are all human. We all have topics that espouse irrational defense from us. This is true of both the pro-Israel and pro-Palestine camps. And it takes courage from both sides to discuss such issues. It takes courage from the presenter to soften his language, and it takes courage from the receiver to listen and remain open-minded. It takes true courage from both sides to try to dissect emotion to salvage logic and reason. It takes true courage to reflect. And the fact that J Street’s rhetoric allows Ornstein and others like her to reflect is paramount.
Bassam Aramin, a keynote Palestinian speaker who resides in East Jerusalem, spoke at the opening night of the conference about his life experiences and how they shape his worldview.
Aramin served seven years in prison starting at age 17 for planning an attack on Israeli soldiers. But during his time in prison, he reflected on the dangers of violent protest. In 2005, he founded Combatants for Peace, an organization of former Israeli and Palestinian combatants leading a non-violent protest against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. In 2007, Aramin’s ten-year-old daughter was killed by a rubber bullet from an Israeli soldier.
After the two minutes of silence in memory of Aramin’s daughter, I expected him to condemn Israel. I expected him to be fierce, angry and emotional.
Instead, he stepped up to the microphone and spoke with a level voice, keeping his body movements minimal and controlled. He spoke about moving forward. He spoke of loving Israel and the Jewish people like he loves his own family and about how no one deserves the kind of misery he has endured. Aramin did not just say what he felt. He said what would be heard.
It would have been easy for Aramin to demonize Israel for taking his daughter’s life. But he chose to say something that the audience would consider rather than immediately refute.
He chose to say something for which there is no canned response. He did not critique Israel. He critiqued violence. And he was heard.
I spoke with Aramin later in the conference. I asked him if it is difficult to speak to a room of 3,000 people, many of whom support a state responsible for the murder of his ten-year-old daughter. I asked if it is difficult for him to dampen and cater his language for this crowd, even though they often do not do the same for Palestinians.
“I don’t speak to the people who already agree with me,” he responded. “I speak so that the people who don’t will listen.”