I didn’t even want to go. It’s time away from my girlfriend, the Oscars are on, I’ll have to wake up early on the weekend. The annual J Street Conference in D.C. was quickly approaching and the reasons to skip it were mounting. J Street is a Jewish pro-Israel, pro-peace organization that leans to the left, is not afraid to criticize the Israeli government, and heavily advocates for a two-state solution. Did your eyes glaze over on that last sentence? If they did, then you were like me, just a couple of days ago.
Like a vast majority of American-Jewish millennials, and apparently the U.S. President, I was largely apathetic about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sure, I’ve been to Israel a few times, read some books on the subject, and even have a brother who works for J Street’s college branch, but as a young professional with a busy schedule, I didn’t have time to care. When President Trump stood next to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and said, “I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like, I can live with either one,” part of me actually thought that didn’t sound so bad. They’ve been fighting for Israel’s entire existence, I reasoned, nothing stops the violence so it’s not worth spending time on. Plus, I live in Brooklyn, why should I care?
Anyway, due to continued pressure from my dad and the allure of seeing Bernie Sanders speak live (I’m a sucker for celebrity), I finally decided to attend the conference just a week before it began. It’s a decision that just changed my life.
From the start of the conference, it was evident that this was a different conversation about Israel than I was used to hearing. From Hebrew School to Birthright to a majority of politicians on CNN, it’s hard to grow up Jewish in America and not here how great Israel is over and over again. What I hadn’t heard much of from American Jews over the years is criticism of Israel based on not only an acknowledgment of basic human rights for Palestinians, but a genuine love of Israel as well. I think one of the reasons that so many young American Jews show a disinterest in the conflict is that it’s obvious we’re only being fed one side of the story. Birthright is fun, don’t get me wrong, but it’s basically an attempt to brainwash American Jews into loving Israel without showing them the plight of Palestinians. Most millennials can detect the blatant one-sidedness and don’t end up loving Israel, instead turning off to the situation entirely.
The J Street conference was the first time I saw thousands of American Jews, along with significant Israeli and American political figures, have a conversation about the conflict while being honest about Israel’s sometimes diabolical role. The opening night event featured a rousing speech by Mika Almog, the late Shimon Peres’ granddaughter that was achingly beautiful in its plea for a two-state solution because Israel cannot be both Jewish and Democratic if it maintains the status quo. A prominent Israeli figure can criticize Israel and get a standing ovation from thousands of American-Jews. I didn’t realize this was actually possible. For me, it was a game changer.
As the conference continued, with fascinating panels and speeches that featured incredible speakers from all types of backgrounds, I started to realize how dumb I was for neglecting to care about the conflict. Not only that, I began to get angry at the mainstream American-Jewish community for its blind support of Israel despite Israel’s horrendous policies regarding Palestinians. There was one speaker in particular that amazed me beyond belief and shook up my entire notion of left wing vs. right wing politics. Her name was Amal Elsana Alh’jooj, an Israeli-Arab from a Bedouin community who taught her own mother to read. Alh’jooj passionately challenged the notion that we have to put ourselves in political boxes and should instead get back to basics about the notion of human rights. It shouldn’t be a left wing or right wing policy to care about the sanctity of every human life, she argued, and if we don’t move beyond the game of politics, it will be impossible to achieve true peace.
If you are wondering how to make ambivalent observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict deeply care about it, this is how. It’s about human rights. It’s not about hateful politicians talking about how great Israel is, but it’s about treating every human life equally, Jewish or Muslim, Israeli or Palestinian. By the time Bernie Sanders forcefully spoke to the conference about every life being equal, I was already convinced that if there is going to be peace in the region, J Street is going to be an important part of it.
Young American-Jews will be the ones to shape America’s relationship with Israel in the years to come and no organization is doing a better job at speaking to young American-Jews about Israel than J Street. By featuring a diverse group of speakers and even inviting members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization to speak, J Street proves that it is possible to love Israel and criticize it at the same time. In fact, to love Israel is to criticize it. I came to the J Street conference expecting to leave unchanged. I was wrong. The experience I had at the conference has reshaped the way I view the conflict but more importantly it has made me deeply care about it. As a Jew, I love Israel but detest its current governmental policies. The occupation of Palestine needs to end and a free Palestinian state needs to be established. Until that happens, Israel is violating basic human rights and Americans should not stand for it. As J Street grows, it will actually be able to make these changes possible. And I know it will grow because if it was able to gain me as a supporter, there is no doubt that many more young American Jews are coming.