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J Street takes a U-turn?

Applauding the left wingers who visited Ariel with an open mind, and hoping they learned that the two state solution is doomed

I must admit that I have a greater respect for J Street U ever since their visit to Ariel – the City of Samaria – this past Friday. And my regard for them will remain intact, regardless of whether J Street U has learned to develop a greater respect for Ariel.

Both Ariel and the “Peace Now” non-governmental advocacy group were founded in 1978. Both saw their respective objectives come to fruition. Ariel blossomed into a full-fledged city, while Peace Now stood witness to the signing of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty in 1979. Today, 35 years after their establishment, the City of Ariel continues to reach material milestones, whereas Peace Now has had to revisit the very relevance of its name.

Enter J Street. With a new look, exceptional branding and an effective marketing campaign, J Street hit the advocacy scene in April of 2008. Now marking five years of activism, J Street has all but replaced its antiquated forerunner Peace Now in the United States. But the new look remains loyal to its predecessor’s mission: “a two state resolution to the conflict with the Palestinian people”.

Ariel’s late mayor, Ron Nachman, once received an invitation to participate in a J Street debate that was to be held in Jerusalem. Ron was true to his “come and see Ariel for yourselves” policy. Although he savored opportunities to debate his political adversaries in public forums, he felt that he had to pass. “If they want to meet me here I will welcome them,” he would say. “If they want to talk about Ariel without seeing Ariel, I will not participate”.

J Street has visited Ariel since that time, but it’s difficult for us to know how often and when. They enter the city on air-conditioned buses with one of their spokespeople giving the aquarium tour – never moving beyond the translucent glass windows to hear the sounds, touch the people and walk the streets. Needless to say, exposing a captive audience to a well-rehearsed narrative while using the scenery as incriminating evidence in a mock-trial-on-wheels has its indoctrinating benefits – but only to a limited extent. Propaganda advocacy becomes obsolete when critical thinkers are present, and when increasing numbers of competing organizations venture forth to hear what the residents of Ariel have to say for themselves.

Over the past few months, J Street U has been working to arrange a visit to Ariel. J Street U (“U” as in university) is the student arm of J Street, with over 40 chapters at college campuses across the U.S. Fortunately, a last minute visit was pulled together, and the Hebrew University J Street U team brought a group of inquisitive minds for a close up on the city that sits atop the fulcrum of the Israeli-Palestinian dialectic.

Their first meeting with a “settler” in the so-called “West Bank” (we prefer the term Samaria) opened with cordial introductions, followed by a tour of Ariel. They visited the Ariel Regional Center for the Performing Arts, the Ariel Industrial Zone and Ariel University. We spoke about boycotts and peace plans, water and electricity, humanitarian rights and co-existence. Questions flowed steadily. We exchanged ideas and thoughts, theories and long term visions. It was a civil, intellectually honest visit, where minds were free to roam and no side claimed victory. It was real. It was genuine. And for each of these reasons, it was historic.

By engaging with the City of Ariel through an unadulterated, boots-on-the-ground, personal encounter, J Street U has taken a giant leap forward on behalf of an organization that may soon need to grapple with the waning prospects that its godfather, Peace Now, has had to face. The more the academic and journalistic communities increasingly concur that the long awaited “two state solution” is doomed to failure, the more J Street will be in need of a new approach. Now, perhaps more than ever, the only way to be “Pro-Israel and Pro-Peace” (their slogan) is to be thoroughly circumspect and sincerely committed to analyzing all angles of our current reality in order to reach a viable conclusion.

J Street U is the future of J Street – not only in terms of its target audience age demographic, but more importantly, due to its recently demonstrated onsite openness to multiple narratives. It’s safe to assume that one visit to Ariel will not cause the organization, nor any of its participants, to take an about face U-turn with regards to what they think and believe about settlements, Judea and Samaria, democracy and demography. But that should not be the objective. The goal is to raise an informed and engaged generation of young adults who truly care about the future of Israel and truly care about the prospects for peace.

Here, in the City of Ariel, we welcome and anticipate all opportunities to play an active role in this unfolding process.

About the Author
Avi Zimmerman is the President and CEO of the Integrated Business Roundtable and the President of the Judea and Samaria Chamber of Commerce and Industry.