Why I Am Thinking Of Attending The JStreet Conference.

Why am I considering attending the JStreet conference next March?

My daughter asked me to go with her. This is both a simpler and more complex rationale than might appear. Simply put, if one of my adult children thinks enough of her relationship with me to want to engage me in serious, probing, soul searching discussion about important matters, Jewish and secular, why would I be so foolish as to say no to her? My wife and I long ago made our dinner table a center for open – at times raucous – discussion about everything with our kids, from soup to sex. We did so because we intuited that if we wanted our values to have a place in their lives, we needed to place those values in the context of a respectful airing of ideas, one in which listening is an integral aspect of our relationship. To date, our intuition has not been proven wrong. At a more complex level, our ongoing discussions with our children are a microcosm of our generation’s grand opportunity to engage their generation as the young adults to whom we are happy and proud to “pass the baton” of Jewish and general life and leadership.

Which brings me to next year’s JStreet conference, and by extension, my deep disappointment with the recent Presidents’ Conference vote to deny JStreet admission to the organization.

I strongly disagree with some stances that JStreet has taken, including its openness to dialogue with BDS, and in certain respects I lean more toward AIPAC’s focus, though I respectfully decline to join the rabbinic cabinets of both lobbying groups. I support a two-state solution, because I believe that Israel’s security and Jewish-democratic character depend upon it. To paraphrase Golda Meir, civil societies are obligated to not only guarantee the civil rights of their friends, but of their enemies as well, when their enemies live under their authority. Certainly, these beliefs align with JStreet’s stated philosophy: “We believe that Israel’s Jewish and democratic character depend on a two-state solution, resulting in a Palestinian state living alongside Israel in peace and security.” I understand JStreet’s goal of fixing what it sees – at times rightly – as the dysfunctional politics that at times plagues the relationship between the US, American Jews and Israel. Nonetheless, I refuse to dismiss the huge, ongoing contribution of the efforts of organizations such as AIPAC to secure Israel’s profound security and military finance needs in the midst of a nasty regional neighborhood. We would be quite misguided not to remain vigilant about the dangerous growth of state sponsored Islamic extremism emerging from Turkey and Iran, as they vie for regional super power status and Iran continues to deploy its terrorist proxies, Hamas and Hizballah. I don’t disagree with JStreet’s assessment that Israel’s health is contingent upon a just settlement with the Palestinian people; I just don’t think its almost exclusive focus on this point is always helpful.

However, I also adamantly oppose the invective fired at JStreet by some on the right about the organization being anti-Israel, a reactive and defensive tactic that substitutes name calling for constructive critique. Though I have no reason to assume that the Conference vote was conducted undemocratically, (its problematic secret ballot policy notwithstanding), this long-time process of demonization has clearly had a deleterious effect upon the conversations about JStreet. This is reflected in the vote’s results and their aftermath. I fear that much of the anti-JStreet rhetoric is less about the deep emotions surrounding Israel’s security and more about the primitive turf consciousness of an entrenched American Jewish establishment. I know, love and argue with more than a handful of people openly and proudly associated with JStreet. They are not self hating Jews, they are not anti-Zionists, they are not uneducated about Israeli politics and Jewish history. They are people like my daughter and her many religious Jewish, Zionist friends, with whom I sometimes disagree fiercely and who I love fiercely. I am tired of them being vilified as enemies of Israel because they won’t fall into line with every view on Israel held by a self-appointed elite. The poor treatment they experience gets dressed up as principled criticism of more liberal positions on Israeli peace politics; yet such criticism too often degenerates into ad hominem attacks that are really hotzaat shem ra, slander, a behavior expressly forbidden by the Torah. Further, the organization’s not being granted Conference admission this time around will not make it or its supporters, many of them young Zionists, go away. It will simply make them suspect that mainstream American Jewish leadership cannot be trusted to trust them with any of the keys to future leadership or to engage them in respectful, civil dialogue.

I am one Jew, one father, one rabbi, one Zionist. Objectively, I make little difference to the overall future of the Jewish people, yet I and others who feel similarly need to make clear that the hostile, combative nature of dialogue about Israel is unproductive and unacceptable. Therefore, if possible, I will attend the JStreet conference, just as I attended the AIPAC conference in the past.

I will attend precisely because I disagree with JStreet on a number of important matters, and because I know that we share a love for the Jewish state. I refuse to stifle my views on the Israel that I love, yet I also refuse to be deaf to the differing views of other people who love Israel: people with whom I hope to debate and about whose ideas I hope to write thoughtfully and critically. I will attend to make clear to my daughter’s generation that my generation believes in the power of dialogue between Jews, between Jews and Palestinians, and between all people. Dialogue matters supremely for the building of all human relationships and specifically for the future of the Jewish people, especially Israel.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in April 2020.