Rachel Jones spent the past week in Washington, DC, at the first annual conference for the new progressive Jewish organization J Street. She was passing out literature for Meretz USA, an American nonprofit that supports the platform of one of Israel’s most left-wing political parties.
Politically and socially, Meretz USA is a far cry from Jones’s upbringing as a devout Jew in small-town Iowa. The only story Jones, now 24, heard while growing up in her tiny community–a story she now calls “right wing”–was that Israel’s borders included Gaza, the West Bank and the Golan Heights, and that Jewish identity was staked on the country’s defense.
Her transformation from a conservative Zionist to a J Street volunteer is a product of the two years she spent in Israel. “I came to it from such a place of love and admiration and desire, and I wanted to just be completely embraced by my homeland, and all these romantic and idealistic pictures of what Israel was supposed to be for me,” she said. But instead of finding her “homeland,” Jones found the 2006 Lebanon war. The violence she witnessed deeply challenged her religious faith and her confidence in Israel’s actions.
The conflict between a love of Israel and a desire for peace was the dominant theme of J Street’s much-anticipated inaugural conference, held October 25-28 at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington. The conference hosted an unexpectedly large crowd of more than 1,500 mostly left-leaning Jewish activists. At the opening plenary session on Sunday night, Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s executive director, stated that J Street’s role was to “widen the tent” of positions on Israel that can be called “pro-Israel.” “In this room of over 1,000 people there are doubtless 1,000 opinions on the issues,” he announced, and all the opinions were welcome–so welcome, in fact, that the leadership of J Street has been slow to solidify the new lobby’s stances on certain crucial questions. J Street supports a two-state solution in Israel, one based on 1967 borders, and it wants to take a “pragmatic” approach to peace that avoids the static conservatism of AIPAC; but it has not gotten behind any specific timetables or policies.
Throughout four days of discussion panels, the conference covered topics like the Israeli settlements, Iran, human rights and the relationship of various US constituencies to Israel. In spite of some notable absences–Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren declined his invitation–there were nearly 100 speakers on hand, including left-leaning Israeli Knesset members, former US Ambassador Martin Indyk, US Representative Robert Wexler, Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, Senator Chuck Hagel and National Security Advisor Jim Jones. Even Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, who has been publicly critical of J Street, decided in a change of heart to speak at the conference.