J Street: Mainstream on Foreign Policy, But Are the Rabbis Listening?

The public part of this week’s J Street conference concluded yesterday with a speech by National Security Adviser James Jones. Activists are on the Hill today lobbying members of Congress, and the centerpiece of J Street’s foreign policy position, the two-state solution, is at the top of the agenda.

Jones’ speech, in which he vigorously articulated the Obama administration’s support for J Street and a two-state solution, made the members of Congress who backed out of the conference host committee — reacting stupidly to fear-mongering by the right — look very silly. J Street is not, as its critics tried so desperately to claim, a fringe, anti-Israel group. As our own Michelle Goldberg reported today in the Guardian, “A great many American Jews, attached to Israel but sickened by its government and its knee-jerk American boosters, have been waiting for something like this.”

Yet at the rabbinical and congregational level, many challenges remain. Frank, non-judgmental conversations about Israel-Palestine are hard to come by, as the dialogue between J Street’s executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami and the Union for Reform Judaism president Eric Yoffie demonstrated.

That’s why it’s good news that the Rabbinic Cabinet of Brit Tzedek, a grassroots organization committed to peace, is merging with J Street come January. At a panel discussion yesterday, rabbis who serve on Brit Tzedek’s cabinet acknowledged the challenges in forging this sort of discussion among rabbis and congregations, but laid out hopeful signs of change.

The Brit Tzedek rabbis are not your Israel-can-do-no-wrong cheerleading types. They are committed to Israel, but equally to justice for the Palestinians. Some of them are involved, for example, in Ta’anit Tzedek, a monthly fast for Gaza, which calls for pursuing peace and lifting the blockade that prevents essentials from reaching Gazans. The fast organizers write, “We condemn Hamas’ deliberate targeting of Israeli civilians. Out of the same ethical commitments we also condemn the use of much greater violence by the Israeli government, causing many more deaths of Palestinian civilians. Since the end of Israel’s recent military campaign, the severe humanitarian crisis in Gaza has grown all the more dire.”

Although he wanted to sign on to the fast, Rabbi Joshua Levine-Grater of Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, a Conservative congregation in Pasadena, California, said it would be “too far” for many in his congregation. In a sign of how his congregation is talking, though, a member who took issue some of Levine-Grater’s positions had come with him to the J Street conference. At a previous congregation, Levine-Grater said, he had become persona non grata for his stance, and even was accused of being a spy and on the payroll of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

According to Rabbi Toba Spitzer of Congregation Dorshei Tzedek in Newton, Massachusetts, “the shutting down of discourse on Israel has done more damage to the American Jewish community than any other thing. . . . People are alienated because on some level they were being told they weren’t a good Jew.” Spitzer added that she had “felt silenced, and felt like there wasn’t a place for me. I pushed back but a lot of people don’t.”

Spitzer said she was working on creating “safe space” for congregations to discuss Israel-Palestine issues. “We should not pretend that we all agree,” she said, but “it is very damaging to pretend there’s consensus when there’s not. . . . Rabbis should be strong in how they speak, but shouldn’t imply there is consensus.”

Although she admitted she didn’t have an “alternative narrative” to the “mythological” narrative of Israel, Spitzer said, “that’s the project I would like to engage us in, [which] would affirm all peoples’ connection to the land, and place” and put “human life above nationalism, land, anything else.”

“I’m beginning to think,” she added, “as rabbis we need to start deconstructing the mythological language around this [and] start seeing Israel as a normal country. . . . maybe stop talking about Israel as the first flowering of our redemption.

“I’m not sure that’s true,” Spitzer went on, “it might be the opposite of true.”

An earlier panel had addressed the prospects of interfaith dialogue. That panel’s moderator, Ron Young, co-founder of the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace, urged moving beyond “Thanksgiving and recycling projects.” It’s true; discussions about interfaith dialogue are frequently dull, unproductive, and anodyne. But the rabbinical discussion had a real urgency to it. As some of the interfaith panel participants acknowledged, perhaps intrafaith dialogue is just, if not more, essential. With the Brit Tzedek merger, J Street is going to be right in the center of it.