In the last few weeks I have attended two events — the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference in Washington, D.C., and a J Street town hall meeting in San Francisco — that were interesting, provocative and provided an important perspective on the American Jewish community’s relationship with Israel.
As I reflected on these two gatherings, I was struck first by the many similarities between the organizations and the messages being conveyed, including in their taglines. J Street says it is “pro-Israel, pro-peace,” and AIPAC says “I am pro-Israel, I am AIPAC.”
Both events featured centrist Israeli leaders advocating for a two-state solution. The main speaker at the J Street town hall was retired Israeli Maj.-Gen. Danny Yatom, a former member of Knesset and a former director of the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency. His message was that peace not only is possible but “essential for Israel’s future as a democratic, Jewish homeland.”
At AIPAC, we got to hear Tzipi Livni, Israel’s minister of justice and head of the delegation to the current peace negotiations. She stressed that Israel needs to make peace “not for the Palestinians, not for the Arab world, not for the United States, but for ourselves.” She had nothing but praise to offer for the tireless efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry.
I also was struck by the substantial representation of the LGBTQ community at both events.
There were two panels at AIPAC discussing LGBTQ issues related to Israel, as well as a wonderful LGBTQ reception one evening at a D.C. bar that was attended by more than 100 people and featured several LGBT members of Congress, including Mark Takano of California (D–Riverside County) and David Cicilline (D–Rhode Island).
I always see people I know from the Jewish LGBTQ community at J Street events. Matt Nosanchuk, President Obama’s liaison to the Jewish community — and an out gay man and strong champion of LGBT rights — was a speaker at both the J Street and AIPAC events, and his message about the administration’s commitment to peace and to Israel was well received at the two conferences.
Of course, there were also noticeable differences between the AIPAC and J Street events, in tone and nuance as much as substance.
At J Street I sensed a palpable frustration with Israel’s leadership (“If only Prime Minister Netanyahu and Israel’s governing leadership would take the peace process seriously, stop settlement growth and be willing to make some serious compromises, peace could be at hand.”) In the J Street understanding of the conflict, one senses an acknowledgment of the Palestinian narrative that exists alongside the Jewish one: Israel may be our homeland, but we are destined to share the land side by side with another people, not to occupy them.
At AIPAC events, the focus is on Israel’s security above most everything else, with a lot of discussion of the threat posed by Iran, as well as by the turbulent, violent and unsettled conditions that exist in so many of Israel’s Middle East neighbors. In the AIPAC scenario, it is the Palestinians who continue to miss the opportunities for peace, as symbolized by their ongoing refusal to recognize Israel as the legitimate homeland of the Jewish people.
I came away from these two conferences convinced that the voices of both these organizations need to be heard.
It has been written in the New York Times recently that Kerry and the president “may have fallen into a good-cop, bad-cop routine with Israel,” a strategy that may yet push through a peace deal. Perhaps AIPAC and J Street play the same good-cop, bad-cop roles for the American Jewish community with regard to Israel: We have your back, we understand all the threats you face, your security is essential, and yet we cannot abide the status quo of conflict and occupation.
Peace may require difficult compromises, but peace is essential for Israel to be the Jewish and democratic state that we so desperately want our future generations to inherit. AIPAC and J Street are the proud pro-Israel voices of the American Jewish community today, and perhaps taken together, they provide the balance of support and concern that is needed at this pivotal moment in our history.
Arthur Slepian is the executive director of A Wider Bridge, a pro-Israel organization that builds bridges between Israelis and LGBTQ North Americans and allies.