Saturday, March 24, 2012

J Street 2012 Kicks Off Israeli Style

Tonight's opening session can be described as Israeli in many ways.  Most obviously, the event started 15 minutes late.  But the characterization goes much deeper than a small logistical snafu.

The J Street crowd had a particularly intimate vibe reminiscent of the intimacy of Israeli society, no easy feat given the 2,500 conference goers in the audience.  There was less applause than one would hear at an AIPAC conference, but it felt more organic when applause did break out.  J Street's choice to have three Israelis speak was likely a deliberate one, and it was admirable.  The speakers were diverse as well: Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, male and female, young and old, optimistic and pragmatic.

Stav Shaffir's comments, while a little vague, were well-recieved by the audience and resonated with the grassroots feel of J Street and its outreach efforts.  Of particular note, she pointed out that the true impact of the housing protests was to demonstrate that Israelis are not as cynical and complacent as many claim.  Shaffir and the protest movement deserve considerable credit for this achievement.  It is likely that the full impact of the mobilizing power of this summer's housing movement has not yet been realized in Israeli politics.

Micah Biton, the Mayor of Yeruham, was articulate and well-spoken.  It was impressive to see him link local, national, and international politics in Israel, a task not often asked of the mayor of a dusty peripheral development town.  Biton cast himself as something of a Corey Booker figure, and made political points that are worth taking seriously.  In particular, his comment that settlers are not the enemy is one Mideast policy analysts in Washington D.C. need to hear. That someone as clearly pragmatic as Biton would make such a statement is further evidence of the way settlers have become the bogeyman of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the eyes of Washington, in the humble opinion of this blogger.

Amos Oz, as a novelist, gave an extremely well-written speech.  While his knock against AIPAC will cost J Street in the professionalism department, the rest of his speech took a decidedly moderate tone.  What bears mention, of course, is that Oz is not a politician (though he is extremely political).  Unless Knesset MKs also believe in a 2-state solution with a division of Jerusalem, the excitement over Oz's ideas should not blind J Street's conference-goers to the ideological realities of the current Israeli government.

In summary, J Street's speakers were down to Earth and spoke intimately about Israel's domestic politics to a somewhat cozy audience.  In tonight's session, Israel was a society rather than an ideal type.  This approach to Israel is a stark contrast to AIPAC's flashy speakers, slickly-produced videos, and pinpoint messaging.  However, whether it mobilizes the center of the American Jewish community is an outcome yet to be seen.