The 2012 J Street Conference, "Making History," kicked off this evening at the Washington Convention Center at Washington D.C. The opening session featured three Israeli speakers who shared their visions of Israel's present and its future.
The first speaker was Stav Shaffir, one of the leaders of this summer's housing protest movement in Israel. Shaffir spoke about the movement, including her arrest by Israeli police during an attempt to evict one of the movement's protest camps. She urged conference goers to focus on Israeli society and its values. "Our future cannot be guided by threats alone," Shaffir told an audience of roughly 2500, including 650 students. As she left the podium, some audience members began chanting enthusiastically the protest movement's slogan: HaAm Doresh Tzedek Chevrati / The people demand social justice.
The next speaker was Micah Biton, mayor of the southern peripheral town of Yeruham. Biton identified the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and social inequality in Israel as the main challenges facing the country. Noting his own military service in the Palestinian Territories as part of the Golani brigade, he noted that settlers themselves are not enemies of those who seek peace to scattered audience applause. Biton also linked Israeli spending in the territories to a lack of investment in Israel's peripheral regions: the South and the Galilee.
The final speaker of the evening was noted Israeli novelist Amos Oz, who spoke with an unusual combination of moderation and idealism. He began his speech with a pot shot at "extremist hawkish militant" AIPAC, and expressed support for the division of Jerusalem, a sometimes sensitive issue in Washington. At the same time, he also characterized the 2-State Solution as a divorce. The metaphor of the evening came when Oz identified Israeli and Palestinian leadership as the cause of intransigence in the Middle East: "The patients, Israelis and Palestinians, are ready for a painful surgery. The doctors are cowards." He concluded with the remark, "J Street, I have been waiting for you all my adult life."
Oz's comments were greeted with a prolonged standing ovation from conference-goers, and the session was concluded.