AIPAC to Lobby for Anti-Peace with Iran

AIPAC is having its big lobby day on Capitol Hill today. Will they be taking advantage of this grand opportunity to lobby elected officials to get behind the Middle East peace efforts of John Kerry? Of course, you think. Isn’t that what you would expect from a group that claims to care about Israel?

But you would be so wrong. Instead, members are planning to pressure senators to support the Menendez-Graham letter to President Obama, which would tie his hand in negotiations, what amounts to a hawkish call to war with Iran instead of negotiations.

It doesn’t have to be, even for those elected officials who want the legendary “Jewish vote,” because AIPAC no longer has a chokehold on Jewish opinion (not that they ever did but you could be forgiven for thinking so because, among other reasons, the media gave them sole status for so long).,

I called the offices of Senators Levin and Stabenow. I was pleased to learn that Carl, Michigan’s Jewish senator, is already opposed to additional sanctions, though I didn’t get a commitment that he wouldn’t sign the letter. Debbie, on the other hand, continues to waffle and has taken no public stand yet, though I can’t imagine that she hasn’t made up her mind by now.

While I thanked Carl’s representative for Carl’s pro-peace stance, I noted to Debbie’s representative that her behavior was highly disappointing. (Yes, her waffling is baffling, two words that would rhyme in a kinder, gentler world.) If she wants the Jewish vote, she won’t necessarily get it by kissing the sandals of AIPAC. There are pro-Israel groups that also happen to be pro-peace and their voices are growing louder in DC and in communities around the country.

One group I recommend highly is J Street.

Israeli Storyteller Noa Baum to Visit U of M This Week

J Street U (University of Michigan) will be hosting an exciting event Wednesday when they bring Israeli storyteller Noa Baum to University of Michigan to share stories from her A Land Twice Promised.

Noa Baum is an Israeli who has lived in the United States since 1990. While living in Davis, California, she became friends with a Palestinian woman. “I’d had Palestinian colleagues before, but never a friend from the West Bank,” Noa writes on her website. “Until we met, she had never known an Israeli who wasn’t a soldier or a settler. We both grew up in Jerusalem, in very different worlds. A Land Twice Promised stems from our dialogue.”

A Land Twice Promised weaves together the memories and stories of the two friends and their mothers:

  •  A Palestinian living under Israeli occupation as a child and as a university student
  • An Israeli child’s experience of the 1967 war
  • A young Palestinian mother’s memory of the 1967 war
  • A young Israeli woman’s experience of the 1948 war and the loss of her brother

The result is a moving testimony that illuminates the complex and contradictory history and emotions surrounding Jerusalem, for Israelis and Palestinians alike. Building trust, she writes, took many years:

As an Israeli, it was not easy to hear her story. I was forced to confront many of my own deep-rooted misconceptions and, in the process, gained insight into the world of my “enemies.” It was not easy for my friend to hear stories of my family either—initially she was reluctant, but after hearing my story she said: “I felt my people had enough suffering and I didn’t want to hear about yours, but now that I did I am glad. I think I understand something about your people that I didn’t understand before.”

We spent hours arguing and getting defensive as we struggled with the voices of our respective historical narratives that we believed were The Truth. And yet, we were always able to sustain our compassion and never stopped talking and listening to one another.

Our conversations reminded me of Gene Knudsen-Hoffman’s words “an enemy is one whose story we have not heard.” … I tell the human story that stands apart from politics and hope that hearing it will call upon us to listen with compassion without surrendering to prejudice and fear, choose dialogue, and commit to peace.

According to Clare Kinberg, co-director of the Ann Arbor chapter of J Street as well as managing editor of Bridges: A Jewish Feminist Journal, “Noa has performed with this message of peace all over the world, and now we are so lucky she is coming to Michigan. We published in Bridges a couple of years ago her story of working in intensive dialogue with Muslims, Christians, and Jews over a long weekend in Rochester. I only wish she could stay longer.”

J Street is the political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement.

Here are the details of Noa’s visit. Mark your calendar:

  • Date: Wednesday April 14, 2010
  • Time: 7:30 p.m.
  • Place: University of Michigan, East Quad, on 701 East University, Ann Arbor
  • For more information: 301 379 8266

J Street to Explain Approach to Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace Activism

Calling Ann Arbor-area progressives. What can we do to advocate for peace in the Mideast? J Street has ideas. Come and hear them.

Title: Peace and Justice in Israel/Palestine: What Are Effective Strategies?
Date: March 25, 2010
Time: 7-8:30 p.m.
Location: Ann Arbor Christian Reformed Church, 1717 Broadway Street

Free and open to the public.

Description:  How can people in the faith communities in our area be most effective in advocating for peace and justice in Israel/Palestine?

Presentation will be given on three different strategies being pursued by various groups within the faith community in Ann Arbor.

  1. Building alliances with Israeli-Palestinian peace groups on the ground
  2. Supporting the J-Street “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace” approach of seeking to change the direction of U.S. policy and to broaden the public and policy debate in the U.S. about the Middle East, and
  3. Promoting economic sanctions against Israel

Clare Kinberg will be presenting the “J Street approach” summarized by these words taken from recent J Street actions in response to Vice President Biden’s recent trip to the region:

Israel’s national anthem is HaTikva—“The Hope.”  It speaks of the 2,000-year dream of the Jewish people to be a free people again in their own land.  62 years ago, that dream became a reality.

Today, that dream is slipping through our hands—on our watch.  A minority of ideologues more interested in settlements than in securing a democratic, Jewish homeland are putting the future of Israel at grave and imminent risk.

We support the Obama administration in standing firm against provocative actions on any side intended to undermine efforts to achieve a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We believe such a resolution is essential to American interests and to Israel’s future as a democratic, Jewish homeland.

The administration is already under attack from those here in the U.S. who seek to maintain the status quo. Help us show the Obama administration that there is broad support for a tough but fair approach to ending the conflict.

Check icpj.net, emai gracek@icpj.net, or call (734) 663-1870 for more information.

J Street Launches Chapter in Ann Arbor

I attended the J Street launch in Ann Arbor this past Thursday (February 4) at the Jewish Community Center of Washtenaw County. J Street is, as they describe themselves, the political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement. The event was one of some two dozen local launches that took place around the country at the same time so that attendees could all listen simultaneously to a livestream from founder and director Jeremy Ben Ami, who was attending a local launch in Philadelphia.

I was one of four dozen activist progressive Jews in the area who attended. We listened to pep talks and informational presentations from the area leaders as well as students from University of Michigan who have begun campus outreach. We learned of J Street’s multipronged approach:

  • Advocate for policy changes that promote a just peace
  • Do campus outreach
  • Raise money to support peace candidates

Clare Kinberg, founder and managing editor of Bridges: A Jewish Feminist Journal, as well as one of the co-directors of the Ann Arbor chapter of J Street, introduced the session by recalling lessons she learned from her brother Myron, a rabbi who died thirteen years ago. According to Clare, he taught her that “there is no contradiction between Zionism and advocating for mutual support” for Palestinians and Israelis. The concept of a two-state solution is not new, she added. What is new is J Street’s multipronged approach, which gained momentum with the election of Barack Obama. “The most pro-Israel thing we can do is work to bring about a comprehensive peace solution.”

Dan Soloway spoke of his attendance at the first J Street national conference that was held in Washington, D.C., in October 2009. What caught his attention, he noted, were the diversity and the high energy of the 1500 attendees.  He attended one breakout session led by Rabbis for Human Rights and other sessions on Iran and lobbying. “Every event was standing room only. When James Jones, national security adviser to Obama, spoke, he said what we were saying.” But naturally not all was good vibes. Outside the conference, picketers, including Jews, displayed hate signs including one that called J Street Nazis.

After Dan’s talk, a University of Michigan student shared the activities of the J Street campus group, including a visit by a member of Rabbis for Human Rights and an upcoming collaboration with Palestinian students.

In a general discussion immediately preceding the talk by Ben Ami, participants at the meeting shared qualities that made Ann Arbor unique and that made J Street’s acceptance into the community encouraging. In particular, it was noted that the many local Jewish community groups worked well together and that the rabbis of the different Ann Arbor congregations are open to the two-state solution.

Jeremy Ben Ami’s talk began at the scheduled time of 8 p.m. EST so that local meetings around the country could all listen as a community. Ben Ami was a staff member in the Clinton administration as well as the policy director for Howard Dean during his 2004 presidential campaign. He recapped the history of J Street and its struggle to capture “the heart and soul of the American-Jewish community.” He spoke for those who are “tired of having our views not represented” by the traditional Jewish organizations and who are “scared of the future of Israel without a two-state solution.”

Then he outlined the goals of J Street:

  •  To inject the voices of peace into the American foreign policy process. This approach includes the realization that to survive we must also have a Palestinian state;
  • To express support for Israel that upholds the best of Jewish values. Our democratic character is at risk, he noted. All Israelis deserve equal rights. Unfortunately, “the settler movement sees human rights as a dirty word”;
  • To open the American-Jewish community to vigorous debate.

After his talk, we broke up into four organizing groups:

  • Grassroots advocacy. Goal: organize outreach to congressional representatives through letters and delegate trips to D.C.
  • Communications and media/New media and data (two groups that combined into one at the meeting). Goal: use media old and new to generate publicity and excitement and bring in new members, including younger people.
  • Education and programming. Goal: organize community events in support of a two-state solution.
  • Community outreach. Goal: identify and recruit new supporters within and outside the Jewish community.

I attended the meeting because I have been looking for an organization to represent the voice that I have found absent from the mainstream Jewish national organizations that supposedly speak for “the American-Jewish community.” I won’t claim to speak for the others in attendance in Ann Arbor and around the country. Speaking only for myself, I will say—they don’t speak for me.

Certainly, as I view them (in other words, this is my opinion, not the J Street line), AIPAC (American Israel Public Action Committee), the largest and most influential Israel support group, doesn’t. AIPAC up until now has been known as “the pro-Israel lobbying group.” But what does “pro-Israel” mean? According to AIPAC, pro-Israel means to support whatever the current Israeli government is doing. In other words, you are pro-Israel if you are a blind sheep. Support for Israel becomes a mindless, cult-like activity, hardly becoming for the group that claims to be “the people of the book.”

Other national Jewish organizations are more “liberal.” In other words, they acknowledge that Palestinians are real people, with hopes and dreams and families they love and children whom they pray will not die wearing bombs intended to indiscriminately kill Jews and Israelis and innocent bystanders. These groups say they support a two-state solution but they are timid when it comes to criticizing Israel’s aggressive actions that hamper efforts to arrive at that solution. They are quick to invoke the Holocaust. They rally around the mythical “Jewish unity” to claim, falsely, that any disagreement with Israel’s public policies represents an unwarranted “airing of our laundry in public.”

If you are from the Greater Ann Arbor area and want to get involved in J Street, send an email to annarbor@jstreet.org. And while you’re at it, check out the J Street website.

Then attend the next meeting, which will be held Sunday February 14 at 1516 East Park Place, Ann Arbor, at 10 a.m.

If you attended a J Street launch in another city, I would be interested in hearing from you.