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.