I didn't attend the plenary sessions at the J Street conference in DC; the last people I wanted to hear from were Kadima MKs and Dennis Ross (though I did hear some of the panel discussion afterwards. I never knew that Bernard Avishai was a kohen.) If Jeremy Ben Ami wants to tell the Israel press that J Street is Kadima, that's his business. As for the people in the plenary sessions I would be interested in hearing, I can get that on their website.
No, I came to talk with the old and the young, and not with the middle generation, my generation, on which I have virtually given up hope. I went to a session on the New Left in Israel and was treated to a ½ generational debate between Hagit Ofran of Peace Now's Settlement Watch, and Oded Naaman and Asaf Sharon of Breaking the Silence and the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement. Hagit supported translating the activists message into a program that more mainstream Israelis could buy into; Oded and Asaf were more interested in education over the long-haul, through doing what their organizations are doing – and for direct action on the ground.
The session on the campus climate for Israel was a big surprise to me. I thought that the International Hillel representative, Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, would be there to defend the guidelines that International Hillel drew up to exclude Jewish Voice for Peace, and other organizations to the left of J Street. Instead, she clearly displayed her personal discomfort with the guidelines, as did the other panelists on the dais, with the exception of Rabbi Lisa Goldstein, herself a Hillel Director. She explained that Hillel has to exclude groups whose presence are campus are polarizing, like Jewish groups that are racist or those that support BDS. It was not that she wished to equate racism with adopting BDS as a tactic for furthering justice; she simply felt that Hillel should be a space where Jews can feel comfortable without this polarization. Hillel is not just about Israel, she said; it is about shabbat dinners; social action, etc. Of course, one could counter that if the Hillel community doesn't want polarization, it should simply exclude Israel from its space. If Israel is polarizing the Jewish community on campus, let the Zionist activity go on elsewhere in the campus, and let Hillel focus on matters related to Judaism, learning, social action, etc.
Not one of the questioners in the q & a accepted Rabbi Goldstein's position. After all, this was J Street, and J Street – especially J Street U -- has not endorsed Hillel's "McCarthyite guidelines," to quote one of the questioners. My position was summed up best by Aliyah Donsky, a first year Princeton student who had opposed the Princeton Hillel Director's decision to interfere in the Sabra Humus referendum held earlier this year (The director urged Jewish students to vote down a referendum calling for an alternative to Sabra Humus). Aliyah thought that Hillel was a space where all Jews should be welcome – without having to leave their political opinions and activities at the door.
I missed the BDS panel with Rebecca Vilkomerson, director of JVP, but I urge you to read her statement at Max Blumenthal's blog here.
And one more thing: I had a nice chat with Leonard – Leibel - Fein, that grand old liberal Jew, whose life reads like a history of the "Jews for a just peace" movement. Those of us who are over 50 and still have our memories, would do well to remind the J Street U generation that J Street was not created ex nihilo, and that progressive Jews – and progressive Jewish critics of Israel like Leibel -- have a long and distinguished history. The young people who form "Beinart's army" (yes, J Street U sold a t-shirt with that slogan!) – can still learn a lot from their elders – and from their elders' mistakes, of course.
Note to JBA: It would be a good idea to have a session next year honoring some of those progressive Jewish "lions in winter."