Is Jstreet about pressuring Israel, or is it about pressuring the American government to pressure Israel? With American and Israeli politics so intertwined, only a fine line separates them, but it is an important distinction to make. As an Israeli at Jstreet this week, I was always perplexed by the question “how Israeli are you? Full, half or quarter Israeli?” Since I speak English with an American accent they had to check my bona-fides, since no “true” Israeli can speak good English. “So, did you actually serve?” was the question that always followed. I couldn’t help but see the irony in a bunch of American, liberal college students who came to a “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace” conference who were measuring my “Israeliness” by serving in the army.
When I moved to the US from Israel three years ago I wanted nothing to do with Israelis or Judaism, but when I learned that a conservative synagogue would take a non-believing heathen, as I had been called by Israeli Jews, to be a Sunday school teacher, I had to check it out. My romance with the local Jewish community has lasted since then, because I learned that here Judaism is about identity before it is about belief and that it’s about “Bein Adam LeHavero” before it is about “Bein Adam LeMakom”. As a liberal Zionist Israeli, I was relieved to learn that a liberal Judaism and a Jstreet existed.
The JstreetU students who attended the conference came because they were passionate about the justness of the cause. They wanted to learn how to pressure Israel to do the right thing. At every Q&A I attended, a similar question was consistently asked by a student to an Israeli speaker: “what can we do to pressure Israel from here?” They wanted a clear cut answer to what the role of American Jewry was. But Jstreet is an American lobby born as a reaction to AIPAC in order to speak about liberal Jewish values and connect them to Israel. It’s about pressuring American Congressmen and Senators to pressure Israel, it’s about American taxpayer money going to Israel, and most of all it’s about caring deeply about Israel. But Americans don’t vote in Israel, they don’t pay taxes in Israel, and they don’t serve in the army. When one “half-Israeli” college student asked me how Israeli I was, I asked if he intended to go back and serve in the army. His reply said it all: “Hell NO, and it’s not even ideological, I just don’t have time for that”. I then understood that the fight about Israel wasn’t about Israel, it was about giving liberal American Jews an identity that they could sympathize, reinvigorate and recruit for. It was about having a cause, but not necessarily about the cause itself.
In 2002, the year before my IDF service, the high-school senior letter, Michtav HaShministim, which called for Israelis to refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories, came out, and the Intifada was at its height. My brother was serving in Hebron, and had secluded himself from the world when coming home, to ensure that he wouldn’t have to share the burden of his duties with others. As a leftist activist at the time I faced a dilemma, and had to make a conscious choice to serve. What was annoying about this student’s dismissal was not that he didn’t serve like me, I don’t expect him to, it was the dismissal of the dilemma. In a latest Pew Poll about American Jewry, 69 percent said that being Jewish means “Leading an ethical life” and 56 percent said it was about “working for justice/equality”. The core of these Jewish values is the skepticism and the dilemmas that come with them. But the young Americans Jews at this conference had forgotten that the question of Israel is not just about a cause and a mythical land on the other side of the Atlantic they visit every once in awhile, it’s about people with real lives, and real dilemmas, and real consequences.
It was inspiring to see so many Americans talk about peace in Israel at the Jstreet conference. At the same time it was saddening to think of Israel’s Rabin Square not filling up this coming Rabin memorial with tens of thousands of Israelis who are as pro-peace as these Americans are. When Stav Shaffir talked about the social protests, the twittersphere pressured her to talk about peace, not the socio-economic issues. They came to the conference to hear about peace, not the “other stuff”, but the only thing that has filled the Rabin Square lately, was exactly the “other stuff”. I don’t blame these young American Jewish idealists for the “disconnect”, it is only natural that as Americans they don’t see the entire reality of Israel. They don’t live in it. I only ask that they remember that Jstreet is about putting pressure on the American administration to put pressure on the Israeli administration. If they want to apply direct pressure, they need to be in Israel, and fill up the Square themselves.