Local chapter leader shares highlights of J Street national conference

NEIL JAFFE

After this year’s J Street National Conference last month, I wanted to provide a summary of the event for those still wondering what J Street is all about.

Before I do, I want to note the ongoing violent escalation taking place in Israel and Gaza. We at J Street are deeply saddened and horrified by the loss of Israeli and Palestinian lives and the devastation and trauma caused by the violence. We unequivocally condemn the rocket attacks by Hamas and other militant groups and support Israel’s need to defend its citizens. We have also repeatedly seen that there is no ultimate military solution possible to this crisis. It will take leadership and diplomacy on both sides – and a lot of support from the United States and the Biden administration – to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians. I am proud to stand with J Street as we perform tikkun olam and work towards a peaceful solution to Israel’s security and the liberation of the Palestinian people from occupation.

In 2019, I attended my first J Street National Conference and was blown away. Over 4,000 people from across the United States came together with Israelis and Palestinians for the 10th year in a row to discuss what it means to be pro-Israel and pro-peace. One of the highlights for me in 2019 was being able to meet and listen to Dr. Saeb Erekat, the long-time Palestinian Chief Negotiator who passed away in November 2020.

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This year, while the conference was virtual, I was still blown away by the two full days of programming. The J Street staff did a remarkable job of making the content relevant, engaging and at times quite touching, specifically when former President Jimmy Carter’s words were read as he accepted J Street’s Tzedek v’Shalom Award. A series of musical performances by the Jerusalem Youth Choir was interwoven into the schedule, offering an inspiring addition to this year’s program.

Neil Jaffe

Forty-five people from Missouri attended the conference, with almost 20 of them college students representing their J Street U chapters, including many from Washington University. Our St. Louis delegation was more than double the size of 2019.

This year’s impressive list of speakers included former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Israeli party leaders Merav Michaeli from Labor, Nitzan Horowitz from Meretz, Ayman Odeh from the Joint List, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, many U.S. senators and congresspeople and dozens of other politicians, former Israeli military and peace agency activists from across the globe.

A highlight of the conference for me was a panel with Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis Executive Director Maharat Rori Picker Neiss. She was invited to speak with other nationally recognized Jewish leaders on social justice advocacy here at home in the United States. By including Picker Neiss on the panel, J Street was honoring the St. Louis Jewish community’s efforts to fight for the rights of immigrants and other marginalized groups, including the Black and LGBTQ communities. St. Louis is becoming a role model across the nation for Jewish advocacy work.

Another important speaker from the conference was Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. In a pre-recorded video, Abbas addressed the conference attendees and commended J Street’s work advocating for a two-state solution and support for peace between Palestinians and Israelis. He spoke of the challenges facing the peace efforts and his views on the way forward.

I heard there were some who question J Street’s commitment to Israel because we allowed Abbas to speak at our conference. Those critics challenge J Street’s ability to be pro-Israel because we are willing to engage with Palestinian leaders like Abbas. When I hear that, I question their ability to be pro-peace. As I’ve heard from many Israeli military leaders – including at this year’s conference from Ami Ayalon, a retired Admiral in the IDF and former head of the Shin Bet – you don’t make peace with your friends, you make peace with your enemies. You can’t make peace with your back turned. You can only make peace with an outstretched hand and a willing heart.

J Street believes that the best way for Israel to remain the democratic homeland of the Jewish people and for Israelis to live in security and peace is to provide social justice and civil rights to the Palestinians through a homeland of their own.

I am glad to be working alongside my fellow St. Louisans and the other 5,000 like-minded individuals from across the country and across the world who attended the J Street National Conference.

And, while I enjoyed the virtual conference this year, the phrase I heard from many at the end was, “Next year in Washington D.C.!”

Neil Jaffe is the J Street St. Louis Chapter Chair.