Peace In, War Out

When my friends and family first heard I was registered for this year's J Street conference, I received a variety of reactions: "Aren't they pro Palestinian? Since when are you an Israel advocate? We know you're just going there to party with a bunch of hippy liberals..." Yes, J Street is pro Palestinian, that could not and should not be denied.  J Street is first and foremost a Pro Israel, Pro Peace organization.  J Street advocates a two state solution, giving both Israelis and Palestinians ownership of a land they both consider home.

The second question I found offensive and certainly disturbing. My junior year of high school I was selected as one of 25 fellows from Chicago to participate in an intensive Israel advocacy and journalism program, Write on for Israel.  I spent a Sunday every month at classes and training sessions, preparing speeches, composing essays, and participating in debates regarding conflicts the Middle East.  In preparation for each month's session, I would read college level political books, organize outlines and construct thought provoking questions. In short, I had opted to take AP Israel advocacy for solely personal fulfillment. I memorized maps and wars and political leaders of Israel, voluntarily took history tests and wrote formal essays, dedicated time working on articles for publication in Chicago's Jewish newspaper, JUF News.

At the end of my junior year in high school, I traveled with my cohort of fellows to Israel, where we spent two weeks traveling the country, meeting with journalists, students, government workers, religious leaders, military professionals, and a wide variety of Israelis and Palestinians.  We had short assignments and readings due every day, and we were treated as professional correspondents on the Arab-Israeli conflict.  In short, the trip was inspirational, educational, and more than I could have ever possibly learned in a classroom or a conference.  I was an Israel advocate extraordinaire.

My second year in Write On was inspirational as well, reuniting with the friends I made that past summer, enthused to start action on our plans for pro Israel projects. But as college applications, a slew of AP classes, and a multiplicity of student leadership positions overwhelmed me, I began letting extracurriculars slip behind.  I traveled to DC for a day in February, renewed with vigor after meeting with Illinois politicians and lobbyists to discuss the Middle East.

But then I had to decide where to attend college, spend as much time with my childhood friends as possible, buy a shower caddy, get a stylish haircut, meet new friends on Facebook, prepare a portfolio- in short, life got in the way, and advocating for myself was all I had time for.

I started college, became involved with 12 activities, 6 classes, and a social life. I visited meetings of a few Israel advocacy groups, and was immediately turned off by their strong anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab stance. “Kill all the Arabs” was not a motto I felt comfortable with, nor a solution that I believed would lead to peace in any situation. Violence and hate was not what I wanted to advocate. No, I will not deny the threat that extremist Palestinians form towards Israel, but extremists of all sorts threaten every minority group, and I can't justify meshing them in with the humans and families and loved ones who also want peace.

Write On had taught me to advocate for Israel when I met anti-Israel students on campus, but not how to advocate for my vision of Middle Eastern peace alongside Israelphiles. Was my concern for human rights and justice not concurrent with Israel advocacy? Was demeaning and committing violence against another people, as the Jewish people have endured for thousands of years, the right way to make peace? According to my Jewish and human values, something was not right.

I joined an Israeli dance group, but let's be honest, despite my tap dancing expertise, the complicated leg twists and arm circles were not my forte. I started attending Cafe Ivrit, a weekly student discussion in Hebrew held over Israeli snacks beneath an indoor Beduoin tent. My language skills compared to native Israelis or gap-year students forbid my usually talkative self from participating in conversation, so I stuffed my mouth with hummus in the corner of a hot, dark tent until I decided enough was enough. And that was it. Israel and peace in the Middle East were certainly still close to my heart but my daily activities did not allow encourage my activism of these beliefs.

Did I attend to J Street to spend time with students? Absolutely.  I was looking forward to learning from students my age who also believed in solving conflicts peacefully, who had values similar to my own and were able to communicate about the issues in a provocative yet respectful way.  Over 650 students attended this weekend’s conference, and as we were constantly reminded “We are the future of pro-Israel.” Being able to share my views, expand my perspectives, and question all that I had once believed with those in a similar situation to myself was a wholly incredible experience. I will credit the past few days for so many valuable lessons and self-discoveries that will surely benefit me in so many different ways. It was immensely valuable and refreshing to spend time amongst people my age who cared deeply about something outside of themselves.

I did not leave J Street with 650 new best friends, nor did will I remain in contact with the over 3000 others who attended the conference, but each voice was meaningful and inspirational in its own way.  Sitting in plenary sessions, breakout groups, and panel discussions, clapping alongside Jews from Berkley, Muslims from Brooklyn, and atheists from England, I understood a completely new level of tolerance and excitement for peace.  A passion that made me want more than ever to work with these impassioned individuals for a better world.

There is not only one approach to be pro- Israel.

Sure, there are those who think the best answer does not lie in a Two State solution, and there are those who will deny Israel’s right to exist.  There are terrorists and extremists and all sorts of crazy people threatening the world we live in everyday.  During my time in DC, I witnessed Americans protesting a woman’s right to healthcare (ummm, what?) and sadly observed the atrocities of the city’s growing homeless population.  Basically, the world is fucked.  And it’s up to us to repair it.

Israel must remain democratic.  Palestinians do not deserve unjust oppression.  We need to solve conflicts via words, not war, and maybe one day we’ll be a little closer to peace. Of course, this is highly idealistic.  There are bombs and guns and all sorts of terrible things that threaten Israel’s safety on a daily basis.  Palestinians die at checkpoints because Israelis won’t let them pass in time to receive the healthcare they need, due to a history of violence by extremists.  Yes, there’s some bad stuff going on.  But without a determination to reach a peaceful, realistic solution, the Middle East’s strongest and only democracy will cease to exist.

Israel’s legitimacy is not a matter of debate.  The peace process is and it must be discussed. We need to be able to imagine a society in which Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side.  We need a vision of what Israel and Palestine can be, to end the fighting and ultimately arrive at peace.

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

The idea of tikkun olam, repairing the world, is truly what connects me to Judaism. As I've grown up, I've begun to interpret my born religion as more of a set of values rather than a code of rules. As Amos Oz said in his opening remarks to the conference, “There is more than one way to be a good Jew.”  My vision of being a good Jew has nothing to do with avoiding the bacon on the breakfast buffet or turning on and off the lights on Saturday morning, but advocating for a better world.  Handing an orange to the hungry person on the train or taking some time to tutor a friend who needs help in a challenging class.

I value an Israel with justice, liberty, and democracy, and that is what I will advocate for.

There is no room for hate and violence in the peace process. In his remarks, Oz strongly stated, “You can’t bomb the motivation, only the institutions.” And that of course, gets us nowhere. Do I have the answers to peace?  Of course not. But does anyone?  Only through a shared passion and investment in creating a peaceful world will society even begin producing peace. The time for peace is now, more than ever, and J Street 2012 instilled me with the motivation and strength to fight for a world in which we all want to live.