The weekend of Feb. 25-28, six New College students flew to Washington D.C. to participate in the sixth annual J-Street National Conference. Over four days, the students attended various workshops to discuss topics from the Israel-Palestine conflict, to promoting a two-state solution in Israel.
“The J-Street National Conference that we just finished in Washington D.C. is a critical gathering of people who are committed to Israel’s future at a time when it seems like Israel’s future is in serious jeopardy,” Florida State University (FSU) Senior and J-Street U Southeast Regional Co-chair, Micah Friedman said. “Since Trump has become president, he has said that he’s open to a one-state solution that would in no way resolve the conflict and be a solution and would in fact would likely be a circumstance in which millions of Palestinians do not have basic human rights like representation or freedom of movement, and that strongly contradicts the values and moral principles of Judaism, as well as the ethical principles that were central to the Zionist movement which founded Israel as a Jewish state.”
J-Street is a nonprofit liberal advocacy group based in the United States with the goal of encouraging American leadership to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict peacefully and diplomatically through a two-state solution that would both preserve Israel’s democracy and promote human rights for Palestinians. The National Conference this year was the first progressive liberal conference after Donald Trump’s inauguration.
“It’s actually my own first J-Street Conference and it’s really exciting to see 3,000 plus pro-Israel, pro-peace Jews from around the country, a lot of people don’t necessarily recognize that we represent the mainstream of American Jewry, and we are here today standing proud and tall listening to speakers such as Bernie Sanders and Rep. Chris Murphy and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) ambassador to the U.S. Maen Areikat,” J-Street Associate Regional Director of the South Hannah Morris said. “I think what’s been really exciting for me has been seeing real dialogue between young American Jews and older American Jews and Palestinians and American Jews and Israelis and I really appreciate that we can bring all types of people together.”
In addition to workshops focusing on topics such as life in Gaza and addressing fault lines in the American and Israeli communities, the conference also featured events such as an Advocacy Day where participants lobbied various legislators and many speakers, including Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who delivered a keynote address regarding American Jewish Leadership in the Trump Era.
“It is often said that the U.S.-Israeli relationship is based on shared values, and I think that’s correct, but then we have to ask ourselves: ‘What do we mean by shared values, what values are we in fact talking about?’” Sanders said. “As progressives, here are some of the values that we share in this country and around the world. We believe in democracy, we believe in Democracy, we believe in equality, we believe in pluralism, we are strongly opposed to xenophobia, we respect and we will protect the rights of minorities, those are our values.”
Throughout his speech, Sanders affirmed to the crowd that he understood today’s vision of peace appears distant, but that he firmly believed they should not give up on it. Other highlights included referencing the Torah in discussing shared humanity and asserting that it is possible to oppose Israeli government policies such as the occupation as well as Islamic extremism without being anti-Israel or anti-Muslim.
According to Friedman, the conference also came at a crucial time for people who care about liberal values of equality, tolerance and justice.
“In the last few weeks, we’ve seen huge numbers of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim incidents in the United States, in my community in Tampa, two masjids—two mosques have been victims of arson attacks,” Friedman said. “It’s been really inspiring to see people fighting against this, like my synagogue in Tampa, coming to support the mosque a day after the fire burned, a lot of what we’re doing this weekend at the National Conference is thinking about not just what we can do to make things better in Israel and Palestine, but what can we do to make sure that we’re protecting the rights of people who are threatened right now in the United States and apply these same values in a different way… Which feels really important to me as a student.”
At the end of the weekend, New College alum Dov Brenner (’11) reflected on the weekend fondly.
. “It was really good just being around like-minded people that were talking passionately about something that I really care about that I don’t really get and to discuss in-depth and hear about in-depth back home,” Brenner said. “Right now I think rationality is on the fall and it was really good to hear people using that to the advantage of the Middle East and the two-state solution.”