Part II: Reflections on JSpace

These are reflections on JSpace Canada and not reflections on my thoughts on progressive Zionist movements as a whole. For it seems clear from the reports on the recent J Street conference in the U.S. that J Street has shifted clearly left and identified itself increasingly with that part of the Democratic Party willing to use the $3.8 billion dollars that the U.S. gives Israel annually as external leverage, not simply to urge, but to force Israel to shift course. (As you will read, Peter Beinart shares this position.)  However, JSpace is not J Street. The two are very distinctive organizations as I indicated in the previous blog. Further, their situations are radically different, if only because the Canadian organization operates in a country with very little leverage to influence Israeli policy.

“From Indifference to Making a Difference,” the title of JSpace’s fourth biennial conference, began this past Saturday evening. JSpace defines itself a pro-peace and pro-Israel. It could be a totally non-Jewish organization. But it is an organization of Jews for Jews. It is unequivocally a Zionist organization. Further, it defines itself as a changemaker, when my impressions, as you will see, in listening to what I heard, are that progressive Jews are wannabe changemakers who are relatively impotent at the present.

Look at the focus – an emphasis on human rights, democracy and peace at a time when the first two are under tremendous strain and the last is virtually dead in the water. Progressives in the U.S. generally seem unwilling to pronounce peace as out of reach because it still has a heart beat. Progressives in Canada generally believe the peace process is temporarily in a coma. But I believe that the peace process is brain dead. There is a propensity for progressives to believe that the Oslo peace process nevertheless should be kept alive, even if only on life support.

Is not that precisely the time when pro-peace platforms issues need greater support? Not if the peace process is based on the two-state solution rooted around the Green Line as the divider between Israel and a Palestinian state with mutually agreed adjustments. Not if the objective is making a difference. Not if the goal is to play a significant role as changemakers.

Part of the problem is the depiction of the present situation for Jews in the diaspora. Jews there are not “complacent” about Israel as the program suggests. They are not smug. They are not self-satisfied. They are not uncritical. They are, as in the case of the members of JSpace, in fact very much wedded to a critical and almost exclusively so, posture. Establishment Jews are ever fearful as well as proud. They are not indifferent. Even among Jews who tend to ignore Israel, many are embarrassed and that is not the same as indifference.

Do progressive Jews define pride in Israel as smug? Do these Jews define pride in Israel as uncritical satisfaction? Not at all. They proclaim great pride in Israel. But pride wedded to a critical (and oppositional) posture. However, if the core of how you define yourself is one of opposition rather than forging a path to victory, is this perhaps not one form of complacency, one form of not being tough enough on oneself and one’s attitude that will ensure that a movement will remain a superego on issues rather than a powerful id married to an upstanding ego?

Dr. Karen Mock, president of JSpace and a person I greatly admire, opened the proceedings. She did so with the recitation of what has become a norm in public Canadian meetings, an acknowledgement of our collective indebtedness to the first nations of Canada and, more specifically, the named nations once dominant in this land. Karen did so, not in a voice too frequently heard, one pro forma and empty of meaning and stated in a way that sends out a message that it is important that we get past this now-necessary but time-consuming ritual. Karen uttered the statement with force, with conviction and with compassion. And then she expanded on its importance in moving Canadians towards reconciliation with the early inhabitants of Canada, and, in particular, in Toronto, who were the dominant groups once on this land. It was a delight to hear the passion and conviction instead of a rote voice.

However, as I listened to Karen, I could not help reflect on whether there would ever be a similar gesture in Israel whereby Israelis acknowledged, in a spirit of reconciliation, that Palestinians were once the majority occupants of the land on which Israeli Jews are currently predominant? Not since “time immemorial” as depicted concerning the indigenous people of Canada, for Jews have a written record of when they arrived in Israel. But not for the indigenous people either, for their record of settlement of the land does not belong to a period so long ago that people neither have thought about it nor have a memory of it. They just do not have a written record, but their oral stories usually tell of their arrival to the land.

Israel is a return of Jews to a land that was once their land. The two situations are radically different. They are similar, however, in that the current dominant group in Canada and in Israel eventually recovered their land in good part through conquest, though initially they settled by purchasing their properties.

Karen introduced the conference by depicting the thousands who recently packed the Tel Aviv plaza to mark the 24th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. (He was murdered on 4 November 1995 at the end of a pro-Oslo Accords rally at the Kings of Israel Square in Tel Aviv) Benny Gantz addressed the assembled crowd. The implication was that Gantz might be an honest heir to Rabin in the shift towards peace with the Palestinians. Karen also noted the hate speech that was leveled at Rabin and that has been directed at herself. The words “traitor,” Jewish self-hater and even Nazi are used by the radical right. These are the enemies of progressives, those who would shut down discourse and dialogue, not just between Palestinians and Jews, but among Jews themselves. 

However, why is it the Jews remember the assassination of Rabin and Palestinians do not? Because they regarded him as a welcome peace partner even if they also viewed him as symbolizing an unwelcome interloper. Yesterday, we recalled the evening of 9 November 1989, thirty years ago, when the Berlin Wall fell. Which is the most powerful memory for Jews and others, the collapse of the Berlin Wall or the assassination of Rabin? That may offer a clue about mental priorities. 

Does remembering the assassination of Rabin mean that we believe the Oslo Accords are still alive? If they are on a life-support system and the left is unwilling to bury the corpse because they believe those Accords are the only window of light to a two-state solution, how can this be a path to making a difference? Is there another place that we can find a well of hope other than one based on the Green Line plus mutually agreed adjustments? Perhaps a two-state solution based more clearly on facts on the ground might be more realistic.

If one is truly critical, one might begin by acknowledging that the very terms of the Oslo Accords were used by the right to move away from the two-state solution as originally envisaged. If Area C of the West Bank is now occupied by 450,000 Jews and the Palestinian population that used to be even larger than those numbers in that area has been reduced to perhaps 115,000 to 150,000, how can one expect to return to the Oslo Accords of over a quarter century ago?

If you follow the J Street discussions, the organization is convinced that, since most of those 450,000 live proximate to the old Green Line, an exchange of land for these areas would do. The rest of the land would have to be given back requiring the repatriation of 115,000 of those settlers. Perhaps one-half who are economic settlers would return voluntarily with adequate financial incentives. But could Israel engage in a forceful relocation of almost 1% of its population. Look at how difficult it was to relocate 9,000 from Gaza? Further, would a public that is mostly now sceptical of Palestinian intentions politically back such a controversial decision? J Street implies that they might not and that American financial and diplomatic muscle could force them to do so.  

JSpace has not adopted a position on this issue to the best of my knowledge. It has adopted a position of freezing settlement expansion, but that is likely to be totally irrelevant except as a signal to the other side of a serious intention to engage in negotiations. The problem of progressives in Canada is not to move the indifferent to making a difference, but the problem of moving the passionate believers in the right of Palestinians to self-determination alongside the Jewish right to adopting a program that is relevant, realistic and one which reinforces a renewed peace movement rather than watching from the sidelines as one step after another is taken in retreat from that goal.

I must say, as impressive as the first panel chaired by our illustrious Norah Gold was, I walked away feeling more depressed, a sense reinforced by my talks following the panel with Peter Beinart and Raja Khouri, two of the three panelists at the first plenary session. The third was Shaqued Morag, Executive Director of Peace Now, who did give some hope as she depicted the support by Meretz, the left-wing Israeli party, for Gantz and the Blue and White because, though a centrist, he respected the right to dissent without labeling dissenters as traitors, because he believed in human rights and rights of minorities, and, most importantly, because he expressed his belief in equality for all of Israel’s citizens. 

The panel itself was, as advertised, impressive. Norah Gold, editor of the online literary journal, Jewish Fiction, is the author of three wonderful books, the two novels, The Dead Man, that was just translated into Hebrew, and Fields of Exile, and a third book, Marrow and Other Stories, seven tales of the struggles of contemporary women, which won the 1999 Canadian Jewish Book Award. She is an organizational dynamo having founded the New Israel Fund in Canada as well as the founder, with others, of Canada’s JSpace, but is also a superb chair of a panel. Her questions to the panelists were pointed and invited substantive opening remarks. It takes a great deal of talent to run a panel like that in a very limited time, for the panel is intended to stimulate open discussion.

To be continued with an account of the panel speakers


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