A good way to get Tablet Magazine to cover your event is to stage it 15 blocks from our office, in front of the New York Public Library’s main branch in midtown Manhattan, on a gorgeous summer day. Yet one young woman at the New York City iteration of J Street’s “Day of Action” yesterday would have come, it seemed, even if she had had to travel far in inclement conditions. “This is amazing!” she told a friend. “ A day. Of. Action,” she added, investing those stale words with their real meanings. Like ‘em or not, you have to be impressed with fervent J Street supporters, if only because they manage to get themselves excited about decidedly unexciting things: a negotiated two-state solution; a deliberate course through the middle; always being, as the organization’s founder and head famously put it, President Obama’s “blocking back.” It is much easier to be passionate about, say, the move for Palestinian statehood at the United Nations—but J Street would prefer there be negotiations right now. Likewise, and especially in the wake of last week’s horrific attacks in Israel, it is much easier to be passionate about just keeping the status quo and focusing on Israel’s security as it is—but J Street, while condemning such attacks unequivocally, would prefer a more equitable outcome. “I [Heart] Two States,” read one t-shirt. They are in love with the most moderate of solutions.
Gil Kulick, communications director for the local J Street chapter, told me that the group planned to walk across 42nd Street to Third Avenue, and thence to the offices of Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand to deliver postcards signed by 3,000 New Yorkers. “We’re here to demonstrate that President Obama has a lot of support for his move to make a two-state solution,” he said (blocking back!). Kulick was middle-aged, as were most of the more than 100 attendees. “I’ve been doing this all my life,” he sighed, noting, among other stints, three years he worked at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv. “I fear for the future of democracy in Israel if the occupation doesn’t come to an end. Occupation and democracy aren’t compatible in the long run.”
Kate Press, J Street’s New York City regional director, was first to the megaphone, calling for the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps—the formula long tacitly understood to be the way to two states, which Obama formally stated as the U.S. position in May, to much controversy. And then she introduced the keynote speaker: “He shares our sense of urgency that now is the time to achieve two states,” she proclaimed. “Many of you will know him from his seminal article.” I don’t know their exact ages, but Press and the speaker, Peter Beinart, may well have been the only two thirty-somethings in attendance. The rest were older, or young(er) adults.
Wearing a white oxford shirt and jeans, Beinart’s thin, hard-edged voice sounded through the megaphone not unlike Bobby Kennedy’s (through a megaphone). He spoke without notes, though he had some in his back pocket. He began by bringing up last week’s attacks: “We come here not because we take lightly the murder of Israeli Jews, our brothers and sisters in Israel. Quite the opposite.” He moved onto Tisha B’Av, the holiday commemorating the two destructions of the Temple, which this year was observed earlier this month. In the story of the Second Temple, he related, “The Romans are almost bit players.” It is the Jews who bring destruction upon themselves, he argued, and the lesson of the holiday is that “ethical collapse preceded physical collapse.” Hint, hint. To that effect, Beinart closed by politely suggesting that the “blocking back” needs to step into his own. “Barack Obama’s most important priority is his own re-election,” he argued. “Barack Obama will not have to be the one who has to tell his children that he stood by.” It is rather “Jewish honor,” Beinart insisted, that is at stake, and it is up to Jews, and nobody else, to uphold it—a classically Zionist formulation.
Not a half-hour had passed before the crowd was moving down 42nd Street. In the other direction, sad that prior obligation prevented him from joining them, went Peter Beinart.
“I give support to any organization that I feel is fighting for Israeli democracy,” he said, mentioning B’Tselem and the New Israel Fund, and noting that he has also spoken in front of the American Jewish Committee and AIPAC. Addressing groups with rigid agendas that he may not share in full is “something I’ve wrestled with,” he added.
Like J Street, Beinart would prefer that the two sides in the conflict be directly negotiating right now rather than preparing to face off in Turtle Bay. “Benjamin Netanyahu deserves the bulk of the blame,” he said, continuing: “Obama offered him a life-raft [with his May speech]—it was right before Obama went to Europe, you remember, so he could say, ‘Here, we’ve got something.’ And you know what Netanyahu did with it.”( Netanyahu responded in anger, rebuffing the president, although he has now moved toward quietly pledging to accept the ’67 borders as a negotiating premise.) “There was eagerness among a lot of people on the Palestinian side to get off this train,” Beinart added.
Also unattended was the happy hour, planned for 3:30 at a local watering hole, because, as Press put it, “being pro-Israel and pro-peace makes you pretty thirsty.” Sure, but it must be difficult to quench that thirst knowing that the others sides have the more fun toasts. Can you raise a glass and say, “two states!”?