[Click here for Part 1.] Following the lunch break, a plenary session featured political theorist Michael Walzer in conversation with sociologist Todd Gitlin, largely centering on how they relate to Israel. Although their positions on the issues are close, Prof. Walzer (pictured with moderator Prof. Alice Kessler-Harris [photo by Gili Getz]) identifies himself as a Zionist, while Prof. Gitlin does not.
While indicating that he very much wants to see the Jewish state at peace with all its neighbors, Walzer argued that there should be a Jewish state whether or not it pursues peace. Gitlin explained that he doesn’t call himself a Zionist because it’s an anachronistic term, given that Zionism has succeeded in creating a state, but he equated a one-state solution with a “one-state war.”
In somewhat different ways, both indicated a two-front struggle. Walzer resists efforts to delegitimize Israel and simultaneously argues against those in the Jewish community who support occupation. Gitlin stated that he would debate supporters of BDS, but also work with them where he can to oppose the occupation.
Both oppose BDS in general, but sympathize with the targeted boycott of West Bank settlements. Gitlin specifically mentioned his opposition to the boycott of Israeli institutions of higher learning in general, while making an exception for the boycott of Ariel University in the West Bank. Walzer spoke of his pro forma affiliation with Haifa University as a gesture of solidarity with Israeli academia against the BDS movement. (This session was video-recorded in four parts on YouTube at this link: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCyqv6Z6GO2U0fdIwR5pusKg.)
Late in the afternoon, the assemblage broke into three separate breakout sessions. The most popular in terms of attendance was on “The Campus Environment,” with these panelists: J Street U president Amna Farooqi, ‘If Not Now, When’ founder and activist Simone Zimmerman, and visiting scholar Shahar Sadeh; and moderated by Kenneth Stern, the executive director of the Justus & Karin Rosenberg Foundation. Another entitled “Progressive Initiatives on the Ground for Israeli-Palestinian Peace and Reconciliation,” featured Sulaiman Khatib, the Palestinian co-director of Combatants for Peace (whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting recently), along with Dr. Shemsi Prinzivalli, president of the Alliance for Middle East Peace, and Geoffrey H. Lewis, board member of Americans for A Vibrant Palestinian Economy, and was moderated by Ameinu board member and TTN co-founder Dan Fleshler. I attended “Israel and Palestine in the Media,” featuring The Nation magazine’s media columnist and CUNY professor Eric Alterman and Chloe Sobel, the editor in chief of New Voices Magazine (a venue for Jewish students), and moderated by Debra Nussbaum Cohen, currently the New York correspondent for Haaretz. Since the panel was “off the record,” all I can say is that I was fascinated to hear about the challenges faced by these liberal journalists struggling to be fair in picturing Israel and the Palestinians in today’s hyper-polarized media environment.
J Street U president Amna Farooqi, now a senior at the University of Maryland, made the closing plenary presentation. She’s a young person whom I was especially excited to meet in person that day, a Pakistani-American Muslim who has passionately embraced the progressive Zionist cause, as exemplified in her stirring speech at J Street’s national conference this past March. (The YouTube video recordings of this session can be viewed in two segments, by clicking here and there.) These were her main points, from her initial remarks and during the Q & A, as paraphrased from my notes:
Israel will never be safe and secure until there’s a two-state solution and an end to occupation. She criticized the one-sided attitude exemplified by Bret Stephens in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed blaming the current violence entirely on pathological hatred of Jews, and not the occupation. BDS has successes because it gives people a clear choice, albeit a “false dichotomy”: are you pro- or anti-occupation?
It’s because the American-Jewish establishment is mostly oblivious to the problem of occupation that progressive Jewish students desert Israel, not because of “media bias” or “social media.” The occupation is the biggest threat Israel faces. There are many Jewish students, including at the University of Maryland, who feel frustrated with the American Jewish community’s silence on the occupation. AIPAC has reacted, not by changing its positions, but by hiring a “progressive student outreach coordinator.”
The Green Line does not exist for most of the American Jewish establishment. J Street U has been investigating the funding allocations of Jewish community federations, working for “transparency.” Many Jewish federations don’t contribute funds beyond the Green Line, but keep this quiet (others make such contributions). She commended New York’s UJA-Federation for its transparency, but indicated that the Los Angeles federation is not open about its allocations.
The event concluded as it had begun, with remarks by Ameinu’s CEO Gideon Aronoff.