J Street Conference 2013: Meet the Young People Who Want to Bring Peace to Palestine and Israel
Nearly three thousand pro-Israel, pro-peace activists descended upon D.C. last weekend to attend the 4th National J Street Conference, Our Time to Lead. J Street describes itself as "the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans" and supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The J Street National Conference, Sept. 28-Oct. 1, 2013. Photo courtesy of J Street.
J Street has grown dramatically since its inception in 2007. The organization has attracted particularly strong support from millennials, reflecting the pro-peace movement’s resonance among the younger generation.
J Street’s student organizing arm, J Street U, brought the largest millennial contingent to the conference with over 900 students in its delegation. These students hailed from over 125 campuses in the United States, Israel, the United Kingdom, and Canada. J Street U currently has over 50 chapters on campuses across America.
"What was really striking about this year's J Street conference was the energy in the room brought by students — 900 of us, or in other words, nearly one-third of the conference attendees," said Mil Dranoff, a senior at Washington University in St. Louis who currently serves as the Midwest representative to the J Street U Student Board. "While J Street may be the future of pro-Israel, J Street U is the future of the movement, organizing on college campuses across the country to bring about a two-state solution."
J Street U student Mil Dranoff speaks at the J Street National Conference. Photo courtesy of J Street.
Some millennials attending the J Street conference were affiliated with other organizations that also mobilize youth to bring an end to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. These organizations often partner with J Street and/or have significant overlap in membership.
OneVoice, a frequent J Street partner, is a grassroots movement mobilizing young Israelis and Palestinians in parallel organizations towards the same goal: a two-state solution.
"In OneVoice Palestine, we train thousands of youth leaders. We have over 700 members and over 18 chapters," said Samer Maklouf, the executive director of OneVoice Palestine. These members participate in nonviolent political actions, such as organizing protests against land seizures in the West Bank.
Makhouf’s Israeli counterpart Tal Harris described how OneVoice Israel focused on effecting change through the Israeli political system, such as introducing a "two-state" bill in the Israeli parliament and rallying support for pro-peace politicians. OneVoice "is very focused on the future. At the end of the day, we will never agree on the past," said Harris, the executive director. "The most important thing is to find practical solutions to the problems we are facing."
Aaron Mann, who leads the campus outreach efforts of Americans for Peace Now, also spoke about the importance of focusing on youth in pro-peace advocacy in the United States. “There's a lot of untapped potential in this generation,” Mann said. “This generation is not reflexively supporting the government of Israel but feels a kinship with Israel.”
The Americans for Peace Now booth at the J Street National Conference. Photo courtesy of J Street.
"For me, being an activist is the best way to be connected to Israel," said refugee-rights activist Maya Paley, who illustrates Mann’s observation about how American Jews feel connected to the state of Israel despite having concerns about some policies of the Israeli government.
Paley is the co-founder of the Right Now campaign, which advocates for the rights of non-Jewish African asylum seekers in Israel. Many of these asylum seekers are fleeing brutal regimes and violent conflicts and would likely have refugee status under international law.
"Instead of treating them the way that we should, as people who have been refugees all over the world, we're treating them like they are criminals just for coming to the country and seeking shelter and safety," Paley said of the 60,000 African asylum seekers in Israel right now.
While this issue may not appear to be related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Paley explained that the problem is in fact a consequence of the ongoing conflict. "It's connected to the fact that Israel doesn't have a proper refugee status determination procedure because they haven't dealt with the occupation, because they still have that conflict."
Paley is referring to the Palestinian "right of return," which will be one of the most difficult issues to resolve in the current peace negotiations.
In order for Israel to address the issue of non-Jewish asylum seekers, it must first reach a comprehensive peace settlement with the Palestinians that settles the refugee question. Makhouf and Harris of OneVoice both emphasized the importance of millennials in bringing this about.
"The youth are the backbone of any movement that will be leading toward a better future and leading toward achieving Palestinian rights," said Makhouf.
Harris agreed. "I love the fact that [OneVoice] is driven by youth, driven by those with very big stakes in the future, much more than the adults who make the decisions for us."
Harris’ sentiment was echoed by Joshua Leifer, a member of All That’s Left. All That’s Left is an anti-occupation collective based in Israel that focuses on building resistance to the occupation among Diaspora Jews.
All That's Left member Josh Leifer asks a question after a panel at the J Street National Conference. Photo courtesy of J Street.
"It always surprises me when people are fascinated about young people being involved in activism," said Leifer, a Princeton University student. "It seems like there's a sense that young people are supposed to sit back and wait for their turn to rise to leadership positions...Maybe it's that millennial arrogance that people always talk about, but I have no interest in sitting and watching other people mess up the future for me and my peers and my children when I can do something."
"We can’t afford to wait. It’s already been too long," added Isaac Kates Rose, a student at University of Toronto and fellow member of All That’s Left. Both Leifer and Rose joined All That’s Left during their time in Israel earlier this year.
"Forty-five years is a generation," said Leifer, referring to the amount of time elapsed since the 1967 war and the subsequent Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. "It’s not going to be our generation."
Editor’s Note: While the author is an active member of J Street U, this article is neither endorsed or sponsored by J Street.