Saturday, February 26, 2011

the 2011 J Street National Conference Begins

As soon as the sun went down, Shabbos was over and the conference began. I got there a few hours early, so I talked with a few of the greeters. One was a staff member – a female rabbi from Chicago who was the national liaison to all 600 rabbis who’ve signed on to the J Street rabbinic cabinet – there to ratify statements with their clerical authority. When I mentioned I worked in theatre and TV, she told me her sister in law was a playwright. Turned out I’d actually heard of her. And little did I know, she to had recently moved to LA to write for TV. The difference is she got on to Weeds. She quickly elaborated that while work may be intermittent, certainly I was highly paid. I tried to dissuade her from this idea, but I don’t think she believed me. Next time I’ll travel with a copy of my 1040. Maybe she’d give me a $20 in pity.

Standing next to her was a staff member who did ‘media’ in New York. A guy in his 20s who’d begun working at J Street just at the beginning of the year. Later I ran into the new field director for Boston. He was maybe 30 and this was his first day on the job he told me. I wandered down to one of the only lounges searching for Wi-Fi and found a kid from Brown named Harpo (poor guy must have a hell of a time getting dates). He said the previous academic year things were just getting going on campus with J Street U and this year they’re taking off. That seemed in evidence when the initial plenary session began. Of the 2000 people there a full 500 were students. Later between the speeches, regional representatives from J Street U called out the names of every college represented at our conference which elicited cheers at each pronouncement.

Who else was here? I was curious to see. I knew there were only 80 people from all of southern California – the second largest population in the country. Somewhere between 550,000-650,000 depending on how one counts. In that regard, depending on the polling techniques, it’s either the fourth or fifth largest concentration of Jews in the world. There were lots of 60s peacenicks. And there was the next generation of (Americans for) Peace Now folk who were young adults when that movement was strongest in the 80s. But there was a gap.

And that gap was me. As I looked around I saw no one my age. That is besides a few staff members. I wasn’t surprised. Most everyone my age is at the height of their career requiring more attention than any time in their lives. Either that or they are in the thick of raising a family. My most fecund friends still have kids in high school. And the majority of my friends have small children at least. While I missed feeling like I had peers at this conference, more than anything, it reminded me I’m not a father.

I didn’t have a lot of time to think about that though. The parade of impressive speakers began. Rabbi David Saperstein of the national Reform Jewish Movement to Congress and the Administration as the Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism gave a fiery speech – barely giving himself a chance to breathe between sentences.

Then J Street Founder & President Jeremy Ben-Ami said: "We are profoundly and unapologetically pro-Israeli, [but] Israeli supporters have the right and obligation to speak out," he added...We believe that debate on Israel is good for the Jewish community. It stirs strong emotions, but it’s not something we can’t handle."

Moriel Rothman, a college senior and J Street U board President, said: "I love Israel but I do not love the war in Gaza. I love Israel, but I do not love its treatment of minorities. I love Israel, but I do not love the occupation of the Palestinian land."

Three guests were honored and had a chance to speak including: the author Peter Beinart, who wrote the MUST-READ, now infamous "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment"; Sara Benninga, an Israeli activist from the Sheikh Jarrah solidarity movement; and the Palestinian physician Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, who lost his three daughters in January 2009, and established "Daughters for Life" foundation.

And that's who I'd like to focus on: Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish

He was born in Gaza. He went to Harvard. He became an MD – an Ob/Gyn and he moved back to Palestine – Gaza – to practice medicine. He got married had children and became a respected member of the community. Then, during the Gaza War in 2008, a tank rolled into his neighborhood, and fired into his apartment. Directly into his daughters’ bedroom. Not once, but twice. His three daughters and one niece were killed.

Instead of promising revenge, he’s gone on to be an extraordinary spokesman for peace.

Now I’ll let him tell his story.


Friday, February 25, 2011

The “Motleyest Chaos”

The night before I left for Washington, I made a 13-minute presentation at BINA (Hebrew for “Wisdom”). It’s like a mini-Jewish TED Talk. My lecture was called “Wagner Was Right”: Eclecticism and the ‘Jewish Aesthetic.’ Here was my thesis: Wagner said Jews are incapable of creating great music because, having no homeland, they pull sounds from all ages and traditions into the "motleyest chaos." I asked: Could such an anti-Semite be even partially correct? And if he was, how is it that Jewish composers from Leonard Bernstein to Phillip Glass have dominated America’s "classical" new music scene since it began? Then I traced a century of "serious music" starting with Schönberg and ending with Carla Kihlstedt to see if there's any consistency to the Jewish Aesthetic.

The talk went well and you can view it right here (BTW, I talked quickly because I had a time limit):

But when I began formulating the talk, I only planned to do a simple timeline with musical excerpts starting with Aaron Copland and ending with Carla. But as I lined up all the composers I wanted to expose my audience to, I realized I had no unifying theme and I couldn’t find a great deal similar amongst all their music. After struggling with this dilemma for two weeks I remembered Wagner’s 1868 anti-Semite screed "Das Judenthum in der Musik." And when I went back to look at it, I realized that despite the bigoted foundations for his theory, he identified a common theme in the process, not product, of Jewish composers. They take musical influences from everywhere and any time and integrate them into their voice.

And while Wagner considers this abhorrent, I see the integrated eclecticism of Jewish American Composers as not only distinctive, but one of their greatest contributions to the arts of the 20th Century. Copland pulls from France and Germanic traditions. Bernstein grabs from Radio Havana as well as Miles Davis AND the traditional Jewish liturgy. Gershwin from Jazz. Philip Glass from India and and rock and roll. Steve Reich from northern Africa (while also creating the basis for early hip hop). Carla Kihlsted as much from Mozart as the Pixies.

Now certainly others embraced this eclectic aesthetic, but I would argue American Jews started this trend as they searched for their voice in this new country. Because of this, in other realms, like politics, it appears we have such great differences between us at times it’s hard to identify what bonds us together. Part of what used to bond us together was the constant desire for justice and truth often explored through lively debate. There was more agreement on the process (the discussion) rather than the product (eveyong holding the same opinion). This was the basis of learning in Yeshivas. Two people would sit down and argue over a section from the Torah or Talmud. This is chavruta. And the results might be best exemplified by the joke, if you go into a debate with 2 Jews you’ll always hear 3 opinions.

So tomorrow over 2000 Jews from around the country are coming together. The common cause is J Street and the desire to put pressure on our own government to facilitate a 2 state solution and bring a lasting, secure peace to Israel and Palestine - now, not later. We are doing this because we care about Israel. Because we love Israel and want to not only protect its borders, but we want to protect its future. And the process we are using is to bring speakers together of every viewpoint - especially those who express views who are not welcomed at our rival AIPAC’s conference. Because we invite these people to speak, and we encourage this open debate, there are many, many American and Israeli Jews who think our very coming together is a threat to Israel - greater than any recent act by the Palestinian or Arab leadership. This is how they talk about it. They think at best we are naïve or have been fed falsities parading as facts, and at worst we are meddling, self-hating, anti-Semitic, Arab and Muslim loving, liberal cretins under the thumb of George Soros and bent on destroying Israel. They fear that we speak out in earnest public debate as to the best way to solve this issue. In fact, an orthodox rabbi at the LA Federation panel on a “Civil Discourse on Israel” two weeks ago said Jews must speak with one voice “or congressmen might get confused.” And doing so would harm Israel immeasurably.

And in case you think I'm exaggerating about the reaction to J Street, here's a great HuffPo article, "Why the Jewish Right Is Terrified by J Street's Conference"

The people who fear J Street don’t want us to gather and speak our minds because we all have different opinions. But just as with music, I feel that in politics as well, even if we draw our influence from a wide and eclectic range of sources and speak out such that our voice is heard as the “motleyest chaos”, this is still a good thing.

Those who fear J Street talk about the existential threat Israel is under as a way to deflect any suggestion that the Palestinians have the right to self-determination. They talk about how all of Israel’s neighbors still want to see the country wiped from the face of the earth. They say there is no one to negotiate with and that you can never make peace with the Palestinians.

I say they are wrong. And we must find the way. Because 44 years of occupation is 44 years too long.

They find fear everywhere and hope nowhere. And while I agree it’s hard to be optimistic about the peace in middle east sometimes, with the change that is sweeping the Middle East and Northern Africa – throughout all the Arab states of the world, I think there is an extraordinary opportunity for Israel as well to transform their relationship with their neighbors – the Palestinians and all the Arab world.


Thursday, February 24, 2011

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Conference

I’m en route to Washington D.C., 35,000 feet in the air looking down onto the U.S./Mexico border. I can actually see the river cutting between Juarez and El Paso from my window. Six years ago, almost to the day, I crossed that border with a friend just to have dinner in Mexico the one night I was crashing in El Paso on my trek back to LA where I was moving back to. Back then all I had to do was flash my driver’s license at passport control and we were in. We went to a Mexican mall my friend liked and had a very cheap, but absolutely terrible meal. I’d hoped for authentic Mexican food, but my dish was smothered with what tasted like microwaved Velveeta. But I look back on that memory with fondness because these days the Mexican drug wars have claimed so many lives, particularly in Jaurez, that I’d never risk crossing over – especially just for dinner. Still, it was quite wonderful how open the borders were at the time. It made me feel like separations between peoples and countries were less pronounced than they are today. Like the world was coming together.

Today it feels more like the world is spinning apart. There’s a lot of uncertainty in the Mid-East and Northern Africa, but one thing I know for sure: I’m heading back East for a reason I never would have imagined 6 years ago.

You see, 6-1/2 years ago I’d never been to Israel and just 2 months ago, I was recently made the Chair of J Street Local: Los Angeles. And now I’m leading a delegation of 80 Angelenos to the J Street national conference in Washington D.C. where we’re going to spend 4 days in a confab about how to resolve Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians – and what we as plain old U.S. citizens can do about it. So after days of listening to dozens of speakers we’ll end the conference by actually going to Capital Hill and directly lobbying our elected representatives in those hallowed halls.
J Street, for those who haven’t heard of it, is a Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace organization seeking a two-state solution - now, not later. It was started three years ago by Jeremy Ben-Ami as a lobby and PAC based in DC. Last year they formed a 501c3 off-shoot to start a local grassroots campaign and develop support for their positions nationwide. They started 36 in the first half of 2010 and near the end of last year, launched J Street Local: Los Angeles.

I wanted to attend the official launch party in November, but had already committed the night in question to attending a play reading authored by a kid 16 years my junior I’ve mentored the last two years. It was his first big reading at Ensemble Studio Theatre - West and I’d missed one smaller reading of his, so I couldn’t miss this one as well. Luckily, it was actually worth my time. Not only was it a good performance of a promising play by an as-of-yet unjaded playwright of color, but we were able to meet up later and he genuinely seemed to really get something from the questions and suggestions I gave him.

J Street had to wait another month. I’ve since been told the launch was a festive gathering with about 200 people. The first meeting in December however was less glamorous. About 25 people, mostly senior citizens, gathered in a small, windowless classroom in the West Side Jewish Community Center to hear what the leadership of this local branch had to say.

Now I’d been following J Street for the last year and a half, getting all their emails announcing the positions they were taking on the latest breaking news in regard to “The Conflict.” So I knew the positions they took, but didn’t know what they were really going to do about the mess. Or more specifically, I knew what they were doing in Washington, but I didn’t know what we could do in LA.

So at that December meeting, the regional director, Serena Zeise, got up and introduced the steering committee - a smart young looking bunch – only one of whom was over 40. Then we broke into groups of the various committees we could choose to be involved with: Outreach, Grassroots Advocacy, Education/Programming, Finance, and Media/Communications. I wasn’t sure where to go, but ended up at outreach.

Serena also mentioned that they’d already begun to reach out into the community, but the reaction had been mixed. Elaborating on that, she described a challenging meeting with the Jewish Federation. I’m not only a member of Jewish Federation, but I went on a Masterclass to Tel Aviv through Federation AND I happen to go to temple with the new president of Federation. I mentioned this to her and said, “He’s heard me read torah. I helped organize a broadcast of our Kol Nidre services on the Jewish Television Network. Next time you have a meeting with him, I’d be happy to sit down and see if I can help smooth things over so things aren’t so contentious.” She suggested we have lunch and talk about how else I could help.

The next week after a brief lunch, she asked if I would be the Chair of the local branch in LA. I’d assumed there already was one. There were chairs for each committee, but it turned out, no one to bind them all together. I certainly wasn’t angling for the position, but as I thought about it, it seemed like a strangely natural fit.

And more than that, I was, quite frankly, deeply gratified to have someone in just one hour recognize in me the qualities of someone who can be trusted with great responsibility and deliver. I’ve had so little recognition of my talent, skills and experience for the last 6 years, that I want to work with anyone who thinks I’ve got what it takes. Even if it doesn’t pay a dime.

And yes, it says a lot about how my career has been going since I moved to LA that I felt I had a better chance of helping bring peace to the Mid-East than getting my first staff writing job on a TV show.

Since I said yes to the position, I discovered the chairs of each committee had been named, but no strategy or programming had been put in place yet. Also since December, the ENTIRE Middle-East has descended into some of the most exciting transformational chaos ever witnessed I dare say in the history of mankind. And I don’t think that’s hyperbole. Never have so many countries and such a large population unexpectedly affected so much political change mostly without taking up arms in such a short period of time.

As Americans we’re going to have to seriously ask ourselves about what our relationship has been with these countries since decolonization after WWII. And there’s no example of that more interesting, more incendiary and more intransigent that the relationship between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

So, now I’m on a plane to D.C. to see if we can solve everything by March 1st. OK, I doubt everything will be tied up with a bow by then, but at least we’ll be engaging on the issues in a deep and serious way and perhaps that will begin to lead us on a path toward peace.