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.

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