J Street: Much more than a “safe space”

J Street: Much more than a “safe space”

On Day 2 of the J Street conference, a student who had attended my panel on the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions movement, engaged me in conversation. He told me how wonderful he felt at the conference, which he called a “safe space” in which he could talk about Israel in a way that wasn’t tolerated in other Jewish communal frameworks, such as his synagogue or family table.

But for J Street to fulfill its mission, it needs to be more than a “safe space”.

As I imagine it, a “safe space” is where a minority of non-conformists gather together for solace, and to take a breath of fresh air. A “safe space” is a refuge – a shelter from the storm, a place for mutual support.

More importantly, a “safe space” is an inward-looking locale, whose denizens are primarily seeking the camaraderie of the like-minded.

A “safe space” is an attitude of self-defense, of self-preservation, of respite. The connotation of “safe space” is a desire to ward off – not take on – the world.

The pro-Israel pro-peace movement has had an abundance of “safe spaces” for dozens of years. What it hasn’t had – and what J Street has brought us, and what J Street needs to be if it is to succeed – is not a new and bigger “safe space”, but a political movement that confidently and assertively looks outward into the wider community, not inward towards the “already converted”.

Success will therefore require not only time, energy, creativity and other resources. Success will require that we, J Street’s supporters, recalibrate our expectations.

J Street is not only a place to take comfort. It is a coalition for creating real change.

Often the reaction of those shunned by what’s perceived as the mainstream is to shun that mainstream in return. J Street’s challenge is to avoid that trap: To make it work, its supporters must slowly wean themselves of the psychology of the underdog, the outcast, the pariah, and take on a new attitude that seeks to build bridges with those who might have feared us in the past.

Clearly, there will be a need for smaller, more ideological organizations to continue their work in pushing the limits of the American Jewish debate. But J Street’s role, more than to carve out radically new swaths of territory, will be to bring a growing number of American Jews, and others, into the ideological territory that has already been carved out, but desperately and urgently needs to be reinforced: Two states, 1967 borders, the illegitimacy of occupation and settlement, the legitimacy of Palestinian national rights, and serious, unswerving American commitment and involvement to make it all happen.

In the terminology of American expansionism, J Street needs to be the homesteader, not the frontiersman-explorer. Its work needs to be prose, not poetry.

If J Street’s supporters expect J Street to be just another “safe space”, this time for the Facebook generation, then the real potential for creating something immensely important – and powerful – might be lost for years to come. And there’s no guarantee that Israel will still have a two-state option by that time.

By | 2009-10-30T14:24:00-04:00 October 30th, 2009|Blog|4 Comments


  1. Avery October 30, 2009 at 7:07 pm - Reply

    In fact, J Street is not even a “safe space” because they excluded many willing sponsors within the peace movement. They’re trying to be something very different– a serious confrontation to AIPAC, a show of force and campaign dollars. Hopefully the conference will end with that impression.

  2. Lee Diamond October 31, 2009 at 5:11 am - Reply

    I agree with your post. We have a big job to do and it is not about safe spaces unless those spaces are called Israel or Palestine.

    It did sound to me, though, like a relative thing with that student and I assume others. We are open to discussion and so he feels a lot better at a J Street gathering.

    If by “safe space” you mean open to discussion, sure, why not?

  3. Anonymous November 1, 2009 at 12:41 pm - Reply

    Why are you so convinced that a Palestinian state will lead to peace? So far hasn’t every territorial concession emboldened the enemy to military action? When Jordan was established as a nation for the Palestinian-Arab population did that lead to peace?Who’s to say that in x number of years down the road those who signed th peace treaty will still be aroun? Maybe they’ll be replaced by some other more violent group(i.e. Hamas) that doesn’t abide by the treaty. Time for you guys to realize that the folly is over. the one positive thing that does not work is “land for peace”. Why can’t you think of apeace movement that would make more sense? If you can’t why not elect people that have fresh, creative ideas.

  4. Ron Skolnik November 2, 2009 at 4:41 pm - Reply

    In response to these comments:

    To Avery: Which “willing sponsors” are you referring to? I’ve heard about disagreements with Tikkun, but still can’t seem to assemble the different versions. Was anyone else excluded? And why?

    To Lee Diamond: I was referring to “safe space” as a hiding place. J Street should indeed be a place that’s comfortable for discussion, but it needs to bring that conversation out of the shadows (and already has begun to).

    To Anonymous:
    1. No, you’re absolutely incorrect that, “every territorial concession [has] emboldened the enemy to military action?”

    Witness: There has been no military conflict with Egypt since the peace treaty (almost 3 decades), including a 100% withdrawal from Sinai.

    There has been no military conflict with Jordan since the peace treaty (15 years), including the territorial exchanges that allowed it to happen.

    There has been no direct military conflict with Syria since the partial withdrawals and disengagements of the mid-70s – though war by proxy continues. Perhaps that might end, too, if the two sides could seal the deal and reach a final-status agreement?

    The only places where conflict continues despite withdrawal is where that withdrawal is not part of a comprehensive deal – i.e., it’s been unilateral (Gaza) or very partial (West Bank, and Gaza as well, which Israel in many ways still controls from the outside).

    BTW: Jordan was not established as a nation for the Palestinian people. Not sure where you got that idea.

    As for certainty: There is no such thing. What there is is probability. Based on previous events, including negotiations of recent years, probability suggests that peace with the Palestinians is definitely achievable. Difficult and not without risk, but achievable. Just as importantly, probability also suggests that the absence of peace will lead to Israel’s demise as a democracy and/or a Jewish state.

    If you’re asking for creativity, please let us know how Israel stays a democracy while it rules over an occupied majority with no political rights? That would truly be squaring the circle.

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