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.