10/06/2013 08:27 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2013

J Street: Why Nuance and Complexity is Breeding Success

I am back from J Street's fourth national conference in Washington, DC, attended by over 2800 people, including 900 college students, from around the United States, Israel and other parts of the world. If there is one thing that J Street's success has contributed to the conversation in the American Jewish community on Israel, Palestine and the search for peace is this: nuance. While there are those in the community that prefer black and white, lock-step performances at national conferences and in this conversation, I believe that what J Street is offering American Jews, and non-Jews, as well as our incredibly bright college kids, is the opportunity to engage with those with whom we may not agree. We heard from Vice President Biden, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich, members of Knesset from Likud, Yesh Atid, Shas, Labor, Meretz and Hat'nuah parties. I only wish Prime Minister Netanyahu had chosen to speak to us after meeting at the White House. We heard from Palestinians, Arab League officials and lay leaders, men and women, speaking passionately about their desire to end the conflict and finally create a state for their people, living peacefully alongside the State of Israel. We discussed the refugee issues and the right of return, one of the most complicated aspects of any resolution for the Palestinians, and the sharing of Jerusalem, one of the most complicated aspects of any resolution for Israelis. We talked about ending the occupation and ending the reign of Hamas in Gaza. Did we all agree on what people said? Of course not. People are afraid of J Street because of this. I argue that everyone agreeing is much more scary than disagreement. J Street is finding success primarily because it is a place that has become a safe haven for people to argue on the merits of the conflict, meet people who push their buttons, engage and discuss, both with the speakers and with each other. This is a good thing.

Martin Indyk, the long-standing Middle East expert and President Obama's current envoy to the negotiations underway between Palestinians and Israelis, told those attending the gala dinner that the negotiations are serious, there is a short timeframe for measuring success and that all final status issues are on the table. No interim agreements this time. So, lets take refugees. One of the Palestinian speakers at the conference raised a stir amongst some attendees by saying that refugees was actually the easiest issue to deal with, which contradicts all conventional wisdom, and what I just said a few lines ago. His argument was that Israel needs to offer an apology and acknowledgement for its role in the displacement of thousands of Palestinians as part of the 1948 War of Independence. Then, offer four options, all with compensation: stay where you are living currently; relocate to a new Palestinian state; relocate to another country of your choice; relocate to Israel. It was this last point that caused the outcry. How can Israel offer all the refugees who want to come back to Israel that opportunity and still survive? Obviously, they can't. And other Palestinian speakers, including high level Arab League officials, acknowledged that fact. But, a truth was spoken and a place to start the negotiations was opened. That is what can occur at J Street conferences: hard truths can be said, nobody boos, some people clap, some people don't, and everyone can discuss. I personally spoke to this speaker and challenged him on his point and he was open to the conversation. No hatred, no violence, no name calling, just talking about difficult issues and beginning a dialogue. While I know that the refugee issue is very complex, and is even more complicated if one actually reads international law and sees what can and can't be negotiated on behalf of refugees without their approval, I do know that the Jewish tradition values apologies and speaking of hard truths. That is what our High Holy Day season is all about. Can we know what would happen if the Israelis offered an acknowledgement that bad things happened in 1948 on our way to independence? I believe that we cannot know until we try. And, in this effort, I would expect that the Arab world acknowledge what they did to 800,000 Jews that caused them to leave or be expelled from the Arab countries they were living in, and maybe even be compensated. Truth hurts, yet the healing that comes from truth telling can be the most profound and lasting healing human beings can know in this life.

One of my favorite parts of the Torah, in the Book of Genesis, comes when Joseph can longer control his emotions and reveals himself to his brothers, taking off his mask of Egyptian ruler and showing his true face, that of Jacob's son and their brother. The Hebrew is fantastic, as it is a construct that is reflexive, l'hit'apeck, which means that something inside of Joseph changed. He could no longer live the lie that he had been keeping up during all the years of his rise to power and in the numerous interactions he has with this brothers who are coming to Egypt for food during a famine. Several times, Joseph cries, tears of pain and then of relief. It is one of the most gut-wrenching, and powerfully human, moments in a book filled with family strife, including what some would say is the real beginning of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The moment doesn't last long because Joseph's brothers are still afraid and when Jacob dies, they again lie to Joseph, fearing he will retaliate now because of what they did to him years ago. They don't believe he has really forgiven them. But he had and that is why, I think, Joseph is known in the Jewish tradition as Joseph Hatzaddik, Joseph the Righteous. Forgiveness, changing our ways, believing that we can be different and mean it: that is the truest way to be righteous in our human experience.

Truth is sometimes black and white, but more often that not, truth involves nuance and always involves vulnerability. If there is ever going to be peace between Arabs and Jews, Israelis and Palestinians, some hard truths will need to be spoken, on both sides. The final status of all issues can be dealt with, and have been outlined in numerous plans previously, that is known. What is not known, and can't be outlined in the plan, is the political will and courage, of both side's leaders, Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas, to sign it and implement it. Both men, with the support of their peoples, the Jewish world and the Arab world, can change the course of history and end this conflict. They can stand in the space of vulnerability and reveal themselves as peacemakers. Begin, Sadat, Rabin, Hussein. Imagine the future if we can add Netanyahu and Abbas to that list.

J Street has emerged as a serious player in the work of peacemaking between Israelis and Palestinians precisely because of its ability to see the nuance and complexity of the situation, allow for differing opinions to come and engage, all of out of a deep love for Israel's future, which we understand has to involve caring about the Palestinians' future. We are reaching people, we are educating our students, we are influencing leaders and we are succeeding. And with any luck, and lots of hard work, instead of having a 5th annual conference to push for the dream of two states for two peoples, we will host a 1st annual conference to celebrate the realization of that dream.