Intereview with Yael Patir, director of J Street in Israel, August 2017 (Originally commissioned by Tikkun magazine) conducted by joseph matas, email@example.com, a visiting journalist, assisted by David, his assistant.
Joseph: Can you tell us about what led you to become involved with J Street, and once you became involved, what did you do to help grow and improve it?
Yael: Sure. So, I’ll state my name for the record. I’m Yael Patir, I am basically the first person in J street that is based in Israel. I opened the J Street Israel office six years ago. J Street will celebrate next year ten years. So, from the day of inception, there was a person in J Street that was in charge of the connection with Israel, and that flew back and forth, but there wasn’t an office and a presence on the ground until I came in, so, I was very happy to receive the offer of doing that. I came into J Street from working at the Shimon Peres Center for Peace. I’m not a typical J Street staff person, because I think almost…I mean, definitely when I joined the organization 6 years ago, I was the only Israeli Israeli. Like sabar with no American background, passport. Of course family in the US, and some experience of living there, but not somebody who votes for congress or for the presidency. Today we have a few other Israelis that work in the organization. I’m saying this because I got to J Street because of my commitment to the two state solution and because of my commitment to ending the occupation, and that commitment is based on my Zionism and my love for Israel, and my fear of where its heading, and its future, so that is what led me to work at the Peres center for peace, and what happened to me when I was working there is that I worked on cross border cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians, and the more I understood the situation, the more I understood the role of outside players and the international community. There were two things that I realized. One is that the change that I want to see is not going to happen without political change, so that there is a political role to be played. Second is that the international community is extremely important to what is happening here, and it is not enough for Palestinians and Israelis alone to work it out. Two of these understandings led me to J street. One, working in a political space, and two, working on outside assistance.
Dave: As you know we’re both college students. We spoke earlier very briefly about what J Street’s involvement is on university campuses. Could you go into that a little bit, and maybe talk about some of the work that J street U does in Israel as well?
Yael: Yea. So, if Daniella will agree, if she has the time, I think that she would be the better person to talk about it. My portfolio, really, for J Street is, I’m the person who’s in touch with Israelis and Palestinians on behalf of J Street. I’m based here, so I know, obviously, as a member of the organization, I know what is happening with students, I encounter students here, I hear their experience. One of the things that I learned through the students, and I’m trying to be very respectful of that, is that the students need to talk in their own voice when talking about the students. We have a tendency of wanting to talk on their behalf, or wanting them to do stuff that serves our purposes, but what I’ve learned from any interaction that I have, it’s funny that I’m mentioning it because for me it’s like what I learned when working with Palestinians, that if you want to have the Palestinian narrative represented, you have to bring a Palestinian to represent the narrative. I’m saying that the comparison is funny, but I do think that at the end of the day, the student is a movement that grew very organically. It started I think three years after J Street was established. The idea was that J Street is focusing on creating a political space, and to do that you need a grassroot movement. You need people that will tell their politicians what they want their politicians to hear. The idea, again, I’m going to give a broad answer, but the idea of J Street was to say: the Jewish community is not represented on the hill in a representative manner, because the Jewish establishment that represents the community doesn’t really push for the positions that the community holds. In an effort to change that, you need to show that there’s people, really, and part of that was organizing the base of J Street, and the students were a big part of that effort. I think that the movement grew organically and very quickly, beyond people’s expectations, because the movement really answered critical needs of students in campuses, and need to find the voice that is representing you’re pro-Israel and your love for Israel, and at the same time, representing your anti-occupation world view. To do it in the context of the campus is different than to do it in a different context, and they needed to find their voice, and their doing it quite amazingly. It’s amazing that it’s an organization that has a board which they elect, and they’re organizing practices where they really encourage people to educate themselves, and to find their voice, and so on, and to represent what they see, and I think one of the things that I find very interesting about the students is that definitely the leaders of the movement are all people who grew with very intense Jewish education. So, they’re people who come with Jewish education, they know Hebrew more than other people, they visited Israel multiple times, and they have that experience, I don’t need to talk about, of coming to campus and then realizing that there’s a discrepancy about what they’ve learned and heard about Israel and what they see on campus. The movement, it’s always looking for the strategies that best serve the campus, and another thing that is interesting about J Street U: J Street U is committed to the two-state solution as a pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian, win-win solution. They face BDS in a lot of campuses, but what is interesting is that each campus is also different than other campuses, so what I understood from them is that on some campuses they are the extreme left group, and on other campuses they are like the right wing, so it really depends on where they are and what are the other organizations. There’s J Street U chapters on campuses where there is no JVP, and there’s J Street on campuses where there is a lot of activity about BDS, and they are the ones who are considered very right wing, so that’s interesting, and in Israel, what we try to do is that we create educational activities for students while they are here, we say if you are in Israel, and close to the territories, then lets provide you with an opportunity to really see their reality on the ground and learn about what is happening, and that’s Daniella’s work, and one of the things that she is doing is creating educational tours to the West Bank, East Jerusalem, south of Israel, touching on all sorts of issues that are relevant to the conflict and its resolution. The other thing, and that will be my last sentence, is there’s also a very interesting new trend of, and Daniella is a big part of it, of creating the connections between the students and between Israeli’s that share the same world view and the same motivation, and the same desire to push for the end of the occupation, to push for a two state solution, and I’ve been around for a few years, and it’s something that I think there’s now a revival of creating connections and interests from both sides of creating those connections that wasn’t there to the same extent before.
Dave: That’s really important. I know for a lot of American students when they come to Israel a big thing they want to do is meet Israelis and interact with Israelis, make friends that are Israelis, so having that connection on a political level I think is also very important.
Yael: Exactly. Not just like the soldier that went on the bus with them for the Taglit, but a connection that is based on Ideology.
Joseph: I found, actually, the Taglit I went on seemed aligned with J Street ideals, which I didn’t expect from birthright, I don’t know if it was just the provider.
Yael: Probably, because I know that they have different providers that try to provide different content. I think also, in Israel there’s an understanding that it’s very important for us, now I’m talking as Israelis, to preserve the connection with the Jewish diaspora, and you need to meet people where they are, and you can’t just hammer talking points into their head and think that they’ll become your ambassador.
Dave: Preserving that connection with the Diaspora of Jews is very important, and we recently saw with the Israeli government, they seemed to not necessarily agree with that, with the Kotel agreement and everything else like that. What are your thoughts on that?
Yael: I think that the government, I’ll say it very bluntly, I think that the Israeli government, it’s not that they don’t care about the connection with diaspora Jews, but that just they don’t care about the connection with non-orthodox, or non-ultra orthodox. Yeah, both Ultra Orthodox and Orthodox, which is the majority of diaspora Jews.
Yael: Yea. I’ll give you an example. When our president was here, and he was here by coincidence, exactly when the Kotel ordeal happened, he was interviewed on channel 10, and he was sitting on a panel with two prominent journalists, politicians, one of them represented the far-right in Israel, and the settlers movement, so when Jeremy was asked on film all sorts of questions, as he was leaving the panel, the panelist that I told you about said, and you know this is on record, its filmed, he said the biggest problem of American Jews is intermarriage, and in a few years, Jeremy and J Street will have nobody to represent, not only him but other organizations, because there will be no more likeminded Jews, so there’s no reason to worry about it. And I was so upset by the fact that somebody can talk like that on TV, but he’s an Orthodox, Settler, far right Israeli, and in his point of view, and I’m ashamed to say it, but this is the fact, in his point of view, if you’re not orthodox, than you’re like less of a Jew, and your connection with Israel is not as strong, your commitment to Israel is not clear. If you make Aliyah, and you become part of us, and you serve in the army, then that’s one thing, but if you live out there, and you’re marrying a non-Jew, and so-on, so we can afford to lose you, because we have enough, I’ll say this bluntly, we have enough Kushner and Greenblatts, and Friedmans, that are much more supportive, that are putting their money here, that are channeling money to the settlements, that are fighting for Israel in congress, and we can trust them. So that’s, I think, the reality of this government.
Joseph: So, I know you said you do stuff with congress, and try to, at least, influence them a little bit, try to get them to see your point of view. Do you work with the Knesset at all, are they willing to work with you guys, do you have friends there?
Yael: So, let me be accurate. We don’t try a little bit to influence Congress. J Street’s sole mission is to influence congress. J Street was established as a PAC, a political action committee, we have an education fund, we have a student movement as you know, but all our efforts, like the arrow, the mission, is to influence politics on the Hill with the understanding that politics and congress really matter on the issue of Israel, and they’re broken, and you need to fix them. So, everything we do at J Street is towards that end, and for that reason, also, we do not do politics in Israel in any way, Because we are an American organization and we don’t meddle in Israeli politics. I think the legitimacy of J Street is to say J Street represents a constituency of voters, of tax payers, of people that want to see their foreign policy in a different way, but they love this place, they see this place as their homeland, but they don’t vote here, so it’s not their mission to do politics here. We do have, as J Street, a connection to a lot of organizations and individuals that share our point of view, and we try to have partnerships, we try to support them, and so on. The work that I do in the Knesset, and I work at the Knesset, is not to push for legislation, or to lobby, or to do the type of stuff we do in the US, it’s to build the connections that would support the work that J Street does in the US.
Dave: Are there any specific MKs that you work with that you would be able to talk about?
Yael: My strategy, my plan is always to work with as many as I can and to focus obviously on the ones who share our world view, and that see the importance of J Street. It shifts, because the Israeli system shifts. For example, when I started working here Kadima was our biggest target and partner, and we worked with Tsipi Livny, who was the head of the party. We had Ehud Olmert at the J Street conference, and we worked with him, but then Ehud Olmert went to jail, Kadima no longer exists, so, each time we have to shift and change. Labor is a big base for us, and Labor we’re like across the board, we work with everybody, we have good connections with everybody, from Herzog to Stav Shafir. If you look at our conferences, you will see for example, Stav Shafir came a lot of times to J Street conferences, and that’s just because she’s great and we love her. Meretz definitely are very good partners of ours. We also work with people from Yesh Atid. We had Ofer Shelach and Yaakov Perry came to our conference. We have contact with people from Kulanu, who is in the coalition. We have some contact with members of the Knesset from Shas, but everything is dependent on the political context. We are also in touch with the Joint Arab list, and we had their chairman Ayman Odeh talk in our last conference. So we really try to be as broad as we can, and obviously, in the Joint Arab list, most of the members don’t support the two states in the same way that we support it, so we don’t invest in… But the members of Knesset from Hadash, specifically who do support the two state solution are better fit partners for us.
Joseph: So, you were talking about the organizations that you work with. What organizations do you work with, mostly in Israel, but in America also, and what do you do with them? How do they help you? How do you help them?
Yael: So, there’s different circles. Let’s start with the US: There’s the closest partners with J Street would be the organizations that are also pro-Israel and pro-two-states, and that’s like what they do. So, the two closest would be Americans for Peace Now, APN, and the New Israel Fund. And we have strategic partnerships with them. Then you have the organization that are like the policy organizations in DC that we don’t have strategic partnerships with but that we work in some sort of less formal relationship. Places like the Center for Middle East Peace, Brookings institute, Washington institute to a certain extent. So, these organizations where its policy folks. There’s also the peace organizations who those organizations its more just providing them a space because J street has the biggest conference, providing them a place to showcase their work, bringing speakers maybe to the conference, and perhaps helping organize local events. Could be like peace camps or organizations that do people to people interfaith work and things like that. J street is very involved with the debate around the Iran deal. So, there is also a world of organizations. We were part of a coalition, that, in this administration has organized itself under the brand Diplomacy First, so its organizations that are not only focused on Israel Palestine but are focused on the role of diplomacy in solving the conflict. So that’s in the US, and obviously other lobby groups. In Israel, in terms of organizations, there’s many many more organizations that deal with the 2 state solution. Peace now, all the other organizations that receive their information here. Darkenu, Molad, Women Wage Peace, Commanders for Israel’s Security, the Israeli Peace Initiative, B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence, and so on and so forth. So, these are the organizations that are like part of the family. Beyond that, there’s a relationship with the organizations that deal with Israeli American relations, Jewish diaspora, like Ruderman foundation, and with them it’s not, there’s no working relationship, there’s no cooperation, but mutual interest.
Dave: Kind of like what you said before about a space for them to voice themselves rather than a political relationship?
Yael: Yea, exactly.
Dave: So, regarding that, in terms of attracting new people within Israel, how do you reach out to them and how do you make that connection happen?
Yael: The best thing about Israel is that it’s small. I’m one phone call away from any… ANY person in this country. The head of the Shin Bet, or the person from my grocery store. Really, it’s one of the fun things about working in Israel. A lot of, we call it one on one. A lot of what I do is reach out to people, and I sit with them, and I represent our organization. If there’s an ask, I make the ask. Not a lot of time I have asks because I’m not a player here. So, it’s not like, again in the US we have a letter. We say sign this letter, sign this petition, we have asks. Here it’s more like I invite you to meet our delegation. Or, can I translate to English something that you wrote and I think our people would be interested to read about it, something like that. The other things that I do, I work here in the media. Meaning I am like a media figure. Not a big figure, but I give interviews, around the elections I was invited a lot to talk about, to analyze the elections. Mostly from the point of view of the Jewish community, so that’s a way of making myself seen, and have a presence, and for people to be exposed to J Street.
Dave: Would you say you have a good relationship with the Israeli media?
Dave: I feel like with the United States media it’s sometimes hard to get that other viewpoint in, but you think within Israel its more simple to do that?
Yael: I mean I don’t know really to compare. I think that J street is extremely successful with the media in the US. I think that in the US, it’s more clear with media outlets what position they represent, so obviously the positions of J street will be better, you know, more represented in the New York Times than on Fox, but I can say for sure that J Street started as an organization of 3 people ten years ago, and part of the reason why it grew so much was because it got a lot of media coverage from day one. Whether its good or bad, it doesn’t really matter, because even the bad press helps the organization grow.
Dave: As they say, any press is good press
Yael: Yea, and in terms of whether the position is represented, I think here it really depends on what you read. In Israel, it’s much easier because of 2 main reasons. One is that J street’s issue is Israel. So, in the US, you know, how much they talk about Israel and Palestine? Like, 3% of coverage, maybe 20 depending on what’s happening. It’s always, like, you enter the news cycle from a disadvantage point whereas here if there’s like a Har Habayit incident, it’s like all over all day 24/7. When president Trump came to Israel, there was, the amount of hours that he visited, 26 maybe hours. There was 26 hours of, you know, just airing his visit, and they had to fill in the studios. So, they brought whoever they can bring, you know, I sat in the studio for 4 hours.
Dave: Wow. For what Chanel?
Yael: For Walla, it’s an online TV?
Yael: So that’s like an advantage. It’s the topic here. The second thing is that I think that still, there’s a lot of changes in recent years in Israeli media but the position of J street is quite mainstream in Israel.
Joseph: So this is totally separate, but what do you think about all of the recent stuff that’s been happening in the old city, and kind of all of those events, if you could speak about that a little bit.
Yael: There’s a lot of things to say about it. Is there anything? Do you want to..
Joseph: Umm, I guess whatever you want to talk about its all, I mean it’s all pretty relevant at this point
Dave: Yea, especially because of how recent everything is, and its continuously developing. Im sure you’ve heard about what happened in Jordan last night. I’m just kind of curious to see what your thoughts are, I mean its kind of hard, it’s a very…
Yael: I mean there’s a lot to say I just wonder if there’s anything specifically that you are interested in. So lets um… First of all, its very interesting, next Tuesday is Tisha b’av, and it’s, I think its extremely symbolic, and there’s clearly, the issue of Temple Mount, and Haram al-Sharif, is, you know, really in the heart of the heart of the heart of the conflict and it’s the best example to showcase the fragility of our situation. It’s the best example to showcase how Israel, you know, how there’s no status quo, and the importance of reaching a solution and, but it shows also other things, I mean, one of the things that it shows is that it shows how things unfold when you don’t have leaderships that are working towards finding solutions. You know obviously there was a terror attack that led to the security need to somehow securitize the space to make sure that there’s no weapons. I mean that’s obvious, although the old city is the most well watched… camera… but I’m not sure the details of what… but its clear that they had to react and they had to create some sort of security arrangement. And now you start to see the reality. One issue is that there’s no leadership, there’s no Palestinian leadership, or one Muslim leadership, in Jerusalem, that you can talk to, really, to create a solution. From the world of conflict resolution that I come from, and with my experience, it’s very very clear that when you have a conflict, you need to have, you need to work it out with partners that represent the other side of the conflict to reach the best possible solution. You have to have people who represent the Muslims that pray on the…the…there’s a word in English for it… How do you call the…
Joseph: I mean I’ve heard it the temple mount, I’ve heard it the.. what is it like the plaza or something?
Dave: the plaza, yea
Yael: Not plaza there’s another word
Yael: No…something… we’ll look for it. So, I mean you need to have some sort of agreement, commitment, when I, just as a side comment, when we did at the Shimon Peres center, Israeli Palestinian work, we always needed to have the, like, kosher stamp from the leadership of where we worked. So, if we brought kids to play soccer together from a village, we needed to have the kosher stamp of the head of the village that say I give my permission for the kids. In larger activities, we couldn’t do anything if we didn’t have the kosher stamp from Abu Mazen who said, you know, I support this. We are in a situation of conflict. It’s not so… So if you want to find a solution for the Temple mount, the first comment that I have is that you have to do it with some sort of a partner, you have to do it in some sort of a dialogue. And there’s a lack of that leadership in Jerusalem, and the main reason for that lack is Israel, because Israel was crushing down that type of leadership. We don’t allow Palestinians to come together, to demonstrate, to have political activities in Israel that are… and definitely in the west bank. So that’s one thing that we saw. Another thing that we saw was that the government, the dynamics of the Israeli government is the dynamics that are always pushing the government to the right. Netanyahu’s adversary is Naftali Bennet, and he needs to provide answers that will… they are fighting over the same constituency which is a very right-wing constituency, and the decisions that they make are often to satisfy that constituency and not necessarily the most responsible decisions. Another interesting… there’s a lot of other observations. There’s a discussion in Israel about the decision to put the metal detectors, how it was taken, whether it was taken responsibly. The Shin Bet had different… was warning from terror attacks, do you… there’s a lot of, you know, interesting ways in looking at this, and now the incident in Jordan that shows this place is really important to Muslims, and there’s nothing you can do lightly like in messing around with that place. I live in the world of Israeli Palestinian conflict and I know the issues and so on, and sometimes in need to get a wakeup call to understand that what I see is very different from what the public sees. We saw it when trump went to visit the Kotel. There was a whole debate in Israel around…how did it go… so he went to visit the Kotel and nobody goes to visit the Kotel because the Kotel is not recognized as an Israel sovereign place and it opened this whole discussion because there was a press conference in the US and the spokesperson was asked about the sovereignty on the Kotel and he like, you know had a difficulty with words and it came it Israel and people in Israel was like, you know, are you crazy? What are you talking about? The Kotel is not Israeli? And to the Israeli it sounds insane, this whole idea that Jerusalem is not recognized as the Capital, and so on and so forth. And that’s, you know, that’s what I’m saying, its like I know all these things, but your common person sees it very differently, and it’s the same thing that’s happening now on the Temple Mount because people in Israel don’t know that there’s a debate over sovereignty of the mountain.
Dave: Right, from a lot of… from the Israeli perspective it’s a part of Jerusalem, it’s a part of Israel…
Dave: and there’s no other way around it
Yael: Yea. And we can put metal detectors and we can do whatever the f*** we want because it’s, you know, it’s totally ours. From the point of view of Palestinians and of Muslims, it’s not the case. It’s actually the only place where it’s sort of theirs. And they are the protectors on behalf of the Muslim world of this space. The Jordanians have the waqf that is representing them and these are things that are not known to, you know, to people, and when incidents like this happen, they bring it to light, and it’s, I also said yesterday to my colleague who I told him you know I know that you think that this is about the metal detectors, that this whole issue and the change of the status quo, and what are the Muslims like what do these crazy people want, like what do they want from us? You know? There was weapons, we’re protecting them also by having the metal detectors, like what’s the, what’s the issue. And I said to him, you know just think about the image in the Muslim world of the plaza empty of Muslims because they boycotted and they didn’t come in through the metal detectors. And whose the only people on the Plaza?
Yael: Orthodox Jews celebrating. Just think about that image that is now broadcasted to millions and millions and millions of Muslims around the world, of Jews dancing and celebrating on temple… on you know, on Haram al Sharif, when its empty of Muslims. It’s…
Dave: It’s a catalyst
Yael: It’s a catalyst! Its crazy! it’s like, it’s incitement. Like…
Dave: From their perspective
Yael: Yea. So its…
Dave: So, would you say that specifically the metal detectors themselves aren’t… its not the reason why, its just the image of what it… what they perceive it as because of the metal detectors
Yael: Exactly. Yea.
Jospeh: Yea, and I actually, I never knew that the general Israeli public didn’t know that there was like a big debate about Jerusalem, that’s new to me, that’s interesting.
Dave: Yea, to a lot of people, you know especially with Israelis, Jerusalem is Israel, there’s no really other way around it…
Dave: There’s no discussion about it, and I think.. I think with Israeli culture in general they kind of sometimes forget about the outside world because it’s Israel and their going to do the things that they think are the best
Dave: and they forget that the international community, as you said earlier, its important in every aspect of life especially in this area
Dave: So, we were talking about before the… I know the Palestinian authority recently just decided to, as they said, sever all contacts with the Israeli government
Joseph: Pretty scary
Dave: Its pretty… Its very… It hasn’t happened in… I don’t think since Abbas has come to power
Dave: Do you have any contact with them at all, like did they cut contact with J Street at all?
Joseph: Like do they see you as Israel, like…
Dave: Or do they see you as like an American situation. How do those…
Yael: I mean this… It’s a good question… This, umm, and I agree with your analysis that it’s scary
Dave: Its very scary
Yael: We have good relationships with the Palestinian authority and with specific people that you know individuals, business leaders and civil society leaders that we work with, its extremely important for J Street to, first of all, provide a space for Palestinians to be heard, it’s important to us to take in consideration their point of view when we form our positions, all though we take it, you know, we are a pro-Israeli organization so sometimes you know, obviously when we supported Cast Lead, there’s no Palestinian position that would… although that’s also tricky because of Hamas and Fatah, but there is… I think that probably need to ask them how they see us, I would say that for Palestinians, definitely for Palestinians in the Palestinian Authority and in official positions, there is a distinction between Israelis and Jews, and they understand that there is a role for diaspora Jews, and that you can’t say that they’re, you know that they’re exactly the same as Israel in the same way that they can also differentiate between Israelis and say that there Israelis that are more pro-peace and Israelis that are less pro-peace. But there’s a lot of… there’s some, you know, serious involvement of the Jewish Community in supporting a lot of positive things in Palestine, and I think that they’re appreciative of that.
Dave: They recognize that
Yael: Yea. I think that, you know, there are a lot of donations that are coming into Palestinian organizations, that not only organizations that are doing peace work. Organizations that are also doing just work with the um…
Joseph: Just to help them in general?
Yael: Within Palestine, and you know currently as things are, J Street is an organization… It’s a pro-Israel organization and its an organization that supports two states. The Palestinian authority supports 2 states. There’s no Palestinian lobby group in congress that represents these points of view. We bring members of congress here, we bring them to Ramallah and they meet with Abu Mazen. So, I think that they are appreciative of, you know, of our role. You know the question of cutting ties, I don’t know if it’s really relevant, because I don’t think that when Abu Mazen, you know, says he cuts ties with Israel it means that Palestinians would stop working with Israelis.
Joseph: I mean maybe they see you as part of the solution rather than…
Dave: So, pretty much you think that J Street can act as the barrier, like kind of stepping away from Israel, it helps to unite, like, United States politicians with Palestinian Authority, you think J street is like that buffer in a way?
Joseph: Or, I guess like to bring them together almost
Dave: To create a dialogue is what I’m saying
Yael: Between, you know I don’t know that it’s … we come from this from a pro-Israel perspective
Dave: Of course
Yael: So, it’s not, it wouldn’t be fair to say that we are, you know, we are the best vessel to create the connection with congress and the PA. The PA they have… Its really the PLO. They have a representative office in DC. They have a new, wonderful ambassador. A Palestinian ambassador. Its his role to create these connections, and it’s our role to promote the idea of the 2 state solution, so for example when Abu Mazen stopped security cooperation with Israel it’s not helpful and we wouldn’t be in any way, you know, and we would say that its not a good move on his behalf, and he probably wont like us saying anything critical of him. And it happened, you know, a number of times in the past. They weren’t happy with us, but, we represent our issue, you know?
Joseph: How does being pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-Palestine, as an organization, do you think your being stifled by either side because of that, because you’re not wholeheartedly supporting only one side or only the other?
Yael: Again? Sorry
Joseph: So, do you think since you’re a pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-Palestine organization do you think your voice is stifled because of that, because you’re not supporting wholeheartedly just one side, you’re kind of supporting both
Yael: Its hard for me to say that we’re supporting both wholeheartedly
Joseph: Well I guess supporting peace is a better way to say it.
Yael: Yeah, exactly. Obviously, we’re constantly maneuvering this space that we act in. It’s very challenging to try and hold a space, a win-win space, in a situation where politics are so divided and divisive, and we see it in American politics after many many many years of bipartisanship on Israel, we see now the parties moving to have conflicting opinions also on Israel. It’s a slow move, lets still not play it too much because still all the resolutions that have to do with security assistance to Israel pass. The only thing that pass with such majorities from both parties. There’s now an anti-BDS
Dave: I saw that, its like all 50 US senators signed it
Yael: Yeah, so its still, you know
Joseph: All 50?
Dave: All 50, every single one
Dave: And that never happens
Yael: It only happens on Israel. But it is changing and although we see our self as really the only space that provides, really, a solution that is the most acceptable on both sides and on the community, the context in which we work is context where we are often, I mean, in the US context, we are often accused of, you know, selling out Israel, of being Kapos as Friedman called us, of not caring about Israel or its security. One of the accusations that is made from within the Jewish community is that J Street is representing Americans that don’t feel comfortable with Israel, so they’re stating a position that will make them feel more comfortable around their circle of friends, so when people are critical and say you’re are a Jew, you support this colonialist, awful, apartheid state of Israel, you can say “no no no, I’m J street, I’m fine” I mean that’s what’s…You know?
Dave: So, do you think, that, again, I like how you’re very adamant that J street pro-Israel, it’s very important to keep in mind. Do you feel that maybe some people have maybe too radical of a viewpoint for J street but they still attach to it because it is the mainstream of that idea?
Yael: Radical from what…?
Dave: Radical from like, even radical to the left
Joseph: Also radical right, I mean, I would be interested in both.
Dave: Either side really
Yael: So, I think there wont be attached to J Street because I think the people that are not even radically left, people that are more left adhere to BDS and think the boycott is the way to go, and J Street doesn’t support the boycott, and for that reason we lose a lot of people that are from our left, and we wont support the boycott because we don’t think that it’s the right thing to do. And as BDS becomes more and more popular as a means of showing your protest against the occupation, you know we would lose people to that from the left. And from the right, I think the main challenge is with people who are wrestling with this idea of being critical of Israel from the outside, I think that’s the main issue. I think people feel by and large comfortable with J Street’s position, but they don’t feel comfortable with J Street attacking the Israeli Prime Minister, or putting the blame on Israel, or, from my point of view, people that are further to the right are people who don’t support the two state solution. People who want to see settlement growth and want to see hopefully the Palestinian disappearing, and if not disappearing, so at least being inferior in some sort of an arrangement. So, those are people who also won’t find a home at J Street. So, I think those 2 sides are, you know, they don’t exist in our organization.
Joseph: From what I understand, It (J Street) is mostly relations between America and Israel. Do you ever work with other countries regarding the issue?
Yael: There’s other organizations that work on… I think that our family of friends, organizations that work within the context of Jewish communities in other places on the issue of the conflict, so we are in touch with them. We don’t really do things together, because J Street is very strategic about it’s work within American politics, and there’s no added value of working with an organization from the UK when you do politics. But, just as an example, there’s an organization in the UK, a wonderful organization, called Yachad, I don’t know if you’ve heard about it, and Yachad is working… is basically doing the same sort of educational work that J Street is doing within the Jewish community, in the UK. So, we exchange ideas, we exchange information, we have that sort of connection, but we wont issue a campaign together or something like that because there’s just, the missions are different.
Dave: The main focus is the United States
Yael: Yeah, and when you do advocacy work, one of the things that is very clear is that you work within the context of the people you want to reach, so your messages are… and, although people are Jews for example, but if they’re American Jews the context is different than if they’re Brits. So, in order to be successful, you have to really know who is your target audience and focus your strategy and, have a strategy that is focused in that way.
Dave: So, I guess going in that context with regards to focusing on the US, is there any specific message for advocates for peace in the US that you would want to give them that we would be able to deliver?
Yael: You know, I always go back to what Obama said in his speech when he was in Israel. That the situation is solvable, that there is a solution, that it’s possible to reach the solution, and that it’s urgent. And I think that the message is to show that the solution is within reach, that there’s only one way of approaching a solution, which is the two state framework. There’s no other framework that could work. Any other thing is just continued war, and that it’s within reach, we just have to have the right allies and leaders to do it. I think that currently, we are at the state where the leaderships here, both leaderships are not into it, and the attention of the world is not there, so we probably have some time, and I think it will be good not to say “the window of opportunity is closing, and in a few years you wont be able to reverse the current trend, and the solution will be gone”.
Dave: They’ve been saying that for a while now
Yael: Yea. Exactly.
Click here to read: J Street Briefing Book for US Congress (PDF)