It’s rare that the left-leaning J Street, a 5-year-old political advocacy organization that supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is the conservative voice in the room. But that was the case on a recent Sunday, when about 75 people gathered at the Pikesville branch of the Baltimore County Public Library to hear Mark Gunnery of the Jewish Voice for Peace and Rebecca Kirzner, J Street’s mid-Atlantic director, debate the merits of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.
Sponsored by the Baltimore Jewish Cultural Chavurah, the Feb. 16 gathering in the library’s meeting room did not include a presence from the much-larger American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which will have its annual policy conference in Washington, D.C., at the beginning of March. The event was moderated by the BJCC’s co-president, Bob Jacobson, who noted that his organization does not hold a position on the global BDS campaign that has resulted in several sectors of academia boycotting Israeli professors and high-profile boycotts of businesses in the West Bank.
Jacobson brought with him a handwritten sign that read “Choose Civility,” a nod to the strong emotions that debate on the conflict typically evokes. As it turned out, there was little need for the sign; the crowd was remarkably calm and respectful. Each side spoke for between 15 and 20 minutes, and a long question-and-answer period followed.
Gunnery, who grew up in Pikesville as a member of Beth Tfiloh Congregation and attended Beth Tfiloh Dahan High School, began his presentation by referencing the hypocrisy he sees in the Jewish community’s response to the Middle East crisis.
“I came up with values like respect for human rights, concern for my fellow human being, the need for justice, the yearning for peace. … I learned that the world is ruptured and full of conflict and that it is my responsibility as a human and as a Jew to work toward healing,” he said. “I learned that Jews historically have been at the forefront of struggles for social justice … that we’ve organized in the labor, feminist, environmental, civil rights and gay rights movements; we’ve protested against countless wars; we’ve fought for equality and peace whenever inequality and violence stood in the way. But I also learned that when it came to Israel, it was a different story.”
Gunnery went on to say that JVP supports the use of boycotts, divestments and sanctions designed to influence Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. He explained that JVP’s goals are ending the occupation and colonization of all Arab lands, equality for Arab Israelis and respecting Palestinian refugees’ right of return.
The BDS campaign has earned headlines in recent months due to the American Studies Association’s decision to boycott Israeli universities. Conversely, a bill under consideration in the Maryland legislature would disallow public funding for departments in the state university system that support the BDS campaign.
Kirzner, a former Philadelphia public school teacher, shared J Street’s perspective.
“J Street is a pro-Israel, pro-peace organization that supports U.S. advocacy for a negotiated two-state solution for Israel and Palestine,” she said, explaining that her organization opposes the BDS campaign because J Street believes boycotts undermine the achievement of a solution “where Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side in peace and security.”
“The two-state solution is the only answer,” said Kirzner. “The BDS movement is agnostic on the issue of a two-state solution, and for me that’s a nonstarter. … The reality on the ground is that this is a conflict between two competing narratives, two competing nationalist narratives, two populations who have claims on the same piece of land and two populations who want their own states.”
Kirzner said that Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic efforts have brought Israel and the Palestinians closer than ever to a solution; she urged American Jews to support the secretary in any way possible.