Yesterday I posted at the Forward with some of my concerns at the end of day one of the Arab League conference on Jerusalem in Doha. Below are my comments at the end of day two. Given my frustrations over day one's speeches and discussion, I steeled myself today to speak up. I did so in the closing round of comments in the committee I was attending (the Civil Society Group). When the moderator called on me I introduced myself as follows (not verbatim, but close):
I am an American Jew. I am here as an individual, not the representative of any organization. I am here as someone who cares deeply about Israel and I am a Zionist. It is because I care about Israeli that I have spent the past twenty years of my life working to try to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including in Jerusalem. I believe that there can be no peace for either Israelis or Palestinians unless there is peace in Jerusalem, and this means that it must be a city in which Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Muslims and Christians can all live with rights and dignity, with no side having to struggle to maintain its existence [note: that last bit I stole almost verbatim from the brilliant Danny Seidemann].
The Z-word, not entirely unexpectedly, sparked a minor outcry. There were raised voices and one woman stormed out in anger. The moderator of the panel was professional and extremely respectful, insisting on my right to speak and the importance of hearing all views, and emphasizing that I was speaking with respect for everyone there.
So I continued, admittedly a little shaken. I expressed the concerns that had been bothering me since the previous day. I talked about my commitment to a two-state solution with two capitals in Jerusalem, and my concern that most of what I'd heard at the conference, while referencing the rights of Muslims and Christians in Jerusalem, and the legitimacy of their presence and claims there, failed to in any way acknowledge Jewish equities in that same city. I also expressed my surprise that in a committee focused on NGOs, there had been no mention of the important contributions of Israeli NGOs that work to address many of the issues that had been raised in the committee, including concerns about settlements, tunneling, and access to education.
The session ended soon after that. Frankly, I expected to spend the rest of the conference shunned or possibly attacked (verbally) by other participants.
But that isn't what happened. Several people came up to me even before I had a chance to exit the meeting room. One suggested that what I had said was good but that the term Zionism is too controversial to use in this situation. I respectfully responded that I understood the sensitivity but I am a Zionist and I don't believe I do anyone any favor by soft-pedaling that fact (something I equally refuse to do when engaging members of the Jewish community who are uncomfortable with the term). Others came up to me inside the meeting room and after that at lunch and throughout the afternoon. What was shocking -- and gratifying -- to me was that the comments I got were universally polite and positive. Many people (both from the Arab world and outside it) thanked me for speaking up and commended me for having the courage to do so. Several told me proudly about their own work in interfaith tolerance and understanding groups. One very religious man from the Arab world engaged me in a long conversation about what he believes are Quranic requirements that Muslims treat Jews with respect, and his belief that Islam requires Muslims to reach out to and help even those who are doing wrong to them. Almost everyone apologized for the outburst and asked me to understand that the anger comes from pain and humiliation that is connected to the word Zionism, and was not about the substance of what I was saying (which I understand).
At around 5:30 pm this evening the conference reconvened for its final plenary session, in which the reports of the committees were read out. The report from the Civil Society group, which had been drafted during the afternoon break by four members of the committee, including one of the people who had reacted most strongly to my statement and another who represents a hard-line Islamist organization in Europe, opened as follows:
The Civil Society Commission (CSC) -- including 50 people representing NGOs, a number of governments and experts coming from all continents -- agreed that action by civil society is essential to the protection of Jerusalem. Acknowledging that (1) there are two peoples and three religious groups linked to the Holy Land, (2) that respecting their full political and religious rights is essential for peace, and (3) acknowledging that Jerusalem as a city sacred to Islam, Christianity and Judaism must be safeguarded and preserved...
I can't say for sure how the report of this committee would have come out if I had not been there and had not spoken up. I am confident that it would not have looked like this. For those who demand that we refuse to engage with people who hold different points of view, my experience in Doha is a powerful reminder of how small-minded such an approach is.
Even into the evening people were still stopping me to talk and ask questions. Some wanted to know more about what it means for a Jew who is fighting to end the occupation to still say she is a Zionist (I consider myself a Liberal Zionist, and I had several fascinating discussions about what this means). I can say with certainty that many of the people I met are leaving Doha with their assumptions about Zionism challenged, and, hopefully, with the beginnings of an understanding that Jews do not fit neatly into two artificial categories: "good Jews," who are the ones who hate Israel (like the Neturei Karta delegation at the conference) and Zionists, who by definition hate Palestinians. For this alone the trip was worthwhile, in addition of course to all that I had the opportunity to learn from my fellow participants.
Finally, I want to make one thing very clear to anyone reading this: after the morning session and the kerfuffle over my statement, the organizers of the conference from the Arab League were incredibly gracious. They sought me out to assure me that my views were welcome and that my presence and contribution were appreciated. They deserve credit for doing so and it is my hope that at future events on this and similar topics, more voices from the pro-Israel, pro-peace Jewish community will be invited and will accept the invitation. We all have a great deal to learn from one another.