by Eric Hal Schwartz
Speaking to a packed room at the AJC’s (American Jewish Committee) annual Global Forum, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke forcefully on the urgent need to find a way to end the conflict between Israelis and Arabs.
“We can’t let the disappointments of the past hold the future prisoner. We can’t let the absence of peace become a self-fulfilling prophesy. The absence of peace is perpetual conflict,” he said on Monday.
In his first address to the American Jewish community since taking office in February, Kerry chose to share stories of his personal and professional connections to Israel and the Jewish community, his many trips to the country, his own brother’s conversion and his favorite moments flying an Israeli jet.
Using these stories to segue into a reaffirmation of his and President Obama’s commitment to the security of Israel and its future, he made the point that the best security for Israel would come when there was peace with its Arab neighbors.
“Resolving this conflict for both sides can have far-reaching benefits that will be in everybody’s interest. And the reverse is also true: Not resolving this will result in serious consequences for both,” he said.
He emphasized that right now might be the last, best chance for a lasting agreement and warned against the negative consequences for Israel and the region as a whole should the conflict persist including Palestinian appeals to the International Criminal Court as well as continued violent upheaval.
“I understand that many of you are asking, ‘Ma Nishtana? What makes this different from every other time?’ Well, the difference is that what happens in the coming days will actually dictate what happens in the coming decades,” he said.
That urgency makes the efforts of groups like the AJC even more important in pushing for what he called the only viable choice, a two-state solution.
“No one has a stronger voice in this than the American Jewish community. You can play a critical part in ensuring Israel’s long-term security,” Kerry said.
The diplomatic efforts involved in bringing different, sometimes suspicious communities together, which Kerry spoke of, mirrored the overarching themes of the conference, which encouraged connection and collaboration between Jews and other communities as a critical part of Jewish advocacy.
The Global Forum also included a special event over the course of the weekend specifically for young Jewish leaders called the ACCESS Summit.
“We wanted to convene a vibrant, diverse panel of international thought leaders,” said Alexis Frankel, director of AJC ACCESS and one the head organizers of the Summit.
The Summit brought together important activists and diplomats to address the issues most relevant for up-and-coming Jewish advocates, from how to successfully agitate for a cause to speculation on developments in world politics that will impact young leaders.
“The role of youth is a very interesting one in our generation,” said Ilja Sichrovsky, the founder and secretary general of the Muslim Jewish Conference (MJC).
Sichrovsky spoke at a panel on interfaith activities between Jews and Muslims around the world. Overall, the panelists encouraged interaction between the two be mostly social at least at first, tabling the more intense social and political concerns at the beginning. They also said it helps if the people putting these types of events together were themselves friendly.
“We really should be friends,” said Parvez Khan, an organizer for Jews and Muslims (JAM) DC of his own interactions with fellow organizer Stuart Levy for their now three-year-old group.
At the Summit and for the conference as a whole, the question of Muslim-Jewish relations was discussed from many angles by experts, Jewish and not, who shared their own opinions and ideas on the case for seeking accord at different levels personal and political.
Dealing with more sensitive parts of Muslim-Jewish relations, related to questions of human rights and the always central Israeli-Palestinian conflict, engaged many of the speakers and attendees.
Jason, an attendee from California who had come to the conference for the first time this year, said it was one of the most basic aspects of modern Jewish advocacy. “It’s really important to talk about,” he said. “It’s always the first thing I get asked about when I talk about Jewish concerns.”
“We’re asking tough questions,” Frankel acknowledged, adding that willingness to listen to different voices, even without agreement, is what stimulates useful discussion.
Though concerns over Israel and Muslim-Jewish relations understandably made up a large portion of the conference, Jewish interaction with other communities in the United States was also on the agenda.
“American Jews should be reaching out to other minorities in America,” said Florida-based attendee David, who had come to the conference to learn about ways to make the Jewish advocacy group he helps lead more integrated into the community. “We have a lot to offer each other.”
Building connections to growing ethnic and cultural groups in the United States is also essential to both American Jews and Israel according to many of the speakers. In particular the growing Latino population in the U.S., much beloved of discussion by pundits and commentators, grows in importance to the American Jewish community as well as the country as a whole.
“Latinos are a fast-growing, politically organized and savvy group,” Frankel said. “There’s a natural affinity between our community and the Latino community,” she continued.
Several speakers discussed the shared immigrant experience of Jews and Latinos and how there are national issues where the goals of major Jewish and Latino organizations match up, such as immigration reform.
“Immigration is a really big deal right now, and I think we both want to see the process improved,” said Beth, a conference attendee from New York who said she had gone to the last three conferences. “If we both speak out for it then reform is that much more likely.”
Another aspect of Latino-Jewish relations to consider was how, by working together on shared goals, a growing relationship with Jews and by proxy, Israel, could encourage first and second-generation immigrants to advocate for Israel in Latin American countries, building more support for Israel in a region that does not necessarily do so now.
For a majority of the hundreds of people attending the conference, what they learned and can take away from the conference is that with enough hard work, the larger goals of the Jewish community can be achieved.
“There was a lot of serious talk but most of the speakers were pretty inspirational,” Jason said.
Kerry also concluded on a hopeful tone, urging the gathered group to commit to the best possible future.
“That’s what lies in front of us, and I hope together we will seize this moment and make the most of it,” he said.