200 attend 'J-Street Town Meeting' at Congregation B’nai Israel, Northampton; urge 2-state solution for Mideast peace

Last modified: Sunday, March 30, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — There was a widespread feeling of hope among backers of Mideast peace who walked out of Congregation B’nai Israel Thursday night.

A crowd of around 200 filled the synagogue for the “J Street Town Meeting,” an event aimed to support a peaceful end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict though the two-state solution championed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

“This was a feel-good meeting,” said Alan Berkenwald of Northampton. “You walk away thinking peace is possible.”

J Street is a national organization founded by Jeremy Ben-Ami in 2008 to advocate support for a peaceful end to the conflict. In response to Kerry’s remarks last summer, Ben Ami launched the 2 Campaign to rally support for separate Israeli and Palestinian states.

Thursday’s event featured several speakers, including Ben-Ami, who spoke in favor of the campaign’s mission. It was part of a regional tour that also included stops in Boston and New Haven.

“Most open-minded people understand that the only solution is a two-state solution,” said speaker Amram Mitzna, a member of the Israeli Knesset or parliament and former West Bank commander in the Israeli army.

While some Israelis might believe the land was given to them by God and be unwilling to make this compromise, Mitzna said he believes that creating a separate state is the only way for Israel to exist as a democracy with a Jewish majority.

He said some members of the press have accused him of being a “traitor.”

“I’m not afraid because I do believe it is a necessity, because I care for the state of Israel,” he said. “The sooner we understand it, the better.”

Six months since the revived peace talks began, U.S. officials are preparing to release a “framework” proposal that that would lay out a preliminary agreement on key issues and would receive at least partial Israeli and Palestinian approval. The Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has staunchly opposed concessions to the Palestinians that the U.S. delegation sees as necessary.

With Kerry and other U.S. politicians in office backing a two-state solution, supporters say, this is a prime opportunity to work toward it.

“We can’t have a failure in this attempt,” Mitzna said. “I’m not sure if we will have another opportunity.”

Following Mitzna’s talk, synagogue president and J Street finance committee member Norbert Goldfield read statements of support from Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

The event also featured remarks from Talia Laster, a senior at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who came to represent the college’s chapter of J Street U, the organization’s campus movement. Laster told the story of when separate pro-Israel and pro-Palestine protests broke out on campus after an Israeli military operation in Gaza following Palestinian rocket attacks in November 2012. She said she and a friend had addressed both groups with chants such as, “Conversation not confrontation.”

Since J Street U began organizing on the UMass campus, she said, she has noticed a difference in the way students communicate about the conflict.

In attendance were student representatives from other chapters of J Street U, including Hampshire College and Smith College. In an interview after the event, Hampshire College freshman and J Street U representative Daniel Weiss said he believes that these types of events can help encourage more activism among community members.

“I think it’s important to have jumping-off points for conversation,” he said. “It gets people in a sort of mind-set where they’re open.”

Tamar Fields of Northampton, who is chairwoman of J Street’s western Massachusetts chapter and an organizer of the event, said she hopes people walked away from the event with an understanding that while concessions must be made to solve the conflict, “peace is worth it.”

“It’s OK to hope for peace,” she said. “I think the overall concept of this national campaign is that peace is just, peace is possible and peace is necessary.”