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2014 Spring Issue 8 (June 6, 2014)

Where to Now?

June 10, 2014
By Sofia Chang

When John Kerry announced the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks last July, my office took the afternoon off and threw a party. For J Street, an organization whose goal it is to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through U.S.-led diplomacy, the talks were a Big Deal, an opportunity for us to majorly shift the U.S. political calculus around this issue. Around the conference table we beamed and traded jokes about the “peace baby” that would hopefully be delivered at the end of the nine-month window--the amount of time it was set for negotiators to come to a final-status agreement.  

Of course, we shared a healthy amount of skepticism, too. Resolving the conflict was hard, really hard, and negotiations had failed many times before--crushingly so. Moreover, we knew there were plenty of cynics and others who were unwilling to take this chance--people for whom it was easier to give up than to try.

Heading into fall at Carleton, I did my best to balance caution with optimism. I took on serious leadership within J Street U Carleton, where our leadership team worked with the national J Street movement to rally student support for the negotiations. We started with conference calls in August, then aggressive Facebook-stalking as the first-years trickled in, many of them eager to learn and advocate about issues on an international scope. We flew them to D.C. and Chicago, where they learned from experts on the conflict and lobbied in Senator Al Franken’s office. Week after week we asked friends, acquaintances, and classmates to join us at meetings. Talking to people face to face, I felt like I was making a difference. I spoke with so many people reluctant to actively support peace. But if not now, when? This was my mantra.

At the height of J Street U Carleton’s efforts, we organized a screening of the Israeli documentary The Gatekeepers, attracting sixty students. This was in February, already seven months into the peace baby’s term, and negotiations were beginning to look shaky. Still, in our small corner of Minnesota, we kept on. We changed tact that term, leaning into our advocacy campaign. I sent countless emails and met for countless coffees and gathered signatures from club leaders and professors, many of whom endorsed our letter to Secretary of State Kerry.  The letter, moved by J Street U chapters across the country, thanked Kerry for his efforts and outlined our framework for a two-state solution (it can be found at J Street U kept scheduling meetings, building relationships, and asking people to join a great constituency for peace.

In the end, time ran out. On April 29th negotiations collapsed without even agreement on a basic framework for peace. Al Franken never signed the Senate Resolution expressing support for continued negotiations. The peace talks had failed; hadn’t we, too?

Looking back it might seem like all the time and energy I and my co-leaders invested in this campaign went to waste. I doubt there will be another round of negotiations in my remaining two years at Carleton. All the students I spoke to with such passion and determination will probably also have graduated, scattered to unreachable places where I can no longer hold them accountable to their belief--our belief--that peace is both necessary and possible. Many of those whom we hoped to move have only had their cynicism reinforced; almost all of us have faced feelings of disempowerment.

Looking forward, though, I see that what we have built this past year was not a wasted effort. We persist, and we recognize those efforts as a necessary investment. The people who came to discussions and screenings are now more knowledgeable of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than before, more attuned to the complex perspectives and narratives of those involved. They are willing to challenge others’ assumptions and to be critical of their own. The students I trained and mentored to become discussion leaders and workshop trainers will use those skills to become strong advocates for our cause. And I have learned so very, very much myself--through the hope and disappointment, the successes and failures, the moments of laughter and vulnerability.

As J Street U Carleton and as a national movement we are adjusting, recalibrating, and thinking very hard about the future. Although these negotiations presented unique moments of hope, inspiration, and opportunity, I know that the years leading up to those talks were as important as the nine months themselves. And so we are already building a strategy for the next year, already planning the summertime conference calls, already asking each other, What can we do to give the next peace baby their best chance?

Yes, I am still waiting for the day when we celebrate the freshly signed deal between Israelis and Palestinians. I might be waiting for a long while. But I know that I am not alone in this cause. This week, Pope Francis visited the separation barrier and called for a two-state agreement. These are the small but significant actions that keep us moving forward. I know that the next time Americans must prove their support for peace negotiations, we will be able to demonstrate a power that is greater than it was this time around. At Carleton we will present Al Franken with a long list of top student leaders and faculty whose voices he cannot ignore. We will make our voices present and visible throughout this campus, so that the next time an obstacle to peace emerges, we will be there to push on, to tell our representatives, “We know this is a difficult time to take a stand, but we have your back” -- and our “we” will be bigger, louder, and undeniably the voice of Carleton. Yes, there is much more work to do.  

I’m ready.

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