Last night, I returned home from Washington DC after spending four days at J Street’s 10th Annual Conference. As Chair of J Street’s Madison Chapter, I have attended many of these conferences as well as a number of Leadership Summits. I always learn a lot about the never ending efforts of Israelis, Palestinians, Americans, and many others to achieve a peaceful and just resolution to decades of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. However, this year, I almost did not attend the conference. My frustration level with American, Israeli and Palestinian political leaders is so high that I truly wondered whether it would be worth it to attend the conference this year.
J Street has wisely invested heavily in subsidizing college students from its J Street U arm and this year was no exception, as 1200 students attended the conference. One of those students was my son, Josh, who after attending college for two years in Israel, at the Technion (Israel’s Institute of Technology), transferred to the University of Minnesota last fall. His decision to attend his first J Street conference was the deciding factor for me to attend this year’s conference.
Yet, despite looking forward to seeing my son, and showing him around the nation’s capital, I remained skeptical about whether my presence at the conference, would help in some small way, resolve the generations old stalemate between Israelis and Palestinians. Despite my frustration, however, I looked forward to hearing what the many speakers had to say, and hoped to find some inspiration.
Indeed, there were many great speakers, including U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders, Ben Cardin and Brian Schatz, NGO leaders, the Palestinian Ambassador to the UN Husan Zomlot, and at least five Ministers from Israel’s Knesset (known as MKs). One particular MK helped me shift my thinking. On Sunday, J Street leaders were invited to a unique opportunity to eat lunch with all the MKs at the conference. MK Michal Rozin from the progressive Meretz party has done a lot of great work including leading the charge to stop the deportation of African asylum seekers from Israel. When she spoke, she understood our frustration, but then said:
“To be frustrated is not a plan.”
She then went on to say that we each have a choice when confronting the winds of change. We can either be the windmill or the windbreaker. Of course, our choice may depend on which way the winds are blowing, but if we do not want to simply get blown over by those winds, we must cast aside our frustration and decide whether to be the windmill or the windbreaker.
Sure enough, this opportunity presented itself during J Street’s Advocacy Day, when thousands of us, including my son and I, met with our members of Congress to encourage them to take concrete steps towards a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians. J Street asked me to be Wisconsin’s Team Leader and on Monday, I reviewed our talking points and schedule with our team. However, we noticed that we did not have a meeting scheduled with Rep. Ron Kind, who is from LaCrosse. I have met with Rep. Kind in the past and we were all disappointed that we were not scheduled to meet with him on this trip.
However, one of our team members, Kent Johnson, a Lutheran Pastor from LaCrosse, said he knew Rep. Kind personally, and asked if it was ok if he tried to set up a meeting with him, and we encouraged him to do so. Later that day, he informed us that although Rep. Kind was very busy, we could meet with his staff and Rep. Kind would join our meeting briefly to say hello.
What we did not know until we arrived at his office, was that Rep. Kind was at a House Ways and Means Committee hearing, and along with other members of that committee, he was questioning the Secretary of Labor. We started going over our talking points with his staffer, and then his staffer instructed us to follow him to the hearing room as Rep. Kind wanted to meet with us and would step out of the hearing to do so after he was done with his questioning.
Although I have met with Members of Congress hundreds of times over my 33 year career, I have never been in this situation. Rep. Kind’s staffer instructed us to take a seat and watch the hearing until Rep. Kind finished his questioning, and then led us out into the hallway. When Rep. Kind joined us, I truly expected that he would simply give us a courteous handshake and hello and then return to the important business of his hearing. But instead, he gave us all the time we needed to cover all of our talking points and engaged us with serious questions. Indeed, at the end of our meeting, he had his staffer take our picture with him.
As MK Rozin said so eloquently, frustration is not a plan. My son helped me get over my frustration with the seemingly intractable dispute between Israelis and Palestinians so I could accept my role as State Team Leader during our Congressional meetings. Kent Johnson refused to allow our frustration with not having a meeting with his Congressman without pursuing it further, and in the end, we had a productive meeting that none of us will ever forget.
While frustration is certainly a legitimate and regularly felt emotion of those of us who want to improve the world, frustration is not a plan. Rather, systems change requires getting past one’s frustration to become the windmill for positive change and the windbreaker against destructive change.
For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.