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J Street Grows, But Can It Change the Game?

A new liberal Washington lobby comes of age at its first annual conference.

Ralph Seliger

WASHINGTON, DC - The 18-month old liberal "pro-Israel, pro-peace" Washington lobby, J Street, went into its first annual conference with huge momentum and a major news spotlight that only grew with the event itself. Expecting 1000 participants, its venues overflowed at Washington's Grand Hyatt Hotel with an announced total of 1,500 registrants. Most sessions were mobbed; this reporter was closed out of one and twice could hardly find a piece of wall to lean on, let alone a seat.

J Street has grown from a founding staff of four to 30 today. It absorbed the student-oriented Union of Progressive Zionists (founded by left-Zionist groups several years ago) as its youth arm and renamed it "J Street U." About 250 J Street U activists had just concluded its national meeting and were very much in evidence at the larger event.

In the weeks prior to the conference, J Street completed negotiations to ally with Brit Tzedek V'Shalom (the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace), which has a "grassroots" following in 30 local chapters. It will serve J Street as its field arm, with a possible name change.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street's founder and executive director, delineated the group's three major objectives as: upholding the "right of the Jewish people to a state in the land of Israel," the "right of Palestinians to a state of Palestine," and that "the U.S. should help." He spoke of being "pro-Israel, not anti-somebody else." The conference frequently echoed with words about "inclusiveness," "widening the tent" and how being "pro-Israel" requires being "pro-Palestine."

J Street designated approximately 20 peace-oriented Zionist or human rights organizations in the United States and Israel as "partners," with a number presiding over concurrent breakout sessions, on such issues as settlements in occupied territories and Israel's social problems. Among the more than 100 speakers listed were a number of Arab-American community leaders, Palestinians from the territories, and the Jordanian ambassador.

The "host committee" of 160 members of Congress dropped to 148, due to alarms raised by The Weekly Standard and Commentary on J Street's alleged anti-Israel positions, and the refusal of Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States, to attend. The Israeli embassy's press statement explained that it "has been privately communicating its concerns over certain policies of the organization that may impair the interests of Israel." The most prominent of the six Democrats scared off were New York's two Senators, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand; of seven Republicans, all but one dropped out-Rep. Boustany of Louisiana, who appeared on a panel with three Democratic House colleagues.


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But both Israel's head of state, President Shimon Peres, and the leader of the parliamentary opposition, Kadima party chair Tzipi Livni, sent friendly greetings. And a number of former and current members of the Knesset from the Kadima, Labor and Meretz parties spoke on various panels.

J Street received the apparent support of the White House, with a speech by National Security Adviser James L. Jones emphasizing how President Obama shares J Street's stand for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel as the firmest guarantee of Israel's security. While Obama appeared personally at last year's AIPAC conference, it must be regarded as a coup that his 4th ranking foreign affairs official (after Obama, Biden and Clinton) was allowed by the White House to deliver what J Street, the new kid on the block, billed as the keynote address.

Yet J Street's nuanced "pro-Israel, pro-peace" agenda is attacked from the center and left, as well as the right. At a packed plenary session, Ben-Ami politely debated Rabbi Eric Yaffie, an otherwise liberal Reform Jewish leader who had criticized J Street's opposition to Israel's recent Gaza offensive and its preference for diplomacy over sanctions regarding Iran and the nuclear issue. They also differed on the Goldstone Report, with Ben-Ami favoring an independent commission in Israel to investigate allegations of "war crimes" in Gaza-as called for by Deputy Prime Minster Dan Meridor, and like the one that forced Ariel Sharon to resign as defense minister for "indirect responsibility" for the massacre of Palestinian civilians at two refugee camps near Beirut in 1982.

Two days prior to the conference, journalist Jeffrey Goldberg published on his blog at The Atlantic website a transcript of his contentious phone conversation with Ben-Ami. Goldberg, a proponent of the war in Iraq, had chastised Ben-Ami for not "renouncing" support from Stephen Walt, co-author with John Mearsheimer of a book that blames the "Israel Lobby" for that conflict. While Ben-Ami sees their thesis as resembling "conspiracy theories contained in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion," he wouldn't renounce Walt because this "smacks of witch-hunts and thought-police."

Still, in defending his pro-Israel credentials with Goldberg, Ben-Ami's words became fodder for critics on the left-wing blogosphere-such as Max Blumenthal, Helena Cobban, Philip Weiss and Richard Silverstein-whom Ben-Ami actually accommodated at the conference with a room for an unofficial panel discussion during the first day's lunch break (J Street even supplied them, as it did all participants that day, with free food and drinks). He drew the bloggers' ire in part by saying to Goldberg: "I hope we get attacked from the left because I would characterize J Street as the mainstream of the American Jewish community."

Ben-Ami would argue that if he can show the president and Congress of the United States that most American Jews support a strong and consistent effort to end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians through diplomacy, this helps everyone in the end.

Ralph Seliger writes about Israel and Jewish cultural and political issues. He is the editor of Israel Horizons, the quarterly publication of Meretz USA, and blogs at the Meretz USA weblog.

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