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J Street: A New Avenue for Ideas or a Dead End? Day 1

J Street logo points right?

J Street logo points right?

Washington DC has a grid of numbers and lettered streets overlayed with diagonal avenues named for U.S. states. There are smaller streets in alphabetic order which ascend in sequence by their numbers of syllables, as well. K Street is known for Gucci wearing lobbyists, and U Street for artists. But one lettered street is missing. The is no “J Street,” since the city planner was a foe of politician John “Jay.”

Eighteen months ago, a J STREET came to DC, a new Jewish lobbying group that defines itself as pro Israel and pro peace. The group’s name is playing off the notion of lobbying, (J)ewish, and what it feels has been a lack of organized progressive peace lobbying in DC. But just as L’Efant hated John Jay and omitted a “J Street”, this group has quickly garnered attention and enemiesl it is seen by some as a thorn in the foot of the OJC (Organized Jewish Community), dangerous by others, and a tempest in a tiny teapot that will be ignored by a few others. Its actual or potential influence has not yet been assessed. I was lucky enough to attend their first, inaugural conference this week, and below are some of my impressions.

The conference hosted nearly 100 speakers primarily from North America and Israel, including several current and former MK’s, U.S. members of Congress, a former Israeli FM, a former head of the Shin Bet, former Ambassador Martin Indyk, and current U.S. National Security Advisor Jim Jones. The conference was planned for 1,000 attendees, had 1,200 on the first night, and 1,500 by the first morning. This was quite amazing for a group that reports 7,000 contributors and 110,000 online supporters (Perhaps they count facebook friends as well). Most impressive were the over 200 students from dozens of campuses in attendance. Many of them are on the front lines of Israel and peace advocacy programs, more so than in other environments. It is one of the few truly grassroots Jewish movements I have witnessed.

The attendees were a very wide ranging mosaic of progressive North American Jews with various degrees and definitions of what pro-Israel and pro-Peace is, but such is the nature of inaugural conferences and progressives, where the angels that are in the details and they get hammered in or out.

I knew I was in for something different when there were no bagels on the first day’s continental breakfast. Just croissants and muffins. What kind of Jewish event was this? Thankfully on day two, there were bagels and even a toaster. Is this a sign of how groups evolve?

Over 20 other organizations collaborated in the events, including Americans for Peace Now, Rabbis for Human Rights, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom (which had over 200 members at the conference, I hadn‘t even heard of them), the New Israel Fund, Meretz USA, and Ameinu. The sessions were webcast live and can be found on J Street’s website and twittered under the hash tag of #JSTCONF09. C-Span broadcast a selected panel as well.

The conference opened with a plenary (a fancy word for “full“) session on Israel and American Jewry in the new century. It was led by Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s Executive Director, and Daniel Sokatch, the new CEO of the New Israel Fund. They know that they are treading on rough terrain in the Jewish community. They are seen as an alternative voice to AIPAC, the powerful Israel focus lobby, and the local Jewish federations that tow the “party line” on Israel (the party line being that of the officially elected Israeli PM at the time).

Many see J Street as giving U.S. law and policy makers an opening to vote against the current desires of the Israeli government and still be seen as “pro-Israel.” They say that J Street will hurt AIPAC’s ability to enforce “Party” unity. Time will tell, but one panelist told an audience how he knew political consultants who would tell candidates to return any contributions from J Street so as not to negatively taint themselves.

Ben-Ami began the first evening by reading from congratulatory letters from Peres and Livni. He then listed of his pro Israel bona fides, as did many of the speakers over the three days. Although many said that it was unnecessary to have to list their pro-Israel credentials, they still did it. And why not? To be effective, one must be realistic; and if it lends to one’s credibility to list ones experiences, so be it.

Not as smug as u would fear

Not as smug as u would fear

Perhaps Ben-Ami has “challenge” in his DNA? His late father, a leader of the Irgun, was the one who purchased the Altalena ship as a direct challenge to Ben-Gurion. Jeremy Ben-Ami laid out the foundations of J Street and its goal to advocate for a two state solution and a regional integrated peace plan. There were a lot of self congratulatory moments, but no more than at any other conference that seeks to reinforce its policies and values, and I don’t want you to think that it went a far as a farce, as when in “South Park,” Kyle’s father was smugly enamored by his own choices and smells.

Others took the stage or floor to essentially lay out their passions that there should be no officially sanctioned way to be “pro Israel,” to assert that the right-wing does not have a monopoly on Israel advocacy and policies, and to report that many young American Jews, even in light of Birthright Israel are disaffected, unaffiliated, and not interested in the prevailing attitude of “Support Israel: Whether Right or Wrong.” They reported that they are shunned in their local Jewish communities if they say Palestinians have rights to a independent peaceful state, and that their friends are more likely to advocate for Darfur, global warming, and healthcare reform, than for Israel.

Sokatch added, J Street is progressive, pro Israel, pro peace, and pro social justice…, and then quipped “we need a shorter tag line.” He added that J Street is “not the fringe, but the mainstream,” and of deep significance. Whether this is wishful thinking inside of a bubble or reality is yet to be seen.

One of the best reality checks that was mentioned at the conference was the fact on the ground that the old urban pro Israel political voting alliances that existed in post WWII America are shifting, and the window is short to have support for a two state solution in the Middle East. Within a few years, most countries will just attempt to impose a one state, “one person-one vote” solution, and the Jewish majority in Israel will be dissolved if enacted. Ben-Ami, who sees J Street as not a new voice in the Jewish community, but an ancient (prophetic) voice, closed the first evening’s session by reiterating the group’s belief that the US should not just be a facilitator for the principal negotiating parties, but take a leadership role .

And there was evening, and morning… and then the next day… (continued above)

19 Comments

  1. ck

    10/29/2009 at 11:06 am

    Biggest challenge facing J Street? How to unite the diverse voices represented at their conference into a cohesive political force. One solution is to move closer to the center but already those on the fringes are responding with lukewarm praise or outright hostility calling J Street a right wing organization. Here’s a woman that attended the conference who exemplifies this tension somewhat:

    Hmmm. Looking forward to Larry’s next installment!

  2. themiddle

    10/29/2009 at 11:17 am

    That woman is from Code Pink. Aren’t they one of the groups leading the boycott movement against Israel?

  3. Larry

    10/29/2009 at 11:20 am

    I think you have to write these people off. They are so left that they may not be part of any Jewish organization. There was a woman who passionately explained that she cannot LOVe Israel or be pro Israel or pro American, and that those are arcane ideas. There are those who railed against haredim and internal issues in Israel. There was a Christian Zionist who ultimately wanst all Jews to be Christian. There was an Asian diplomat who found the group too unrealistic. There were those who do not want a Jewish state but a beautifu mosaic state in which there is a slight Jewish character… so the conference, the first conference, attracted lots of fringes, but in the middle, the majority of attendees are pro a secure Jewish majority Israel living in peace with Syria, Jordan, the moderate Arab states, a Palestinian state, and a nuclear free Iran.

  4. Larry

    10/29/2009 at 11:25 am

    I think J Street can UNITE those who want a two state solution and want a free open debate in their synagogues and federations.

    But they should exclude the fringes who will never adhere to the lobby group’s platform

    But seriously… and I will blod about this after 5PM… the New Israel Fund was a lefty liberal charity for those bored of the UJA Israel Appeal. Their 2008 donations or assets was $33 million. This is but a drip in the bucket compared to the UJA federation funds raised for the Israel Appeal, after decades of existence.

    Will J Street die like Breira? No. But will it be like AIPAC? No. It will be an address for those that are pro Israel, pro peace, but who don;t agree with the current coalition government

  5. Tom Morrissey

    10/29/2009 at 12:10 pm

    In this time of great danger to Israel, all Jewish Americans should unswervingly support AIPAC’s line and the current Israeli government (until such time as it becomes the former government, then unswervingly support the next one, whatever it may be).

  6. themiddle

    10/29/2009 at 12:22 pm

    Ridiculous, Tom. AIPAC has as much right to lobby for its views as…J Street. And if there’s one thing you should have learned after all these years with us, it’s that there is no shortage of alternative voices and alternative thinkers in the Jewish community.

    By the way, Larry, thank you for the post and I look forward to the next one.

  7. Tom Morrissey

    10/29/2009 at 12:28 pm

    Ah-ha– now I’ve got it figured out . . . I take a pro-Likud line, and get you to tack to the center. This should be useful down the road.

    Good post by Larry (except for his use of language that was not negative).

  8. Larry

    10/29/2009 at 12:58 pm

    Dear Middle.. thanks… one of the best incidents that i witneesed was at a panel moderated by a goateed JJ Goldberg of The Forward on what it is to be pro Israel. I sat in front of the VELVETEEN RABBI.

    A former head of AIPAC stood up during the Q&A and said. When he was head of AIPAC (and a former Nazi Hunter), and AIPAC represented the Rabin and Peres Oslo views, there were right wingers who broke off and said that they would lobby Congress to be more right wing and against Oslo, opposing AIPAC and the elected Israeli cabinet

    So.. governments change and stances change. When the govt was leftist, AIPAC had its alternatives, and now that it is rightist, it should also be expected

  9. themiddle

    10/29/2009 at 1:21 pm

    I think if J Street was a centrist movement, it would gain some serious traction. They are trying to depict themselves publicly in this way, but they have gathered too many groups that identify with the hard left. Essentially, they’ve left the center open for AIPAC because AIPAC can include the centrists. I believe it’s very hard for most Jews who know and care about Israel to take the approach that Israel is evil, but that is precisely what many in J Street’s camp say.

    For example, this woman from Code Pink. I looked it up and her movement is currently involved in an attempt to boycott Ahava products. My first inclination – and I am somebody who supports what Barak offered at Taba, and can even live with Olmert’s “internationalized” Jerusalem, which I think can fairly be described as a centrist position and perhaps even left of center – is to go out and buy Ahava products for my wife. My second inclination is to avoid J Street and recognize that under their big tent they have members whose views are anathema to me and whose approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict leads, in my opinion, to more wars and not peace.

    I hope that in your reports I will learn otherwise, but I’m not holding my breath.

  10. ck

    10/29/2009 at 3:40 pm

    More crazies? Why our old friend Richard Silverstein getting one of his enemies booted out of the not-at-all-sponsored-by-JStreet bloggers conference. The people doing the booting? J Street staffers. What was Hillel Stavis’ crime? Well, nothing. He was a registered and paid up participant in the conference. He just disagrees with Silverstein and his presence was ruining Silverstein’s party!

    Shoot – I wonder… would I have been booted out too?? Did you witness this mishegas Larry?

  11. themiddle

    10/29/2009 at 4:03 pm

    Was that the J Streeters Against “Israeli Apartheid” session?

  12. Larry

    10/29/2009 at 5:51 pm

    I did not go to that session. It was not part of the event and they were only using a room. These things are peripheral and silliness, and not the main event. If you saw some of the bloggers there or even some bloggers on a panel or two, you would never read their works again.
    They are important only in their own minds and among their friends and frenemies, but when it comes down to the real work of Congressional lobbying, they are of not importance. At least that is what I think

    • ck

      10/30/2009 at 6:48 am

      Larry wrote: “If you saw some of the bloggers there or even some bloggers on a panel or two, you would never read their works again. They are important only in their own minds and among their friends and frenemies…”

      Hey! That’s kinda like… us. Fuck.

  13. themicah

    10/29/2009 at 7:03 pm

    For example, this woman from Code Pink…. My second inclination is to avoid J Street and recognize that under their big tent they have members whose views are anathema to me and whose approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict leads, in my opinion, to more wars and not peace.

    How is the Code Pink lady’s involvement with J Street any different than a Kahanist showing up at AIPAC? The one time I went to the AIPAC convention (during Bibi’s last administration) there were a number of people there who had views way to the right of what I believed, but I didn’t avoid AIPAC for having a big tent that included them. My guess is that there are folks under AIPAC’s umbrella today whose views are anathema to you as well.

    As for Hillel Stavis’ ejection, even Mobius was critical of that.

  14. themiddle

    10/29/2009 at 7:47 pm

    Themicah, fair point. Then again, one of the reasons I’m not a member of AIPAC is precisely that I’d rather not let others define me or be able to outvote me on important issues. Is Code Pink an anomaly at J Street or representative of a large percentage of its members? Seeing Richard Silverstein there doesn’t give me much confidence.

  15. Joshua

    10/29/2009 at 11:08 pm

    TM is right. Having Dickie Silverstein, Mondo Weiss, and Max Blumenthal at the convention is analogous to AIPAC inviting Robert Spencer (Jihad Watch) and Daniel Pipes to speak at theirs. No one would condone the latter, so why condone the former?

  16. themiddle

    10/30/2009 at 12:52 am

    Wow, apparently Silverstein’s actions on this video were only the beginning of the harassment of Hillel.

    Read the whole sad and sordid tale.

  17. Larry

    10/30/2009 at 6:57 am

    Ck no way…. trust me… we are different…. these guys were scary. one guy.. totally oblivious.. would type and type through entire panels and speaches… but not quietly.. he would pound his keyboard. he probably has aspergers, cuz he was oblivious to the stares of his neighbors and participants. that is what i mean. some people were just so ernestly self involved that they were oblivious to the wider picture or even to their own impact on the people next to them. but of course,,, i am just filled with love and respect for them

  18. themicah

    10/30/2009 at 9:24 am

    Having Dickie Silverstein, Mondo Weiss, and Max Blumenthal at the convention is analogous to AIPAC inviting Robert Spencer (Jihad Watch) and Daniel Pipes to speak at theirs. No one would condone the latter, so why condone the former?

    From what I’ve read, the Silverstein/Weiss/Blumenthal panel was technically not part of the J Street conference, although the separation appears to have been a nominal distancing only. I agree, however, that AIPAC probably wouldn’t even provide a room at their conference for the right-wing equivalents (as J Street did for that panel). And my guess is that J Street will learn from their mistakes in that regard if they really want to be taken seriously by the pro-Israel moderate left.

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