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J Street holds annual conference amid controversy

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J Street, the dovish Jewish lobby, held its second annual national conference in Washington, DC, February 26-28.  Although it was watched closely in Israel and the United States, coverage in the Arab world was almost non-existent, reflecting perhaps the view that J Street has a long way to go before it can provide a credible alternative to AIPAC.

According to its website, “J Street is the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans. The organization gives political voice to mainstream American Jews and other supporters of Israel who, informed by their progressive and Jewish values, believe that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is essential to Israel’s survival as the national home of the Jewish people and as a vibrant democracy. J Street’s mission is two-fold: first, to advocate for urgent American diplomatic leadership to achieve a two-state solution and a broader regional, comprehensive peace and, second, to ensure a broad debate on Israel and the Middle East in national politics and the American Jewish community.”

In one of the few articles covering the conference in the Arab Media, Barbara Ferguson reports in the Saudi daily Arab News that “several liberal Knesset members and 50 US congressmen did show up, as well as an impressive array of respected expects from the Middle East community.  Invited guest speakers included Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, head of the Cordoba Initiative (derogatorily known as the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’), and Mona Eltahawy, the outspoken international public speaker on Arab and Muslim issues.”

This year’s conference was bigger and more inclusive than the previous one. However, according to Nathan Guttman of Forward, “J Street’s opposition to an American veto of a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity cost it the support of a key member of Congress and strained its ties with Israeli officials in Washington. Meanwhile, the group’s collegiate arm was rebuffed in its attempt to sponsor its own group to go on Birthright Israel, a popular program that funds trips to Israel for young Jews. As J Street approaches two significant milestones — the third anniversary of its launch and its second national conference — the group is still spending time and energy defending itself from critics who say that it isn’t sufficiently pro-Israel.”

It was J Street’s opposition to the American veto of the UN Security Council resolution that got the organization in trouble with some of its congressional supporters early on. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), an initial supporter of J Street, distanced himself from the organization as a result of J Street’s opposition: “The decision to endorse the Palestinian and Arab effort to condemn Israel in the UN Security Council, is not the choice of a concerned friend trying to help. It is rather the befuddled choice of an organization so open-minded about what constitutes support for Israel that its brains have fallen out. America really does need a smart, credible, politically active organization that is as aggressively pro-peace as it is pro-Israel. Unfortunately, J-Street ain’t it.”

J Street responded in a strongly press release: “J Street deeply regrets and objects to Rep. Gary Ackerman’s statement today. It reflects a misunderstanding of J Street’s position and of the UN Resolution in question....The status quo in the Middle East is untenable. The future of Israel, as both a democracy and the homeland of the Jewish people, hangs in the balance without progress toward a two-state solution. At a moment crying out for leadership, what’s needed now is not the politics of yesterday that the Congressman offers with this attack, but the courage to put on the table the tough steps that are needed to end this conflict. We do Israel no favors by offering a pass from facing the consequences of counter-productive actions and policies.”

Despite J Street’s back push, most commentators believe that the organization has suffered as a result of its public spat as well as its efforts to widen its appeal. However, even on this count, there seems to some confusion about what this will mean for J Street in the future. For example, James Beeser writes in Jewish Week, “Detractors say a string of recent embarrassments — including the group’s less-than-truthful account of billionaire financier George Soros’ role in its funding, the recent defection of pro-Israel Rep. Gary Ackerman and Birthright Israel’s cancellation this month of a joint trip with J Street’s campus affiliate — have set the group on course toward irrelevancy.”

However, a week later he expressed a more optimistic view on the future of the organization: “Is J Street.…starting to have an impact on Capitol Hill, or has its impact been exaggerated by the press and by its own PR people?…J Street clearly holds appeal for the cohort of younger Jews that have been pulling away from pro-Israel and Jewish involvement. In the long term, that may put J Street in a better position to challenge the pro-Israel establishment — if it can at the same time build confidence among the lawmakers they are lobbying and the congressional wannabees they hope will shift the balance in Congress on Middle East issues.

Others are even more scathing in their assessment. The Jerusalem Post editorial expressed the view that while, “in theory, all lovers of democracy and diversity of opinion should welcome J Street’s rise, as a mark of its success in fostering a fundamentally pro-Israel stance even among younger American Jews who might feel alienated from more mainstream organizations’ perceived ‘Israel right or wrong’ position. In practice, however, the concern is that J Street has been stretching too thin its “big tent” of opinions, to incorporate elements of the extreme Left, risking in the process leaving out in the cold American Jews with an unabashedly pro-Zionist sensibility.”

Jason Edelstein, on the other hand, even goes so far as to question J Street’s pro-peace position, writing in on Yedinot Ahronot, “J Street, which prides itself [on being] the ‘pro-Israel, pro-Peace’ movement, has organized an annual conference that shatters the validity of this characterization. By hosting speakers like political activist Mustafa Barghouti, a leader in the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, and Michael Sfard, who promotes lawfare cases against Israeli officials, J Street demonstrates that the term ‘pro-peace’ no longer applies to the organization.”

Some of the criticism was also expressed during the proceedings of the conference. Nachman Shai, a member of Knesset, suggested, “There is no question that J Street’s activities are important, but the dialogue between the organization and Israel — or world Jewry as a whole and Israel — should be conducted internally, within the Jewish people. The questions J Street raises, which are legitimate and serious, warrant answers. The State of Israel and its representatives, official and otherwise, should give them....At the same time, I believe that we should not and must not call on external pressure or coercion to be placed on the State of Israel and its positions. The internal Jewish dialogue is one thing; Israel as it is seen by the world is something else....We don’t need to hide our disagreements, but we should be aware that what we say in these internal conversations can have different meanings when taken out of context.”

Natasha Mozgovaya writes in Haaretz, “The problem with J Street is that it seems to have lost a bit of its policy focus, instead plunging into controversies and acting, as some Congress staffers hint, too hastily and even arrogantly. They point to the lobby's practice of putting out controversial statements without consulting enough with key players, making some congressmen sympathetic to a two-state solution feel uncomfortable....It will be difficult for J Street to give up its focus as a Congressional lobby, but at this moment it seems it's more productive for them to explore their potential as a national or even international grassroots Jewish peace organization.” However, she cautions, “Israel will have to deal with J Street sooner or later.”

Also, there is evidence, according to some, that J Street is beginning to move away from a position of only defending the Obama administration’s efforts in the Middle East, to also pushing President Obama for not doing enough. On this point, Nathan Guttman wrote at the conclusion of the conference, “Shifting sands in the Middle East and new political realities in Washington are forcing J Street to recalibrate its strategy. The dovish Israel lobby…finds itself prodding a reluctant administration to take a more assertive approach. ‘We were the blocking-back, clearing space for the quarterback to do what we wanted him to do,’ said J Street’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, using a football analogy in an interview with the Forward. But, Ben-Ami added, Obama ‘hasn’t been able to push as aggressively as we would like,’ and J Street has ‘switched from being out front and clearing the way, to pushing him to do something more.’”