J Streets road to convention hits a few more bumps

Days before the first national conference of the left-wing pro-Israel group J Street, critics’ attacks on the organization are having an effect.

At least 10 members of Congress in recent days have removed their names from the conference’s 160-person congressional host committee, many after inquiries from a writer at a prominent conservative magazine.

Also, J Street canceled a poetry session scheduled for the conference after controversial remarks made by one of the planned participants were publicized in that same magazine.

Poet Josh Healey, whose scheduled performance at the upcoming J Street conference has been nixed. photo/jta/creative commons/emily mills

And the Israeli Embassy announced that it would be sending only an observer, not Ambassador Michael Oren as scheduled, to the parley.

Meanwhile, J Street announced that it had secured a high-ranking Obama administration official to keynote the four-day event set to begin Oct. 25 in Washington, D.C.: James Jones, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser. Jones recently spoke at the American Task Force for Palestine gala Oct. 15.

Other major figures slated to speak include several former top Israeli officials, former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel and Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of Reform Judaism.

The fallout this week underscored the controversy J Street has stirred in the Jewish community, particularly given its warm reception from Obama administration officials.

Many pro-Israel critics say J Street’s advocacy — including opposition to tougher Iran sanctions at this time and support for U.S. pressure on Israel and the Palestinians in pursuit of a two-state solution — undermines the Israeli government and Israel’s welfare. The group also has drawn fire for criticizing Israel’s invasion of Gaza last winter and for refusing to place the blame for the confrontation on Hamas.

J Street, which calls itself “pro-Israel, pro-peace,” says the policies it pursues are in Israel’s best interests.

StandWithUs, a pro-Israel group, was planning this week to place advertisements condemning J Street in the Washington Post and Washington Jewish Week.

The trouble for J Street’s poetry session came last week, when the Web site of the Weekly Standard posted a video in which poet Josh Healey, a scheduled participant, talks about how for his friends “Anne Frank is Matthew Shepard” and “Guantanamo is Auschwitz.”

In one poem on the video, Healey wonders whether “the Chosen People” have been “chosen to recreate our own history, merely reversing the roles with the script now reading that we’re the ones writing numbers on the wrists of babies born in the ghetto called Gaza?”

On Oct. 19, J Street canceled the session, which was scheduled as part of the “Culture as a Tool for Change” track and was to feature artists Kevin Coval and Tracy Soren in addition to Healey.

The group’s executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, said that “as J Street is critical of the use and abuse of Holocaust imagery and metaphors by politicians and pundits on the right, it would be inappropriate for us to feature poets at our conference whose poetry has used such imagery in the past and might also be offensive to some conference participants.”

“I had a conversation with J Street staff, and they explained that they are playing

the game — Washington politics — and seeking legitimacy,” Healey told Israeli daily Ha’aretz. “And they are not willing to fight this battle.”

Another session, which is not officially part of the conference but to which J Street is giving hotel space during the event, will include writers who have harshly criticized Israel and questioned its right to exist as a Jewish state. It is sponsored by blogger Richard Silverstein; J Street officials said they have nothing to do with the program.

Members of Congress began taking themselves off the conference host committee last week. Most of the 10 who removed themselves blamed staffers whom they said were not knowledgeable about the positions J Street espouses before agreeing to put their boss on the committee.

J Street acknowledged that the presence on the list of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) was an error; Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) originally agreed but pulled out before J Street released the committee list last month.

In an e-mail to supporters, J Street blamed the Weekly Standard for the withdrawals, saying the magazine’s “thuggish smear tactics” were having an impact on Capitol Hill. The e-mail urged supporters to fight back by calling members of Congress to thank them for being a part of the conference host committee.

Michael Goldfarb, the editor for the Weekly Standard who wrote about J Street, said he takes J Street’s attack against him as a compliment.

“They say the ‘thuggish smears are having an impact,’” Goldfarb said. “They’re not having an impact because they’re smears. They’re having an impact because they’re true.”

On Oct. 20, the Israeli Embassy in Washington released a statement saying it would send an observer to the conference and would “follow its proceedings with interest,” but Oren, whom J Street had invited, would not attend. The statement added that the embassy has been “privately communicating its concerns over certain policies of the organization that may impair the interests of Israel.”

The embassy did not immediately specify which J Street policies it believes could “impair” Israel’s interests, but J Street backed Obama’s call for a full freeze of settlements in the West Bank.

“We believe the government of Israel will be missing an opportunity should it choose not to engage with the over 1,200 pro-Israel activists who will be in attendance at the J Street conference,” said J Street spokeswoman Amy Spitalnick.

J Street’s director of policy and strategy, Hadar Susskind, said he sees the attacks on the organization and its conference as “a sign that we are waking people up” and making a mark on the U.S.-Israel relationship.