J Street struts its stuff at first convention

Ever since its inception some 18 months ago, the upstart Israel lobby J Street has made its mark by insisting that being pro-Israel and pro-peace is not an oxymoron.

That rallying cry, which has generated its share of controversy, has suddenly been amplified dramatically, although its progressive and prophetic message remains unchanged, according to the organization’s executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami.

“We’ve simply got ourselves a megaphone,” he told more than 1,000 attendees at the Oct. 25 opening of J Street’s much-anticipated inaugural conference.

The event itself, which ran through Oct. 28, provided the decibel boost by raising J Street’s profile and signaling that a new geopolitcal movement had, in fact, been born, according to Ben-Ami.

“This majority will be silent no more,” he declared in his address.

The conference, which took place at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington, D.C., drew an estimated 1,500 attendees — by far the largest gathering of progressive, Israel-focused Jews in U.S. history, according to event organizers.

Microphone in hand, Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.) speaks during an Oct. 27 panel discussion of members of Congress at the J Street conference. photo/jta/j street

The confab demonstrated that J Street offered a diverse and “mainstream” alternative to one camp that says “Israel is always right” and another that says “Israel is always wrong,” Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund, said during the Oct. 25 opening session.

Rather, Sokatch added, “we offer a critical third way for American Jews” to support Israel, one that focuses on a Jewish state in which there cannot be peace without justice for both Israel and its neighbors.

Moreover, the event offered a refuge for Jews who were born after Israel’s victory in the 1967 war and therefore did not grow up with “that immediate visceral connection” to the Jewish state, Sokatch pointed out.

That generation includes Lauren Barr, a student at American University and a J Street intern, who said that “our society raised us to believe in tolerance and respect for others” and that “we’re taught to question everything — except for Israel.”

Those who balk at supporting the Jewish state, she said, “risk being called traitors,” yet “we cannot connect to an Israel that denies accountability.”

Israel, Barr added, “needs us to serve, to use our energy, our enthusiasm and our determination to come up with a fresh approach.”

The conference featured soul-searching panel discussions in which participants grappled painstakingly with thorny issues, as well as exuberant pep rally-type exhortations.

Although emotions ran high, they did not always translate into unequivocal support for conference speakers.

For example, during his address Oct. 26, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, drew isolated boos as well as hearty ovations, depending on the topics he broached.

Yoffie was applauded, for example, when he declared that many American Jewish groups “have their heads in the sand” regarding the negative impact of settlements on the well-being of Israel.

The reaction was vastly different, however, when he pointedly criticized the Goldstone report.

“Richard Goldstone should be ashamed of himself — ashamed of himself — for working under the auspices of the U.N. Human Rights Council,” Yoffie said, drawing a smattering of catcalls.

A spokesperson for AIPAC declined to comment on the conference, as did a spokesperson for the Israel embassy. (Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren declined an invitation.)

National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones provided a tacit endorsement of J Street’s efforts Oct. 27 when he told conference participants that President Barack Obama’s administration believes “without equivocation” that “Israeli security and peace are inseparable.”

Shortly before the conference, a dozen members of Congress withdrew from the event’s host committee after being pressured by critics who maintained that the organization is out of step with the Jewish mainstream.

One of those politicians who remained, however, was Rep. Bob Filner (D–San Diego), who received a big round of applause from attendees after revealing that he voted against a 1994 resolution that condemned a Nation of Islam leader for making anti-Semitic remarks.

Filner said he opposed the measure targeting Khalid Abdul Muhammad, at the time a top lieutenant of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, because it would have violated the First Amendment guarantee of free speech. He said he was the only Jewish member of Congress to oppose the measure.

After the vote, Filner complained, he began to get calls from unnamed members of the Jewish community who told him they weren’t going to donate to his campaigns anymore — and he said he eventually lost $250,000 in contributions per election cycle as a result of his position on Muhammad.

“That kind of money is an intimidating factor,” he said. “I raised a lot less money in succeeding years, but my conscience was cleared,” he said to a rousing ovation.

One of the panelists, Michelle Goldberg, author of “Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism” said the current environment creates “a petri dish” for anti-Israel “conspiracy theories” on both the left and the right.

A self-described liberal and a Zionist, she warned that calls for a one-state solution will grow louder if liberals find it impossible to also be Zionists because they find the Jewish state’s policies regarding Arabs unacceptable.

J Street’s approach may offer “the last hope” of avoiding that eventuality, she said.

David Kretzmer, a professor emeritus of international law at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said that the American Jewish community must make it clear that it does not endorse actions of the Israeli government “that damage human rights of Arabs.”

Adam Kredo
and Debra Rubin of the Washington Jewish Week contributed to this article.