J Street convenes in San Francisco: First national summit taps into large Bay Area support base

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For the first time in its six-year history, J Street is set to hold a national summit, bringing together Americans, Israelis and a prominent Palestinian for two days of speeches, strategizing and panels. And it’s being held in San Francisco.

Depending on one’s stance on the controversial, self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby and political action committee, the June 7-8 gathering is a positive step forward in its quest for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians.

Or it’s akin to the Hells Angels roaring into town.

In past years, J Street has routinely mounted large-scale national conferences in Washington, D.C. The weekend summit in San Francisco will be slightly less formal, with no policy or platform votes. But organizers hope for plenty of fireworks, kicking off Saturday, June 7 with an opening-night plenary at Congregation Emanu-El titled “Leading to Peace: An Inside View of Mideast Diplomacy.”

The lineup of speakers is power-packed: former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations Gabriela Shalev, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt Daniel Kurtzer, and former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Other speakers and panelists on Sunday, June 8 will include Reps. Jackie Speier (D–San Mateo) and Jared Huffman (D–North Bay), Knesset member Merav Michaeli and B’Tselem USA director Anat Saragusti. Nine breakout sessions will cover such topics as the Arab Spring, Iran, Israeli public opinion, and building a viable Palestinian state.

The two-day gathering will close with a gala fundraiser dinner that will honor Carol Winograd, a retired Stanford University professor of medicine and J Street board member.

Also in attendance: J Street founder and executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami, who will serve as a kind of master of ceremonies and participate in several panel discussions.

J Street’s 2013 national conference in Washington, D.C.

Why San Francisco? The Bay Area constitutes one of J Street’s largest bases of support, with more than 13,000 supporters, according to S.F.-based regional director Gordon Gladstone. Five members of J Street’s national board, 52 members of its rabbinic council and 11 of its endorsed members of Congress hail from the region. It is also a major source of financial support.

“I’m excited about having a large national event on the West Coast,” Ben-Ami said in an interview. “It’s terrific for our movement to have this opportunity, and I think it will help us deepen our ties and networks. Not just in the Bay Area but beyond.”

J Street’s director of education and programming, Sarah Beller, helped organize the summit, which coincides with a low point in the history of Middle East peace. The recent collapse of talks brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry has dimmed prospects for J Street’s prime goal of a negotiated two-state solution.

“We want to show that even as there are lulls in direct peace talks, we as a pro-Israel, pro-peace movement continue to grow, deepen our roots and project our voices in all parts of the country,” she said.

Beller expects talks will get back on track eventually.

“We believe the initiative is on pause,” she said, “and the [parties] are regrouping to plan their next steps and hopefully have a more effective strategy. It doesn’t affect our core mission. It doesn’t change the urgent need for a two-state solution.”

Israel’s former U.N. ambassador agrees. Shalev, 72, became one of her country’s top lawyers, jurists and law professors before being appointed to the U.N. post in 2008 under former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. She was the first woman to serve in that post. She is now president of Israel’s Ono Academic College.

Vice President Joe Biden

Shalev’s first husband died in the Yom Kippur War in 1973. She cares deeply about her country, which, she says, explains her support of J Street.

“We Israelis that want peace and believe it can only be achieved through negotiations and diplomacy, we must support J Street, which also represents the younger and more moderate sector of the Jewish people in the United States,” she said.

Shalev concedes that the status of talks is “discouraging and frustrating,” but says without the involvement of the United States in brokering a deal, Israel will “face a very bad scenario of violence, and therefore this is one reason I support J Street, which is very supportive of diplomacy.”

She is referring to J Street’s persistent emphasis on a two-state solution to the conflict. Not at all a new concept, the two-state solution has been embraced theoretically by all but the most extreme players in Middle East peace. Yet today it seems more remote than ever.

Kurtzer, a Princeton professor and strong proponent of continued American leadership in the region, looks forward to sharing the stage with Shalev and Fayyad, both of whom he says he knows and admires. He applauded Kerry’s efforts but says America must not give up now that talks have collapsed.

“The United States was quite serious about trying to facilitate progress,” Kurtzer told J. “The problem Kerry faced was the unwillingness at the end to put forward strong American ideas. The United States backed away from what I’ve argued is the responsibility of the third party, [since] the parties cannot reach agreement on their own.”

Kurtzer is the latest current or former government official to speak at a major J Street event, following such past headliners as Vice President Joe Biden, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Middle East envoys Martin Indyk and Dennis Ross and emeritus Reform movement leader Rabbi Eric Yoffie.

At its national conference last September in Washington, D.C., Biden thanked J Street supporters for continuing “to infuse new blood from generation to generation into this cause [for Middle East peace]. You are welcome and your ideas are welcome as well.”

Calling himself an “equal opportunity speaker, “ Kurtzer said he is happy to appear because “J Street is pro-Israel.”

J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (below) at the group’s 2013 conference

“You can have discourse and debate on all sides of the issue,” Kurtzer said. “It is shortsighted and unwise to exclude certain voices just because you disagree with them.”

In its first years, J Street got the cold shoulder from many American and Israeli officials, who saw the organization either as an arrogant upstart seeking to supplant AIPAC’s role as the prime Israel lobby, or as a far-left fifth column working against Israel’s interests.

Nevertheless, J Street has opened nine offices around the country and maintains a staff of 55. During election cycles, it endorses and contributes to dozens of House and Senate candidates, like any other PAC. Its influence is growing.

In recent years, leaders such as Shalev and Kurtzer have not shied away from attending J Street events, even if they may not fully agree with all of the organization’s policy positions.

“The big power in American Jewry is AIPAC,” Shalev said, “and it has done wonderfully for Israel. But now there’s another voice that must be heard, the young and more to the left, and more supportive of diplomacy.”

Representing the younger voice is Sarah Beller (no relation to the J Street education director with the same name). The 21-year-old Stanford University junior grew up in a Zionist home in London, and later in San Francisco, visiting Israel often during her childhood.

The classics major and Hillel activist joined the Stanford chapter of J Street University because “it fit my political views” and because, she says, the school’s Jewish Student Union did not do enough outreach beyond the Jewish population. For Beller, dialogue is crucial.

Jeremy Ben-Ami greets Mideast special envoy Martin Indyk at the 2013 conference.

“Most people on campus don’t know much about the conflict,” she said. “We can reach out to students. We’re pro-Zionist, but the great thing is we have different perspectives on security and human rights. We’re lucky Stanford is a place of ideas.”

Despite any gloom over the peace talks, Beller feels now is the “perfect time” for a J Street summit, so that she and like-minded activists may come together and discuss “the next steps to make sure America doesn’t say ‘It’s over.’ ”

Beller will be one of more than 400 people expected at the summit. That’s a rough count tallied by J Street’s Gladstone. He predicts a mix of longtime supporters (the organization’s website claims 180,000 nationwide) and curious newcomers eager to take part in the discussion.

“This is a really interesting opportunity to hear from a lot of people,” Gladstone said. “It’s an entire season of Commonwealth Club packed into a weekend.”

A hot topic of conversation may be J Street’s failure to win enough votes last month to gain membership in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, a key national umbrella group.

Though it garnered “yes” votes from mainstream organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, the Union for Reform Judaism and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, J Street’s membership bid was shot down in a 23-17 vote (with three abstentions).

Ben-Ami told J. that the vote “said a lot more about the Conference and how it operates than about J Street. I would say we actually did have the support of mainstream American Jewry in our application [to join]. In the long run, if it leads to reform and results in a Conference more in the mainstream of the American Jewish community, it will have been a good things this vote took place.”

The Conference of Presidents does count left-leaning groups such as Americans for Peace Now, Workmen’s Circle and the Jewish Labor Committee among its member organizations. ADL’s national director Abraham Foxman, who personally disagrees with many J Street positions, voted to include J Street because he felt it belonged “in the conversation.”

Salam Fayyad

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said after the vote, “It is clear the Conference of Presidents, as currently constituted and governed, no longer serves its vital purpose of providing a collective voice for the entire American Jewish pro-Israel community.”

But as it is, many in the Jewish communal world just don’t like J Street, and they feel they have good reason.

“The J Street Challenge,” a 2014 documentary produced by Americans for Peace and Tolerance, makes a public case against the organization.

Condemning J Street on camera are such prominent Jewish community figures as Alan Dershowitz, Jerusalem Post editor Caroline Glick and writer Daniel Gordis. To them, J Street is riddled with potholes.

Detractors accuse the organization of seeking to engineer an imposed peace agreement while downplaying Israeli security concerns. They accuse J Street of harboring a hostile attitude toward the Jewish state, despite pro-Israel sloganeering. Their evidence includes years of J Street public statements, many of which, they say, condemn Israel, and few that assign blame to the Palestinian side.

Charles Jacobs, who co-produced the film, believes J Street, intentionally or not, is working against Israel’s best interests. “They blame Israel for the conflict, which is deadly,” said Jacobs, founder of Americans for Peace and Tolerance, an organization that works to expose Islamic extremism. “The world is turning anti-Semitic because [people] blame Israel and hold the Palestinians to no standards.”

Daniel Kurtzer

Writing in the American Thinker last month, critic Michael Curtis declared that J Street “misunderstands the nature of the problem by narrowly defining it as a dispute over land and borders, instead of one based on ethnic and religious differences. Does J Street seriously consider that there is a Palestinian partner who can be trusted to take part in negotiations for a genuine two-state solution in which Israel would be safe? Saving lives and healing the world is one of the great Jewish values; committing suicide is not.”

Not surprisingly, Ben-Ami denies his critics’ charges.

“The primary line of opposition tends to be a recitation of lies that have little to do with the substance of points we are making instead of legitimate disagreement,” Ben-Ami said.

The J Street website includes a “Myths & Facts” page that strongly refutes every negative assertion — that J Street is not truly supportive of Israel, is out of touch with American Jews, opposes Israel’s use of force, sponsors anti-Israel activists and fails to sufficiently condemn Iran’s nuclear program.

For example, critics claim J Street is soft on BDS, having invited supporters of the boycott, sanctions and divestment movement against Israel to some of its events. According to the website, J Street policy “strongly opposes” BDS, which “fails to explicitly recognize Israel’s right to exist and ignores or rejects Israel’s role as a national home for the Jewish people.”

It also categorically rejects the Palestinian so-called “right of return,” which, if adopted, would flood Israel with Palestinians and unmake the country as a viable Jewish state.

Ben-Ami wrote on that page, “To say we’re not pro-Israel is beyond insulting; it’s a malicious lie.”

Gabriela Shalev

Still, he unapologetically supports the Palestinians’ right to a viable state of their own.

“Our view is that this conflict is over territory between two peoples with claims to the land, and there is a way to resolve [it] and that is to figure out how to draw a border, say ‘That’s yours’ and we’re done,” Ben-Ami told J. “If this is brought into the realm of a religious dispute, and the argument is ‘My God gave it to me,’ then there’s no compromise.”

The J Street position, he said, is that the Palestinians must recognize Israel, disavow violence and abide by prior agreements. That is also the prevailing view of the United States, the European Union and a majority of Jews.

For J Street members and staffers such as regional director Gladstone, the criticism comes with the territory. He has found that disagreements can lead to better understanding.

“I do encounter people from time to time who object to our work,” said Gladstone, who lived in Israel and holds an Israeli passport. “I try to understand what it is that concerns them, and if I’m able to address those concerns I try to do so. People understand that we have a common denominator, that we desperately want Israel’s success and security.”

Stanford student Beller echoes the sentiment.

“There are plenty of people who aren’t fans of J Street’s mission,” she said. “I hear the comments. But it’s more important to have discussions with people who disagree with you. It doesn’t discourage me. I believe what I’m doing is the right thing.”

J Street national summit in San Francisco opens with a free panel discussion at 7 p.m. Saturday, June 7 at Congregation Emanu-El, 2 Lake St. Summit follows the next day from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at JCCSF, 3200 California St. $36-$75.


on the cover

Rally in College Park, Md. in 2009 (top); Rep. Jackie Speier and Salam Fayyad, speakers at the J Street summit


Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.