Last weekend, more than 2400 activists converged on my current home of Washington, DC for a weekend of discussion, learning, and debate at J Street’s second national conference. At four days of speakers, panels, and networking, the gathering was a major show of strength for the sometimes-controversial lobby. If you’re curious about the play-by-play, I spent the weekend livetweeting from the @jstreetdc Twitter account.* Many other activists were doing the same, and you can relive the past at the hashtag #jstconf. You can also watch many of the events online.
This second conference represented a watershed moment for J Street, which is in its third year of explosive growth. The fledgling group of young activists and wonks of 2008 has transformed into a nationwide organization of 38 “locals” across 26 states, a student arm many thousands strong on about 50 campuses, and the largest pro-Israel PAC in the country. This post is an attempt to put the organization in context in the three worlds to which it belongs: American politics, Israeli politics, and Diaspora Jewish politics.
If you don’t know anything about J Street, a good place to start would be the speech its president, Jeremy Ben Ami, delivered at the opening plenary to the conference. The elevator pitch: J Street is the political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement. J Street lobbies for vigorous American leadership in reaching a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians.
J Street has earned a foothold on Capitol Hill. But there is a difference between presence and influence, and to the extent J Street enjoys the latter, it is because there is already a substantial constituency in the Congress that favors a more nuanced approach to Israel and the Occupied Territories.
J Street’s current concrete goal: a peace plan presented to both parties by the Obama Administration, and an end to the mantra that “we cannot want peace more than the parties themselves.” This remains to be achieved, and the disconnect between what J Street wants and what the US-as-broker is prepared to provide could not have been more clear than at the keynote address delivered by Dennis Ross. Mixed with some boilerplate about the Arab uprisings, Ross reiterated America’s commitment to providing “bridging proposals” to help both parties negotiate their own agreement.
That isn’t enough for J Street and its supporters, and they made no secret of it at a follow-up “analysis panel” with Bernie Avishai, Daniel Levy, and Roger Cohen. Like most rational observers, J Street has recognized that a peace process driven solely by Israelis and Palestinians is now little more than a fantasy. The President will have to do much more to reassure American Jews that he is serious about peace.
Five sitting members of Knesset, as well as former members, joined us for the weekend. The sitting members – four from Kadima, one from Labor –participated in a policy roundtable attended by the entire conference, and I saw them turning up at panels, both as participants and audience members, throughout the weekend.
The majority of Israelis, and the majority of Knesset, are comfortable with J Street’s fundamental policy goal: a viable and sovereign Palestinian state existing in some form in the West Bank. They are less comfortable with the idea of a large American bloc involving itself in what they see as their domestic politics. But that is not a discomfort that begins and ends with J Street itself, and the more abstract problem it points to – is Israel a country for Israelis, or for all Jews? – is not a problem that J Street invented.
At the end of the day, J Street is a lobby that works on American, not Israeli, policy. But it is disingenuous to pretend that the link between these two worlds is as tenuous as any other random American interest. That may be true for some Americans – but it is not true for American Jews. For decades, now, the American Jewish establishment has insisted on deep engagement with Israel as the Jewish homeland. To the occasional chagrin of that same leadership, J Street supporters take that call to engage very seriously. They feel – rightly, I believe – that as Jews they have a responsibility to speak up on behalf of Israel’s founding principles of democracy and human rights when they see these principles under assault.
J Street’s serious disagreement today is with the policies of Bibi Netanyahu and his weak coalition. Unlike some, J Street supporters simply don’t believe what Mr. Netanyahu says when he talks about peace; and again, unlike some, they are more than willing to say so out loud. One observer commented that the only guarantor of applause at the conference was to go after Netanyahu. Perhaps anticipating the gulf between J Street supporters and their hawkish administration, Michael Oren and the Israeli Embassy declined to participate in the conference. I wonder whether this is the first time a diplomatic mission refused to attend an event that prominently featured members of its own parliament.
To its credit, J Street as an organization has done its best to work with the Netanyahu government, despite its disagreements. I agree with Ben Ami when he says it is a “serious mistake” for the Netanyahu government to refuse to engage with those with whom it disagrees – and I think the size of the conference and the passion of its participants lend credence to that perspective. As Natasha Mozgovaya writes in the Israeli press, “Israel will have to deal with J Street sooner or later.” She might have more accurately said “Netanyahu will have to deal with J Street sooner or later” – clearly, many others in Knesset have already gotten the message.
Why do I think J Street matters? Two reasons, both of which fall out of its evolving role in Diaspora Jewish politics.
First – and this speaks to a larger phenomenon in American politics generally – J Street is one of the few major political lobbies that I know of that actively seeks out, and openly engages, its critics. Jim Besser, referring to the opening keynote delivered by Rabbi David Saperstein, noted that “I can’t remember the last time I attended a major Jewish or pro-Israel conference where the sponsoring group allowed such overt criticism by a major speaker.”
That’s not just a quirk of the conference. It represents a core belief of J Street’s leadership that the thought-policing of American Jews over Israel has gotten wildly out of hand. Witness the organization’s commitment to hosting a panel on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, despite opposing it both in principle and practice, and despite its sensitivity in the Jewish establishment.
For Jews and non-Jews alike, J Street represents a rare breed of organization that refuses to be controlled by the games of guilt-by-association, and the conspiracy-mongering, popularized by the right wing in the Glenn Beck era. (Speaking of which, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf was one of the many panelists.) In this particular respect I think they have admirably led by example. Having been at the BDS panel myself – in a room full of people accustomed to going on the attack for or against BDS – I can attest to what a powerful experience it was to sit in respectful understanding with those who disagreed, and to realize that I could survive an encounter with the other side.
Second, and more importantly, I noted with excitement not only the size of this conference, but the content of its participants. J Street’s growing coalition of allies is an inverted image of the fractured and marginalized Israeli left. Leaders from the Geneva Initiative, Peace Now, the East Jerusalem direct action campaigns, New Israel Fund, New America Foundation, Center for American Progress, Dorot, Rabbis for Human Rights, Encounter, Ameinu, and dozens of other innovative and groundbreaking organizations were all in attendance. J Street has been wildly successful in establishing itself as the intersection between these organizations, and if it is able to leverage even a fraction of their collective brain power and political influence, it will be an unstoppable force.
I can’t overemphasize this point. J Street represents the broadest coalition imaginable (and in some cases even broader than one’s imagination – witness the attendance of both Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Grover Norquist at the same gala dinner) of individuals and organizations committed to ending the conflict. It’s not just a collective of the likeminded – it’s a collective of the likeminded and the deeply engaged.
And indeed if there is a lesson in all of this for those to J Street’s right, it is that establishing restrictive litmus tests for the meaning of “pro-Israel” does not just shrink one’s tent – it dilutes its quality, as well. Quite simply, J Street has been the primary beneficiary of the reflexive closure in the Jewish establishment. I would apply much of what John Payne wrote about the libertarian resurgence at CPAC to this conference, in particular this part:
CPAC has never been representative of conservatism as a whole–it’s a conference for conservative activists, intelligentsia, and college students, who are by far the largest group. So while CPAC does not perfectly reflect conservatism at the moment, it does give us a glimpse at its future. Libertarians are clearly ascendant among activists on the right, and that will probably translate into a far more libertarian conservatism ten or twenty years down the road.
Things at J Street 2011 looked much the same to me. The only difference, I think, is that J Street benefits from a large, silent majority within the American Jewish community, and therefore can look forward to a revolution in Israel activism much sooner than twenty years from now.
For the past year I have been a volunteer with J Street in the hopes of moving the ball forward, however incrementally, on peace. This conference has altered my outlook substantially. Despite so much grim news from Israel and the Territories, I am more optimistic than ever for a peaceful, two-state resolution. The coalition of partners I met over the weekend is one of the most powerful political forces I have ever had the privilege to work with, and I for one am very excited about 2011.
I’ll be an active presence in the comments section and I will be happy to answer questions or respond to contentions where I’m able.
*Though I do certain things under the J Street “flag,” such as the local Twitter account, I am not compensated or employed by the organization in any way, and my thoughts don’t represent J Street’s official positions on anything. I do my volunteer work with the DC local for free and out of love.