When J Street’s annual conference begins on Saturday night March 24 in Washington, DC, the self-described ‘pro-Israel, pro-peace’ lobby will host fewer than a quarter of the number of participants who attended AIPAC’s convention three weeks ago (in the same space). But the gathering is likely to produce an equivalent amount of attention.
Take, for instance, one of the American Jewish community’s most polarizing figures, Peter Beinart, who recently took to the pages of the New York Times calling for a boycott of Israeli goods from the West Bank. The former editor of The New Republic will launch his most recent book, ‘The Crisis of Zionism,’ at the J-Street conference. In it, Beinart argues that the American Jewish community’s traditional approach to supporting Israel is alienating young liberal Jews from Zionism and threatens to erase the liberal Zionist dream entirely. (See positive reviews here and here. Critical reviews here and here).
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert headlines the Monday gala dinner along with Anat Hoffman, who heads the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel. The conference gets underway Saturday night with three Israelis from three generations who, according to J Street, “are shaping the history of their country”: author Amos Oz; Yeruham Mayor Michael Biton; and Stav Shaffir, one of the leaders of last summer’s social protests in Israel.
J Street has also announced that a senior advisor to President Obama, Valerie Jarrett, will deliver a keynote address on Monday. The administration will also be represented by National Security Advisor to the Vice President, Tony Blinken.
“This level of representation by the Administration is a strong re-affirmation of its support for the role that J Street plays in representing many Jewish Americans in the debates over Israel in the political and policy worlds,” says J Street founder and President Jeremy Ben-Ami.
But the conference, and J Street generally, has its critics in the American Jewish community, particularly on the right. The Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI), an advocacy group backed by noted neoconservative and The Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, openly questions J Street’s pro-Israel bona fides.
“J Street still has not managed to find solutions to a couple of basic problems,” says ECI Executive Director Noah Pollak, whose group is perhaps best-known for its full-page ads in The New York Times and bus-stop billboards attacking President Obama’s Middle East policies. “The first is the group’s anti-Israel instincts, which were again on display when J Street’s statement on the recent flare-up between Israel and Gaza falsely accused the IDF of killing a dozen civilians — when in fact, as was widely reported at the time, only terrorists were killed. You have to have pretty awful feelings about Israel to make such an assumption.”
“Another problem is that the group’s base ranges from anti-Israel to ambivalent-about-Israel, and there just isn’t much desire in Washington or in the Jewish community to make common cause with such people. You can paper over this reality by saying you’re pro-Israel, but as evidence piles up to the contrary people stop believing it,” says Pollack.
But Ben-Ami says J Street has established itself as a permanent part of the Jewish American landscape.
“In our early years J Street’s challenge was to prove that one could be both pro-Israel and pro-peace,” he says. “Now our challenge is to lead the pro-Israel movement into the future under the only banner that can give Israel security as the democratic, Jewish homeland: Bold action in support of a two-state solution.”
“Combined with the welcoming video from President Shimon Peres and the presence of a senior representative of the Israeli Embassy at the conference, I think it’s clear that J Street has established itself as a permanent and important part of the mainstream American dialogue on Israel,” adds Ben-Ami.
Organizers say there will be 40 workshops at the J Street conference on issues such as Iran, the American Jewish vote, settlements, human rights, and Palestinian perspectives on the conflict.
Other notables participating in the four-day conference, which is expected to attract about 2500 people, include: Members of Knesset Avishay Braverman, Zehava Golan, and Raleb Maja; former Labor Party leader General Amram Mitzna; The Embassy of Israel’s Deputy Head of Mission, Barukh Binah; former US ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer; former US State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter; Rabbi Donniel Hartman of Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute; and veteran Hollywood icon Theodore Bikel, who will be the master of ceremonies.