Inter Press Service
J Street, the relatively new “pro-Israel, pro-Peace” advocacy group, exceeded expectations for its inaugural conference here in Washington with over 1,500 participants attending the four-day event.
Turnout surpassed the organisers’ 1,000 expected participants, despite a series of attacks accusing the group of being insufficiently “pro-Israel” and of receiving contributions from donors with Arab last names.
While Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren refused to attend the conference, J Street did attract foreign policy heavyweights such as National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones, Rep. Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat, and former senator Chuck Hagel, who will co-chair U.S. President Barack Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board with former Senator David Boren.
J Street came under increasingly heavy attack in the week before the conference as opponents questioned the group’s pro-Israel credentials for its criticisms of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stance on settlements and the siege on Gaza.
The anti-J Street offensive went into high gear over the past two weeks, with the Weekly Standard‘s Michael Goldfarb and StandWithUs, an “organization that ensures that Israel’s side of the story is told”, calling and faxing lawmakers on the conference’s host committee to express concern over their support of J Street.
The campaign seems to have found only minimal success – only 10 lawmakers pulled their names from the conference – but it brought high levels of media attention to the J Street agenda and the ongoing conflict within the American Jewish community over what it means to be “pro-Israel”.
J Street’s platform emphasises diplomatic solutions over military ones and multilateral diplomacy – often with the U.S. taking a strong leadership role – over unilateral approaches.
It has called for territorial compromises with the Palestinians based largely on the 1967 borders with reciprocal land swaps and the division of Jerusalem. The group also favours strong U.S. support for Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations and direct, high-level U.S. talks with Iran to address all issues of mutual concern, including ending Iranian opposition to Arab-Israeli peace efforts and its support for armed anti-Israel groups in Palestine and Lebanon.
At the opening of the conference on Sunday night, J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami described the group’s mission as providing answers to the following questions: “First, what it will take to finally end the Israeli-Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflicts diplomatically and peacefully. Second, how do we change the unconstructive way this issue plays out in American politics and policy. And, third, how do we alter some of the unhealthy dynamics that have emerged inside the American Jewish community when it comes to talking about Israel.”
The group advocates for Pres. Obama to make resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict a top priority, with the U.S. in a leading role.
Ben-Ami described the pursuit of peace between Israel and its neighbours as a crucial component of the group’s pro-Israel position.
“We rally tonight around this simple premise: that the security and very future of the Jewish, democratic homeland in Israel is at risk without an end to the conflict and to the occupation of the Palestinian people,” said Ben-Ami on Sunday night.
Speaking Tuesday, Hagel noted that, “U.S. interests are secured by having strong relationships with both Israel and the Arabs. And it’s in Israel’s interest too.”
Hagel went on to denounce those “who pursue a divisive strategy of making the U.S. choose between Israel and the Arabs”.
J Street offers what its says is a more mainstream reflection of American Jewish public opinion on settlements and a two-state-solution, which supporters of J Street have claimed is misrepresented by the unwavering support for aggressive Israeli policies – most recently in Gaza and Lebanon – of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
“We will make it clear that a majority of American Jews – and a majority of Americans, period – support the same sensible pro-Israel, pro-peace policies toward Israel and the Middle East that we do,” said Ben-Ami. “Yes, most American Jews favor a two-state solution and comprehensive regional peace. Most oppose the expansion of settlements by Israel.”
One of J Street’s initial funders, New York attorney Victor Kovner, noted that, “The ‘settlements’ are not within the State of Israel. The so-called settlers may be citizens of Israel, may pay taxes in Israel, may vote in Israel – and they certainly do vote – but they do not reside in Israel.”
“They live in another land. And the name of that land is Palestine,” Kovner said, as he accepted J Street’s inaugural “Pursuer of Peace” award.
“What we owe our friends and family in Israel is our best advice,” he added.
The conference – which was attended by a large number of university students -emphasised the J Street objective of widening the dialogue on what is considered “pro-Israel” as a means of engaging young people with Israel.
“So our final goal as a movement is to change the nature of the Jewish communal conversation on Israel. We want to broaden the conversation. We value nuance. We encourage debate and discussion,” said Ben-Ami.
Indeed, that debate and discussion was prominently on display on Monday afternoon when Ben-Ami debated Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who heads the Union for Reform Judaism, in front of a packed ballroom.
Yoffie’s condemnation of the recently released Goldstone report – which critics say focuses unfairly on Israeli actions taken during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza – was met by a smattering of boos from the audience but the public debate was seen by most as an example of how J Street intends to publicly and civilly air disagreements within the Jewish community.
Yoffie and Ben-Ami found much ground for agreement and both emphasised their shared view that the current Israeli policy towards settlements dangerously threatens the future of a two-state solution.
The conference concluded Wednesday with over 700 participants visiting lawmakers on Capitol Hill to lobby for congressional support for a strong U.S. role in bringing about a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In addition to J Street’s advocacy arm, J Street’s political action affiliate, JStreetPAC, has been formed to offer financial support to candidates for federal office who promote peace in the Middle East and the creation of a Palestinian state.
In 2008, the PAC raised over 578,000 dollars and endorsed 41 candidates.
Speakers at Tuesday evening’s dinner emphasised both the urgency of forming a Palestinian state and dealing with “final status” issues to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – which include borders, the status of Jerusalem, refugees, Israeli settlements in occupied territory, security and water rights – but also expressed optimism for Obama’s unique ability to bring about a conclusion to the conflict.
“President Obama, on Middle East issues, we have your back,” said Kovner.
Eli Clifton writes for the Inter Press Service and is a contributor to Right Web (http://rightweb.irc-online.org/).