J Street Conference Reveals Growing Coordination on the Left

By Eric Fingerhut (JTA)

Published July 17, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Left-wing advocates of a two-state solution and a greater U.S. role in the peace process are joining forces in support of what they hope will be a groundbreaking conference this October in Washington.

The conference, set for Oct. 25-28, is being dubbed as J Street’s first national convention, but 11 other groups have signed on as “participating organizations,” including Ameinu, Americans for Peace Now, the Israel Policy Forum, the New Israel Fund and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom.

The plan is for these other organizations to help promote and recruit for the event, in addition to having input on the program and helping to “shape the conference,” said J Street chief of staff Rachel Lerner.

The push for greater cooperation comes as many organizations on the Jewish left are reveling in what they view as a major shift in Washington, with the White House and members of Congress endorsing some of the policy prescriptions that they’ve been backing for years.

In particular, several of the organizations involved in the upcoming conference have been offering strong public support for the Obama administration’s push for an Israeli settlement freeze. Two of the groups – J Street and Americans for Peace Now – found themselves on the list of 14 organizations invited to Monday’s meeting in the White House with the president.

Some lawmakers and congressional staffers say that the increased profile of liberal groups is starting to have an impact on Capitol Hill. One staffer said that while there have always been members of Congress who have been on the left side of the pro-Israel spectrum, now those lawmakers have “a safe place” to remain “pro-Israel” while openly discussing more sensitive issues like the humanitarian crises in Gaza and the failure to establish a Palestinian state.

J Street’s executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, said that one of the goals of the conference was to show people in Washington that it “isn’t just 10 people gathering in a basement” who support these views. Similarly, he added, the conference will give the participants a chance to “look and see each other and feel less like lone voices in the wilderness.”

Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman said he had no problem with the Jewish left getting together to advocate its position, noting that “we are a diverse community.” But he criticized J Street’s attempts to downgrade other Jewish organizations while claiming to truly represent the opinion of the Jewish community.

“Advocate your position, but not at somebody else’s expense,” he said, citing specifically a recent op-ed by a J Street staffer that said Foxman and other mainstream leaders were doing “damage” to efforts to keep young Jews involved in the community with their criticism of Obama’s Middle East policies.

“I wouldn’t delegitimize them,” he said. “They’re trying to delegitimize us.”

Left-wing critics of Israeli policy have frequently sought to portray J Street and its allies as an emerging, dovish alternative to AIPAC and other establishment Jewish organizations that oppose U.S. pressure on Israel. But no one is suggesting that the J Street conference will come close to matching the nearly 10,000 people – including hundreds of members of Congress, administration officials and foreign dignitaries – who have attended the banquet at AIPAC’s annual policy conference in recent years.

Ben-Ami said it would be wrong to portray the J Street conference as a left-wing version of the AIPAC policy conference. Instead, he said, he sees the event as a pro-Israel version of the “Take Back America” conferences during the Bush era, which brought together liberal activists on a variety of issues in Washington every year.

Hopefully, Ben-Ami added, the conference would serve as a big step in building what he calls a movement backing strong U.S. efforts to bring peace in the Middle East.

Organizers said that participating groups will be organizing sessions focusing on their specialties. For instance, Americans for Peace Now will be organizing a session on settlements, Brit Tzedek will be putting together programs on grass-roots organizing and on working with rabbis, and the New Israel Fund will do a panel on democracy and civil rights issues in Israel.

The conference is the largest manifestation of what Americans for Peace Now spokesman Ori Nir called the “growing synergy and common cause” between groups on the Jewish left. Such groups have long worked together in informal coalitions to push legislation and congressional letters on Capitol Hill. But Nir said that J Street’s filling of the “political niche” – an area he said had been neglected by the left in the past – adds another dimension to the movement.

One major dovish group that has not signed on as an official backer of the conference is the Union for Reform Judaism, whose president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, initially was supportive of J Street’s creation, but later slammed the group for its quick criticism of Israel’s military operation in Gaza.

Yoffie will be speaking at the conference, and says he still sees the cooperation of liberal organizations as a “positive development.”

“Let’s have a broad and generous definition of what constitutes pro-Israel,” he said.

One veteran Jewish political observer assigned some importance to the growing alliance, but cautioned against making too much of it.

“All throughout the political community, like-minded groups get together,” the observer said. Now the “Jewish left is doing it, too.”

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.