J Street Hopes To Return Focus to Peace at Annual Conference

Peter Beinart, Ehud Olmert To Be Featured Speakers

Meeting of Minds: Some 2,500 people are expected at the third annual J Street conference, which begins March 24. Above, a panel discussion at last year’s gathering.
courtesy of j street
Meeting of Minds: Some 2,500 people are expected at the third annual J Street conference, which begins March 24. Above, a panel discussion at last year’s gathering.

By Nathan Guttman

Published March 25, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

As J Street, the self-styled pro-peace, pro-Israel lobby, opens its annual conference this year, it does so at a time of unparalleled growth for the group, and serious setbacks for its cause.

With talk of war with Iran dominating Israeli–American discourse, the dovish lobby is working hard to return the Palestinian issue to center stage.

Convincing the president, Congress and the Jewish community that there is a need for advancing Israel–Palestinian talks, even at a time when those bodies perceive other looming threats, will be a focus of J Street’s third annual conference. The gathering takes place in Washington on March 24–27, and it is expected to attract 2,500 people.

“What J Street will try to do is to make the point that it shouldn’t be a tradeoff, that it is not an either–or situation,” Jeremy Ben-Ami, the group’s president and founder, told the Forward on March 19.

The conference coincides with J Street’s fourth anniversary, and takes place at a time of major growth in the organization’s staff, donations and profile. But the meeting also takes place at what is arguably the Mideast peace process’s lowest point in years.

“The fact that everyone is talking about Iran has totally taken the wind out of the Palestinian issue,” said a Jewish community official who follows closely the Israeli–Palestinian peace process. The official, who spoke to the Forward on the condition of anonymity, described this move as a victory for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is J Street’s key rival in the world of Jewish lobbying.

J Street has staked out a tough anti-war position regarding Iran, and has made clear it fully backs President Obama’s approach that now is the time for diplomacy, not for military action. This approach has set J Street and other dovish Jewish voices apart from the broader Jewish organized community, which has taken positions closer to those of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who stresses Israel’s right to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities.

J Street has grown into a $7 million operation with 50 people on staff. But it is still trying to find the right balance between its “inside the beltway” leadership, which holds more moderate views, and its vast grassroots operation that is home to many progressive activists whose beliefs are at times outside the Jewish community’s mainstream.

The lobby has been struggling to steer clear of the radical image critics of the group had been trying to attach to it. In the past year J Street spoke out against a board member’s meeting with members of Hamas, and took a strong stand against “Israel Apartheid Week” events on U.S. America’s campuses.

Now, J Street is again at a crossroads.

In a March 19 New York Times op-ed, author Peter Beinart called for a boycott of products made in West Bank settlements. “Call it Zionist B.D.S.,” Beinart wrote.

For J Street, this is more than just another opinion piece. The lobby has embraced Beinart and he is one of the featured speakers at this year’s conference. J Street has spoken out against the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement and now faces the dilemma of whether to support Beinart’s call for a limited boycott.

Ben-Ami made clear in a statement he posted on J Street’s blog that while still welcoming Beinart to the conference, he rejects his call for boycott. “I believe that the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement should focus on borders, not boycotts,” he wrote. Sources close to J Street’s board of directors said they believe some of the group’s lay leaders support Beinart’s idea.

Helping to tilt J Street’s balance away from the left and closer to the center is former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is scheduled to speak at the conference’s gala dinner on March 26.

During his term in office Olmert, of the centrist Kadima party, presided over high-level talks with Palestinian leaders. These negotiations were meant to reach a permanent two-state solution. These negotiations were later described as the most serious attempt to finalize a deal. However, they did not bear fruit. In his less than three years as prime minister, Olmert, who resigned because of several criminal investigations into alleged corruption charges, also led Israel into two wars: in Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza in late 2008.

Since leaving office in 2009, Olmert has spent much of his time at the Jerusalem District Court where he has been fighting three criminal cases of alleged graft. A court decision is expected this summer. Olmert, who showed up in the courtroom three times a week for the past two and half years, stepped back from public activity and made only a few statements in which he criticized the Netanyahu government and called for advancing the peace process.

His decision to address J Street’s event drew fire from both right and left. On the right, Knesset Member Otniel Schneller, of Kadima, called on the former prime minister to cancel his visit to J Street, accusing the lobby of supporting Israel’s enemies. “The terrorists firing rockets,” Schneller said on March 13, “are not only supported by Iran and Hezbollah, but by the left-wing American Jewish organization J Street.” On the left, the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem retracted an email it sent supporters about the event. B’Tselem made clear it has “grave suspicions” regarding human rights violations in Gaza during Olmert’s tenure.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com


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!
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • 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.