Living up to its promise of bringing together a “big tent” of Jewish opinions, J Street has chosen to highlight at its conference speakers whose views at times exceed the dovish lobby’s comfort zone.
In its Sunday evening plenary session, J Street gave the stage to author and journalist Peter Beinart, despite his call for a boycott on settlement products; that boycott was opposed by J Street.
“We are open to airing opinions with which we disagree,” said the lobby’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, as he introduced Beinart to a crowd of some 2,500 J Street activists who had gathered in Washington for the three-day conference.
Despite a clear rejection of the boycott idea by J Street and the across-the-board criticism from the Jewish establishment, Beinart made clear in his answers to audience members that he does not regret the call he made for a “Zionist BDS,” a term he coined to distinguish targeting West Bank settlements from the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which takes aim at the entire state of Israel.
The Sunday night event also served as the official launch event for Peter Beinart’s new book “The Crisis of Zionism.”. Participants, even those who say they support J Street’s rejection of Beinart’s call for a partial boycott, gave the author a warm welcome.
“I’m personally not comfortable buying settlement products, I empathize with why he is saying that, but on a political action level I think J Street needs to keep on taking the approach it’s been taking,” said Rainer Waldman Adkins, chair of J Street’s Seattle branch.
Beinart, in his J Street address, also repeated his call for changing U.S. tax rules so that charitable contributions to West Bank settlements will not be deductible.
He argued that giving up Israel’s democratic character, a likely outcome of rejecting the two-state solution, would spell the end of the Jewish state. Beinart also called for providing more space in the public discourse for critics of Israel.” Any Jewish leader who conflates disagreement in policy with anti-Semitism should be fired,” he said.
The theme woven throughout J Street’s conference is an attempt to define the “future of pro-Israel” in terms that will be more in line with the group’s liberal beliefs. To help make the case, the dovish lobby featured Donniel Hartman, an Orthodox rabbi who heads the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and is hardly the usual suspect for liberal advocacy.