Dispatches From J Street: Where Are All the Israeli Officials?
A Tight Squeeze
It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book. When planning an event, always make sure the room is just big enough or, even better, a little too small for the number of people you are expecting. That way, the room will always be full and you can avoid any embarrassing bald spots in the crowd.
But that was not the case this morning as J Street began its inaugural national conference at a downtown Washington hotel. The rooms were way too crowded to suspect any deliberate underestimation.
Organizers were expecting a little more than thousand participants. They were even very proud of this number. But as the doors opened, the numbers grew. Three hundred walk-ins checked in during the first hours of the day and others showed up the night before. That brought the number of conference participants to 1,500. It was a huge success for J Street, and a big problem for those who actually tried to make it into the breakout sessions that were packed way beyond capacity.
J Street avoids any comparison to AIPAC, the established pro-Israel lobby. But some comparison is in order: 1,500 is a significant number, but is a far cry from AIPAC’s 5,500-plus participants at its national conference. The venue is also telling: AIPAC’s conference occupies Washington’s convention center, stretching over two blocks and composed of dozens of meeting halls. J Street’s parley took place at a hotel across the road, in a few rooms on the windowless bottom level.
And one more note: AIPAC supporters travel around Washington a motorcade of buses led by police cars clearing the way with their sirens. The commute to Capitol Hill for lobbying meetings takes them only a few minutes. J Street members, on the other hand, will just have to be patient as their buses crawl through midday traffic.
Where Are the Israeli Officials, Part I
Israel’s U.S. Ambassador Michael Oren’s decision to boycott the J Street conference was well reported in the past two weeks. According to the embassy, concerns over J Street’s policies have led the top Israeli representative to turn down the invitation to join J Street’s first conference. (There was, however, one ambassador in attendance; it was the Jordanian ambassador to Washington, prince Zeid Ra’ed al Hussein.)
The Israeli embassy, however, did send a representative “to monitor” the proceedings. It was Galit Baram, the Counselor for Public and Academic Affairs. In terms of diplomatic rank, she is two levels below the head of mission — a fact that made clear the message that Israel was sending to J Street.
And while J Street was all but shunned by the Israeli representatives in Washington, another dovish Jewish group was actually welcomed by the embassy: Rabbis for Human Rights, a group of religious leaders that often criticizes Israel for abuse of human rights, got a chance to present its case to the Israeli embassy. The official who was sent to meet with them? The same Galit Baram, who took some time off monitoring J Street to meet with another dovish group.
Despite the Israel government’s boycott of the J Street conference, a handful of members of Knesset did come to show their support. The Israeli lawmakers who attended were from the opposition parties of Kadima and Meretz and some came from the Labor Party, which is part of the Netanyahu coalition, although the members attending were from the internal opposition faction within the party.
Israeli lawmakers attending were united in their criticism of the conduct of the Israeli embassy. MK Nitzan Horwitz from Meretz reminded ambassador Oren that “U.S. Jews don’t work for Netanyahu and [Avigdor] Lieberman. The government of Israel must acknowledge the diversity of views in the American Jewish community.” And MK Meir Sheetrit from Kadima called Oren’s decision “very odd,” adding that he had never heard of boycotting a Jewish organization.
Where Are the Israeli Officials, Part II
On Monday morning, J Street leaders gathered the Israeli officials that did come to the conference for an exchange of views. The closed-door meeting was dedicated to presenting the Israelis with J Street’s beliefs and the polls it conducted on views of American Jews. The purpose, said one of the participants, was to show the Israeli public that U.S. Jews are much more dovish than Israelis may think.
But for J Street officials it was also an opportunity to learn how Israelis see the dovish lobby.
At the meeting, Labor MK Amir Peretz said J Street was mistaken in opposing sanctions against Iran. Sheetrit joined Peretz and added that he does not agree with J Street’s approach toward the Goldstone report.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street, replied that his group does not oppose sanctions, but rather believes now is not the time for moving them forward. He also explained that the group opposes the Goldstone report but calls for an independent Israeli inquiry. A participant described the exchange as cordial. “It was clear they [the Israeli lawmakers] were not aware of J Street’s views,” the participant said.