Wandering the halls of J Street’s second national conference, you couldn’t fail to be impressed at the strides the dovish Jewish lobbying organization has made in its first three years of existence. It’s grown from a germ of an idea into a national organization with chapters in nearly every city with a significant Jewish community.
To the distress of many longer-established Jewish voices, it has created a clear space in the community for itself and for its brand of open — meaning critical — discussion of Israeli policy. Liberals identify it as the go-to address for Jews who sympathize with the left wing of Israeli politics. It has united and partially overshadowed the flock of left-leaning groups that have long tried to occupy that space. It has entered the media’s lexicon as the fast-rising alternative to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a label it didn’t ask for but never entirely rejected.
Where it hasn’t yet made a dent is in the very place it intended to have its main impact: Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy. The Israeli government studiously ignores it. Israel’s embassy in Washington didn’t send a speaker to address the conference. Five Knesset members from the opposition Kadima and Labor parties came to speak at the conference, but they did so over the protests of government officials.
The Obama administration didn’t shower it with love, either. It sent Middle East policy coordinator Dennis Ross to address the conference, but his speech was diffident, less a call to action than a low-key analysis of the new complications troubling the waters from Cairo to Tehran.
The contrast with J Street’s 2009 conference couldn’t have been more stark. Back then the White House was represented by its star policy pitchman, then national security adviser James Jones, who laid out the Obama team’s bold plans and welcomed J Street as a partner. Ross appeared more as a journeyman infielder, a veteran of every administration since Reagan and a living symbol of the conflict’s intractability.
The crowd didn’t make things easy for him. Mostly, Ross’s comments were greeted with stony silence, interrupted only rarely by tepid applause. He even paused at one point and suggested that applause would be appropriate, but none came. His few attempts at humor got no response. The J Street crowd just wasn’t that into him.
The crowd warmed up only when Ross left and was followed by a three-person panel discussing his talk. The warmest reception went to former Israeli negotiator Daniel Levy, who issued a fiery call for greater American attention to Arab struggles for freedom and democracy. He recalled that when he heard Israel praised as the only democracy in the Middle East, “I was always hoping that we would embrace that as a lament and not an aspiration.” He called for America not to “indulge” Israel in a fantasy that it “can allow things to continue as they are.”
Levy’s salutes to Arab democracy and warnings against Israeli inertia caught the crowd’s mood perfectly. He got 10 rousing ovations in the space of 11 minutes. Ross, by contrast, got 10 limp ovations in 40 minutes for his, um, salutes to Arab democracy and warnings against Israeli inertia.
That plenary session was a microcosm of the conference overall, and perhaps of J Street itself. As alert readers recall, the organization set itself twin goals at its launch. It aimed to influence Washington’s Middle East policy and promote Israeli-Palestinian compromise, while also fostering a freer, more open debate on Israeli policy within the Jewish community. It sought to embrace both the button-down world of movers and shakers and the voluble, free-wheeling protesters who criticize the mainstream community’s lockstep pro-Israelism. Three years later, it has made progress toward accomplishing only half of its mission: broadening the debate.
The organization’s official spokespersons, from founder-president Jeremy Ben-Ami on down, speak at every opportunity of their commitment to Israel’s security and flat opposition to boycotts or sanctions, stances that should please old-line Zionists and mainstream community activists. At the same time, the conference gave a spot on a panel to the pro-boycott Jewish Voice for Peace, winning almost tearful plaudits from leftists grateful to be welcomed at last in an organized Jewish gathering.
Simultaneous panel discussions over the conference’s three days ranged from the challenges of a shared Jerusalem to the tensions facing Jewish students on campus, defining American security interests in the Middle East and fostering civil discourse in synagogues. Dozens of Israeli peace activists came and spoke, creating an electric new sense of common cause with the American Jewish peace activists. The opening gala gave heroes’ honors to a Palestinian peace advocate and a Sheikh Jarrah anti-settlement protester.
Missing, however, was any real engagement with the other side of the argument. Israel’s hopes were explained far better than its fears. Mainstream Jewish lobbyists and fundraisers were not given a podium to articulate their worries about a divided community. Settlers were present only as theoretical threats, never as believers in a promise or families with homes.
More important, the conference lacked all but token representation of Israel’s pro-peace mainstream. For an organization hoping to forge a new, pro-peace American Jewish mainstream, that was a glaring hole. In the past four months the Netanyahu government has replaced the entire top echelon of its defense and intelligence establishment, which favored peace talks with Syria and opposed attacking Iran, and installed a new cadre that shares the right’s militarist views. A similar upheaval is brewing in the diplomatic and foreign policy establishment. Israel’s disgruntled realists are the Israeli peace lobby that needs a counterpart here. The Sheikh Jarrah protesters deserve praise, but they won’t move Congress.
During a press briefing, Ben-Ami said his group was trying to reach beyond its fellow progressives in Israel to work with “realists” who share some common ground. The comment was unintentionally revealing. If J Street and its supporters aren’t going to stand in the middle ground represented by Israel’s realists, who will?
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).