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J Street Opens With 2,000 Participants, Still Struggles To Define Itself

The three-day J Street conference that opened in Washington on Saturday night was the group’s largest gathering so far and underscored the dovish, pro-Israel lobby’s fast growth since its inception less than three years ago. But it also provided a glimpse into J Street’s ongoing struggle to define itself.

This message was delivered forcefully in the opening speech by Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center. While declaring himself “among J Street’s most fervent fans,” Saperstein did not shy away from highlighting his worry about J Street’s recent attempt to block an American veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s settlement policy.

“The recent decision to oppose the veto raises concerns,” Saperstein said, arguing that it put the lobby’s supporters “in a difficult position” and could cause J Street problems in the long run. “If you alienate your mainstream support you risk losing everything,” he said, explaining that if J Street leaned too heavily to the left, it could lose its clout within the political system.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s executive director, said the lobby’s support of Israel was a core value. “We are passionately and unapologetically pro-Israel,” Ben-Ami said in a pointed statement aimed at critics who have argued that the lobby cannot be defined as a pro-Israel group.

But Ben-Ami also made clear the lobby believes it can and should speak out against the policies of the Israeli government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Ben-Ami also took issue with members of the organized Jewish community for what he described as their belief that Israel can do no wrong and their refusal to publicly debate J Street.

The group honored three individuals on its opening night. Chosen were columnist Peter Beinart, who stirred a debate in the Jewish world with his article questioning the community’s commitment to liberal values as they relate to Israel; Sara Benninga, an Israeli activist from the Shiekh Jarrah solidarity movement, and Dr. Izzeldin Abulaish, a physician from Gaza who lost three daughters in an Israeli raid during Operation Cast Lead.

Benninga, who represents the left end of J Street’s “big tent” policy, won big applause for her remarks. She described actions by the Israeli government as “ethnic discrimination” against Arabs living in East Jerusalem, and argued that Israel “shamelessly delegitimizes sections of its own citizenry.”

In an emotional presentation, Dr. Abulaish said he “would love, for a few seconds, if [his] daughters would come out of their grave and see that their blood was not wasted.”

But beyond the plenary speeches and the panel discussions, Washington conferences are measured by the number of participants, and in the case of the dovish lobby, by a comparison to its centrist rival, AIPAC.

J Street organizers said the conference this year had attracted a record 2,000 participants, an increase over the more than the 1,500 that last year attended the group’s inaugural conference. But this year’s record attendance is still a far cry from AIPAC’s 6,000 plus members who attend their conferences annually.

J Street chose to hold its parley this year in the Washington Convention Center, a huge downtown complex that annually houses the AIPAC’s conferences. But while the more established pro-Israel lobby easily occupies the entire building, J Street’s conference took up only one floor of meeting rooms.

Contact Nathan Guttman at [email protected]

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