I can't spend a lot of time at J Street's second national conference, going on now at Washington's cavernous Convention Center, but I was there yesterday as a panelist in a session on the Jewish vote and spent a little time shmoozing, and I've been watching the sessions streamed on the J Street Web site. Here are a few fairly general observations.
I was impressed that J Street machers asked Rabbi David Saperstein to keynote the opening plenary.
They had to know that Saperstein, the longtime director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, wouldn't be an uncritical J Street cheerleader, and he didn't disappoint: while saying he is a “fervent fan” of the group, he took the group to task for its recent policy urging the Obama administration to consider not vetoing a UN resolution condemning Israel's settlements policies.
That policy “raises concerns,” he said. “If you alienate mainstream support you risk losing everything.”
J Street's members, by and large, probably have no problem with that policy; it's nervous lawmakers on Capitol Hill, the target of J Street's lobbying, who run for cover when the subject is action by a biased United Nations dealing with Israel.
I can't remember the last time I attended a major Jewish or pro-Israel conference where the sponsoring group allowed such overt criticism by a major speaker (some eliminate even the possibility of such incidents by writing drafts for keynote speakers).
Will this become a trend in Jewish communal life? Don't bet on it, but kudos for J Street for letting Saperstein have his say.
Senior Mideast adviser Dennis Ross was the featured speaker on Monday, and I thought he sounded a little defensive about administration efforts that are clearly not active enough for many J Streeters.
“If Israel can view one lesson from the events in Egypt, it is the danger of getting stuck with an unsustainable status quo,” he said. “Just as the frustrations in Egypt grew over time, we should all recognize that the conflict with the Palestinians will only become more intractable over time. Our efforts to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace are ongoing, even when they are less visible.”
He spent a lot of time on the surge of protest washing across the Arab world and the potential, at least, for genuine reform. That, he said, may “finally enable the region to address the long-standing problem that political stagnation actually limited the prospects for comprehensive peace and regional reconciliation.”
On balance, it was a cautious, safe speech – a plus for J Street that he appeared, probably pretty unsatisfying for many in the audience who see the Obama administration as way too timid in its peacemaking efforts.
I participated in a Sunday morning panel discussion on the 2010 elections. The questions, by and large, were moderate. But this is clearly a bunch of people who are impatient with the current (non)pace of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, frustrated with the Obama administration and open to other ideas for solving the conflict.
I got taken to task for referring to the traditional pro-Israel groups as the “mainstream pro-Israel community.” “We're mainstream,” one angry audience member chastised me after the panel.
Point taken; while some in the Jewish community see J Street as anything but mainstream, it's not the role of journalists to categorize them as something else. So it was pejorative on my part, and I'll try to remember that.
“BDS” - boycotts, divestment and sanctions – is clearly a rumble just beneath the surface that will be difficult for J Street to control.
J Street itself is opposed, period. But there are participants who believe very targeted kinds of economic penalties focusing on settlements – are appropriate ways of getting the attention of Israel's leaders.
The problem for J Street: BDS IS seen as anti-Israel by most of the organized Jewish community, a perception amplified by some BDS advocates who seem to single Israel out among all the nations of the world as deserving the sanctions treatment.
The issue is a radioactive one for J Street, and how they handle it will have a big impact on whether their third national conference, whenever that may be, will be as successful as the current one.
A session on the BDS movement this afternoon features an official of the Jewish Voice for Peace, which advocates targeted divestment; according to the published schedule, this session will not be streamed live.
I'm not surprised, given the risk in the issue for J Street.
Some other observations:
- Predictably, it's a young crowd. Yes, there are plenty of people who, like me, are in the “get the senior discount without asking” category, but the average participant here is significantly younger than you'd see at an AIPAC policy conference, or an ADL convention.
- J Street officials seem pretty pleased with the turnout and the level of enthusiasm. More than 2000 registered participants, up from 1500 at the first conference.
- But the Washington Convention Center was a risky choice for a venue, inviting unflattering comparisons with AIPAC, whose annual policy conference fills the place to overflowing. J Street occupied what seemed like only a small corner of the place, way in the back – forcing participants and reporters to walk past several other in-progress conventions.
You can bet there will be more negative comparisons after tonight's banquet. AIPAC fills the fully expanded main hall – the crowd is so big, you need a telescope. J Street can't draw even a fraction of that. So why not a smaller hall, and pack it to overflowing?
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