Some observations on the J Street national conference
10/27/2009 - 23:00
James Besser
Wednesday, October 28th, 2009 In 23 years, I’ve been to approximately a million and a half pro-Israel meetings – left, right and center.   This week’s J Street meeting in Washington, the dovish group’s first national gathering and one that was inevitably compared to AIPAC’s perennially lavish policy conference, and on that scale, it was puny.  (Read my story on what comes next for J Street here).   By almost any other measure, it was successful, with an overflow crowd, a solid lineup of speakers, unusually efficient organization and a crowd that was clearly energized and excited about what J Street planners call a new voice in pro-Israel activism.   There were plenty of kids and folks in their 20s and 30s, clearly the cohorts J Street leaders think they can attract and that “mainstream” Jewish groups are having a difficult time reaching.   Jeremy Ben-Ami, the J Street founder and director, handled himself well; his Monday news conference, it seems to me, struck the balance he was seeking between moderation and sticking to his group’s core principles.   There were periodic spasms of silly leftiness, but they were few and far between, and nothing on the scale of another dovish group (which will go unnamed)  whose founder once lead a rousing chorus of “Solidarity Forever” to thank a dumbfounded wait staff at a Washington Hotel.   That’s the good news for J Street.   Less good: there were clear undercurrents of discontent from some quarters that J Street is already getting too mainstream, a harbinger that keeping the group on track toward the Jewish mainstream could prove difficult.   Some of that came from the swarms of liberal bloggers and their friends who were a very visible presence at the national conference, and from members of partner organizations; some, as Eric Fingerhut at  JTA reported, reflected an age divide. Older participants seemed more willing to go along with the theme that the two-state solution is Israel’s only hope; the younger ones weren’t so convinced.   For those of us used to covering AIPAC policy conferences, this was an unusually open meeting; participants were actually EAGER to talk to reporters, J Street officials were all accessible and chatty, I didn’t come across any closed sessions.   The down side of that, of course, is that the organization’s warts are all in plain view, and there are plenty of J Street detractors eager to turn those warts into fatal infections.   As I wrote this week, a key element in J Street’s plans to expand its political base is to absorb the grassroots network of Brit Tzedek.   I’ve always heard talk about that network, but seen little evidence of its activity.  And as J Street tries to position itself as a centrist group, will the further-left Brit Tzedek folks be easily assimilated? That could prove a contentious marriage.   Critics who don’t like the company J Street keeps will find reinforcement for that belief in this week’s conference; J Street wants to become the central address for the Jewish left, which is pretty risky, given the ideological diversity of that segment and the extremes it encompasses.   Overall, I thought it was a meeting that exceeded most expectations in scale, energy and organization.  It was a good launch for an 18 month old group that has huge ambitions — becoming a major Capitol Hill player, expanding its campaign funding operation and creating a huge grassroots network so lawmakers can be lobbied by J Street-affiliated people from their own districts and states.   But calling that a tall order is an understatement.   Can J Street keep the churning left-of-center pot from boiling over and sabotaging its claim to centrism? Can it control the fractious factions that want to hang out under the J Street umbrella, and internal pressures to move further to the left?   Can it reassure a Jewish community that seems increasingly nervous about nuclear Iran that it isn’t ready to concede the inevitability of that country’s program?  Iran could prove a political minefield for a group that wants to capture the Jewish center, since the Jewish center seems to be shifting on the issue.   Can it find ways to explain to Jews in the political center how Israeli-Palestinian peace can be achieved with Hamas in control of Gaza and Mahmoud Abbas, it sometimes seems, not in control of very much at all?   Can it break through the growing indifference about Israel that so many surveys and Jewish leaders have noted?   And the big one: can it raise the vast quantities of political cash, year after year,  that it takes to build the kind of political muscle the establishment pro-Israel PACs, lobbies and networks of bundlers and individual givers have created?   Criticize the pro-Israel PACs all you want, but these are folks who put their money where their mouths are, year after year. And by and large, they’re an affluent bunch who have lots to give.   Can J Street match that, both in terms of sustained and highly focused giving and  the affluence of their donor base?  That’s going to be a big challenge.   If I were a j Street official, I’d be celebrating this week’s meeting tomorrow – and then getting to work on answering these questions, on which their future hinges.   Will they succeed? I don’t have a clue.   Will this week’s meetings quiet the storm of controversy surrounding J Street? I doubt it.  It seems to me that one thing the attacks on J street reveal is how much the Jewish community is part of the prevailing culture.  These days, the political part of that culture doesn’t seem to allow for civil debate over legitimate differences of opinion.

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