J Street, the pro-peace-process political action committee and lobby that many pro-Israel hawks love to hate, demonstrated this week that it can pull off an overflow Washington conference, attract hordes of media, feed the passion of supporters and use new technologies to satisfy young activists.
But that could be the easy part.
Translating this week’s first-ever Washington meeting for the group into effective political clout will require the rapid creation of the kind of grass-roots political network that took J Street’s rivals in the pro-Israel world decades to build.
Hadar Susskind, J Street’s new political director, said the group is already moving beyond a meeting that was a flashpoint for opponents who contend the group isn’t really pro-Israel.
“Over the next year — I don’t have an exact time frame — I want us to be at the point where every single member of Congress will be asked to meet with J Street activists in their own states, their own districts,” he told The Jewish Week.
In recent days the group has taken significant steps in building that kind of grass-roots network — including hiring Laurie Moskowitz, a top Democratic political organizer, and absorbing Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, a group generally to the left of J Street but which claims local chapters in some 30 cities.
The conference also revealed potential weaknesses, though, that could undercut the deliberate centrism that J Street leaders believe is necessary to make it a Washington power player. One such incident included a student faction that embarrassed J Street leadership with a debate about minimizing the use of the phrase “pro-Israel” in campus activism. Another potential roadblock was the palpable unhappiness of some left-wing participants who fear J Street has already buckled to the pro-Israel establishment.
And while swarms of young activists provided the conference with a jolt of energy, it’s not clear they can help the group with one of its biggest needs: the vast quantities of campaign cash genuine political influence requires.
“J Street is perceived as a bunch of generals without troops,” said University of Florida political scientist Kenneth Wald, who heads the school’s Center for Jewish Studies. “The dilemma is that J Street probably comes closer to the preferences of a lot of younger Jews who tend to be less involved in the political process and less likely to have the kinds of resources that matter in public life.”
There was no hiding the buoyancy of J Street leaders as the conference opened.
“You can write that we made a really serious mistake; we didn’t anticipate the 500 or so people who signed up at the last minute,” said Susskind. “The place is overflowing.”
J Street officials predicted 1,000 attendees, but about 500 last-minute registrants sent hotel officials scrambling for extra tables and resulted in many breakout sessions filled beyond capacity.
Congressional attendance was scant by AIPAC standards, but 148 lawmakers remained nominal members of a “host committee” for the Tuesday night gala dinner despite strong pressure from funders and attacks from The Weekly Standard, among others, that resulted in close to a dozen dropping out.
The program included sessions on settlements, Knesset politics, the decline of the Israeli peace movement, interfaith dialogue and Iran diplomacy.
National Security Adviser James Jones addressed the group on Tuesday.
The event even drew Holocaust-comparing picketers. Shalom International was outside the Grand Hyatt with signs reading “J Street Nazis” and “Obama Bad for America.”
J Street leaders sought to maintain a strongly centrist stance throughout the meetings. At a Monday news conference, the group’s founder and executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, said Washington should not negotiate with Hamas unless it complies with international demands (but said Washington should not prevent Israel from doing so if it decides talks are in its interests). And he cited the need for a security fence, but only along agreed-upon borders.
Regarding the controversial Goldstone Report on this year’s Gaza war, he said, “the process by which the international community addresses these issues is flawed. The mandate that was given to the commission was one-sided; the resolution that just came out of the human rights council was one-sided.”
At the same time, he said, “Our view is that the best response of the state of Israel is to … launch an independent commission of inquiry as has been done in every single incident like this in the country’s past.”
He made it clear he sees J Street as something transformative in American Jewish life.
J Street wants to “expand the concept of what is acceptable in the conversation, extend what it means to be pro-Israel,” he said. “This is a movement that is fighting for the heart and soul of the American Jewish people.”
At the conference, the group also did something unheard of in pro-Israel circles: it gave a major speaking slot to a strong critic.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, repeated his criticism of J Street’s opposition to Israel’s actions in this year’s Gaza war and expressed concern about the group’s opposition to immediate, strong sanctions on Iran — to an undercurrent of boos.
The deliberate attempt at moderation was marred by a debate at an earlier meeting of “J Street U,” the group’s on-campus program, at which students said that while they regard themselves as pro-Israel, the term makes their campus activism more difficult.
J Street officials reacted quickly to a Jerusalem Post story, which reported that “J Street’s university arm has dropped the ‘pro-Israel’ part of the left-wing U.S. lobby’s ‘pro-Israel, pro-peace’ slogan to avoid alienating students.”
“There has been no change to J Street U’s position, agenda or self-description,” said a spokesperson for the group. “It is and will remain a ‘pro-Israel’ organization. Individual students and campus groups have latitude to adopt slogans that speak to their respective structures, goals, membership, as long as Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish homeland remains a tenet.”
JTA reported sharp differences between younger and older participants over the viability of a two-state solution — a core J Street precept — a potential source of division for the 18-month-old organization.
There were also ripples of discontent at an unofficial Monday lunch for left-wing bloggers, who expressed both hope that J Street will become a potent force for peace and justice in the Middle East — and fear that it is already doing too much to moderate its positions to win favor with the pro-Israel establishment.
Blogger and author Max Blumenthal slammed Ben-Ami for suggesting in an interview with The Atlantic blogger and writer Jeffrey Goldberg — who has questioned J Street’s pro-Israel credentials — that Israel lobby critics John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt may be anti-Semitic.
“Jeremy capitulated, prostrated himself before the ‘serious man,’ Jeffrey Goldberg,” Blumenthal said. “If you can’t stand up against Jeffrey Goldberg, how can we trust you to stand up against the settlers, how can we trust you to stand up against the government of Netanyahu and Lieberman?”
But those were minor blips in a conference that seemed to lack the usual frenetic anarchy and division characteristic of left-wing gatherings.
“J Street is making a difference,” said Gadi Baltiansky, director general of the Geneva Initiative and former press secretary for Prime Minister Ehud Barak. “And in this particular circumstance, with an administration that wants to resolve the conflict and not just manage it, for such a bold move they need strong backing in the American Jewish community. So this conference is a first step in creating that backing.”
Still, successful conferences do not necessarily translate into real political clout.
This week’s meetings provided a big boost to the group’s visibility and political credibility, said a top political consultant who asked that his name not be used. But it’s what comes next that matters.
“Right now J Street is a virtual organization,” this activist said. “They need boots on the ground; they need to build a real grass-roots network, and quickly. They need to quickly go beyond the usual suspects on the left. This conference gives them a bully pulpit, but it will last only so long.”
J Street leaders say they are already building that kind of network.
Political director Susskind said the next phase in J Street’s activism began with lobbying sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday in more than 200 congressional offices.
At the same time, the group is working to integrate Brit Tzedek’s network of 40,000 activists and 30 regional chapters.
The addition of Democratic organizer Laurie Moskowitz, who directed the Democratic National Committee’s Coordinated Campaign in 2000, is a key part of that strategy.
“She has tremendous expertise and experience when it comes to building a field presence and campaigns,” Susskind said.
Throughout the conference, J Street leaders avoided mentioning the group it is often seen as created to oppose: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). But Susskind made it clear the group will emulate some of the techniques that made AIPAC feared and respected on Capitol Hill.
“They have to avoid being anti-AIPAC,” Rabbi Yoffie noted. “If they are seen as fighting AIPAC, they will lose the support of the Jewish center.”
Also, he said the group has to “do better on Iran. There’s been some movement on that, in terms of their efforts to embrace the Berman [sanctions] proposal, but mainstream American Jews will be looking for a stronger voice from them on the issue.”
And in an environment in which more American Jews see the world turning against Israel, he said the group will have to be extraordinarily careful when it criticizes Israeli policies.