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October 23, 2009

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HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, OCTOBER 23, 2009 9 By Ron Kampeas WASHINGTON (JTA)wJ Street has lined up plenty of high-profile speakers for its first major conference. But the new and controversial self-described "pro-Israel, pro-peace" lobby is looking to add one more prominent name to the guest list. The organization--which has backed U.S. pressure on Israel (and the Palestinians), criticized Israel's invasion of Gaza and criticized more es- tablished pro-Israel groups-- wants Michael Oren, the U.S.-born and raised Israeli ambassador to Washington, to attend and address its first major conference at the end of this month. Oren is undecided. "A deci- sion about his participation or the embassy's participation will be taken soon." Jonathan Peled, his spokesman, told JTA. "We will have to deliber- ate this week." Peled said that what he told The Jerusalem Post two weeks ago still stands: Some of J Street's positions"impair" Israel's interests. Hewould not elaborate further, except to say that this has been conveyed to J Street officials in private conversations. Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street's founder and executive direc- tor, is not taking no for an answer. "Your attendance-- even to clarify some of our areas of disagreement--will be respectfully welcomed, and we promise you an open hearing as we hope and expect you will welcome us at the Embassy one day to present ourviews and opinions in that same spirit," Ben-Ami wrote in an open letter released this week. J Streetsent its original, private, invitation to Oren on July 13. Oren's presence would lend an official Israeli imprimatur at a time when J Street's harshest critics are painting the group as undermining Jewish unity and working in tandemwith Israel's enemies. Most recently, some critics have played up the fact that a handful of J Street's donors-- out of thousands--have ties with Arab countries and Iranian expatriates opposed to sanctions against Tehran. Such efforts to delegitimize the organization appear to have failed. J Street's up- coming conference has been endorsed by 160 congressional lawmakers. The slate of sched- uled speakers includes several former top Israeli officials. In addition, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who leads the country's larg- est synagogue movement, the Union for Reform Judaism, is co-chairing the conference's main event, a town hall meet- ing on Israel's relationship with U.S. Jews. U.S. Reps. RobertWexler (D-Fla.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), leaders in Congress' unofficial Jewish caucus and close to Obama, are taking part in a panel that examines how one to expand the definition of "pro-Israel" on the Hill. Most notable, perhaps, is the participation of Yoffie, who tussled earlier this year with J Street over its equivocation over naming Hamas as the villain in Israel's Gaza war. J Street Ben-AmL J Street founder Jeremy He told JTA that J Street's views deserve a hearing in the wider Jewish community, and praised it for doing more than many more established groups to promote the Is- raeli position of a two-state solution. Yoffie said he would not refrain from criticizing some of J Street's positions, particularly on Iran. "This is not an area for passivity or indifference, the stakes are too high," he said. Beyond securing Yoffie's participation, J Street has made significant headway in forging an increasing level of cooperation and coordination among U.S. Jewish groups associated with Israel's dov- ish camp. Alongwith these successes, the organization has been growing. Eighteen months ago it had no budget and no office. Now J Street has a staff of 30, offices in Washington's K Street lobbying corridor and an annual budget of $3 million. That's what drew Hadar Susskind, 36, to the organi- zation. Susskind, until last month thewunderkindWash- ington director of the Jewish Council for PublicAffairs, told JTA he crossed over when he determined that J Street was here to stay. "They are speaking for a tremendous constituency in America," said Susskind, not yet settled into using "we" in his new role as J Street's director of policy and strategy. Susskind, who has served in the Israeli army, said J Street attracted him in part because of its major policy goal: ag- gressively seeking American intervention in the peace process toward a two-state solution. "For me going to J Street is really about doing what is best for Israel." Susskind said he was drawn to J Street, in part, because he had endured for so many years establishment discussions about how to draw younger Jews into'the pro-Israel com- munity; J Streetwas doing just that, he said. The expected 1,000 conference-goers will be split into two lobbying groups, one for university students, and one for everyone else. Susskind is an establish- ment "get" for a group that until recently has been de- picted as an outlier by officials at more established groups, with some speaking on the record, others preferring to distribute potentially damag- ing information behind the scenes. William Daroff, the Wash- ington director of the Jewish Federations of NorthAmerica, sparked a tweet war last month with J Street and its defenders when he accused the group of "standing with the Mullahs" by opposing tough Iran sanctions. J Street says it does not oppose the sanctions that would further isolate Iran for its suspected nuclearweapons program, but thinks imple- mentation of such measures at this time would be "coun- terproductive." Daroff told JTA that the J Street has developed better PR chops condemning, for instance, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for denying the Holocaust and opposing an organized effort to shame the Toronto Inter- national Film Festival for cel- ebrating Tel Aviv's centennial. Still, he added, these were easy calls. J Street, he said, has not yet defended Israel when it is unpopular to do so. "I think that J Street's voice has some resonance on the Hill because to a large degree" it is" in sync with the Obama administration" on pressing for renewed talks and a robust U.S. peacemaking role. "The question is when and if the Obama administration shifts direction, would J Street still be relevant?" J Street has yet to get a toe- hold among Republicans the GOPers appearing at the conference are in the "excep- tion proves the rule" category. Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.) is an Arab American; former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel left Congress in part because he was disillusioned with his party's foreign policy, includ- ing on the Middle East. And despite its success in lining up former Israeli offi- cials, J Streetwas turned down by Tzipi Livni, the Israeli op- position leader. She declined to address the event, even by video message. J Street critics say the organization muddies the waters by presenting multiple, conflicting voices on impor- tant topics--when a unified voices is needed, at least in Washington. "Those Jewish Americans, who share a deep concern for Israel's trials and travails, have the right, even the duty, to express their criticism within the Jewish community, the public at large, pretty much anywhere except before the administration and Con- gress," Chuck Froelich, a for- mer deputy national security adviser to Israel's government, wrote this week in The Jeru- salem Post. "There, we have to present one voice--not 'pro' every Israeli policy, but united, unswerving support for Israel and a strong US- Israel relationship." AIPAC may have made mis- takes in the past, but is still the preeminent pro-Israel voice, he wrote. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," he said. Behind the scenes, some AIPAC backers are said to be concerned about J Street--al- though with AIPAC boasting a budget of more than $60 ". million, J Street hardly poses a major threat. Any establishment anxiet- J Street J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami, seen here at the group's reception at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, wrote an open letter to Michael Oren trying to persuade the U.S. Israeli ambassador to address its first major conference. iesaboutJStreetareunjusti- respect for AIPAC, theyIsraeLrelationship, he said. fled, Susskindsaid. have done wonderful work "Weneedthatandmore, ahd "I have tremendous strengthening" the U.S.- J Street is more." Taxes and laws are ever-changing. Is your financial advisor up-to-date? is your money earning up to its potential? 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