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November 6, 2009

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PAGE 22A .HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, NOVEMBER 06, 2009 i By James D. Besser Washington correspondent for the New York Jewish Week WASHINGTON D.C.--J Street. the pro-peace-process political action committee and lobby that many pro- Israel hawks love to hate. demonstrated last week that it can pull off an overflow Washington conference, at- tract hordes of media, feed the passion of supporters and use new technologies to satisfy young activists. But that could be the easy part. Translating last 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 direc- tor, said the group is already moving beyondameeting that was aflashpoint 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 networkincluding hiring Laurie Moskowitz, a top Democratic political or- ganizer, and absorbing Brit Tzedekv'Shalom, a group gen- erally to the left of J Street but which claims local chapters in some 30 cities. The confer- ence 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 embar- rassed 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 es- tablishment. 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 quanti- ties ofcampaigncash 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. Congres- sional attendance was scant by AIPAC standards, but 148 lawmakers remained nominal members of a "host commit- tee" 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 ses- sions 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 Holo- caust-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 meet- ings. At a Monday news con- ference.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 do- ing 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 con- troversial Goldstone Report on this year's Gaza war. he said, "the processbywhich the international community ad- dresses 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 isto.., launch an independent commission of inquiry as has been done in every single inci- dent like this in the couritry'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 conversa- tion, 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 un- heard 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 op- position to Israel's actions in this year's Gaza war and expressed concern about the group's opposition to imme- diate, 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, atwhich students said that while they regard themselves as pro- Israel, the term makes their campus activism more diffi- cult. 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-Is- rael' organization. Individual students and campus groups have latitude to adopt slogans that speak to their respective structures, goals, member- ship, as long as Israel's right to exist as a Jewish homeland remains a tenet." JTA reported sharp dif- ferences 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 fea? that it is already doing too much to moderate its posi- tions.~to win favor with the pro-Israel establishment. Blogger and author Max Blu- menthal slammed Ben-Ami for suggesting in an interview with The Atlantic blogger and writer Jeffrey Go!dberg--who has questioned J Street's pro-Israel credentials--that Israel lobby critics John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt may be anti-Semitic. "Jeremy capitulated, pros- trated himself before the 'serious man,' Jeffrey Gold- berg," 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 differ- ence," 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 back- ing in the American Jewish community. So this confer- ence is a first step in creating that backing." Still. successful confer- ences do not necessarily translate into real political clout. Last 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 avirtual 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 buIly 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 ac- tivism began with lobbying sessions last 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 Lau- rie 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 mention- ing 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 ef- forts to embrace the Ber- man [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. Reprinted with permission from the New York Jewish Week, Divide From page 1A open to the idea of making U.S. aid to Israel conditional on progress in the peace process. The divide, which J Street officials acknowledged, raises the question of how an organization that strongly endorses a two-state solution can succeedwhen many of its supporters question its core position. I Street executive direc- tor Jeremy Ben-Ami said he hoped that by engaging younger activists to come and debate the issue, the organi- zation could convince them to back a two-state solution. "Let them question it here under the tent.of a pro-Israel organization" rather than among those who don't have Israel's best interests at heart. he said. The key to winning over such young people, J Street officials have argued, is opening up the debate, even on the most fundamental issues. Critics of the organi- zation counter that some of J Street's positions undercut Jewish unity and could harm Israel's interests, such as the group's opposition to Israel's Gaza operation last winter and its reluctance to endorse harsher sanctions against Iran at this time. Oberlin College senior Danielle Gershkoff and ju- nior Rachel Beck--neither of whom is convinced of the efficacy of a two-state solu- tion said they were glad J Street encouraged them to participate and ask questions at the conference rather than telling them they were too left wing. "We don't want old people telling us ~vhat to do andwhat to think." Beck said. Ben Margarik, 25, of Wash- ington, said the conference was an excellent way to engage young people in the Jewish community, allowing them to question what others might consider the orthodox- ies of pro-Israel activism. "There's a need to be critical of Israel's policies when they don't lead to a two-state solution." Margarik said. "That's what love is, real care and concern not solely supportive but willing to criticize." Both young and old at the conference were united on some issues. References to the creation of a Palestinian state fri~quently garnered loud applause at sessions. though talk of a Jewish home- land received little crowd reaction. And participants seemed united on the need to keep pushing Israelis and Pal- estinians toward a solution. Wendy Kenin, 37, of Berke- ley, Calif., a member of the Green Party, said she was less interested in staking out her own views, on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than in the process of "bring- ing'ail different perspectives together." She called the views of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, J Street and Students for Justice in Palestine. which supports a one-state solution to the conflict, all worthy of consideration. Rachel Nadelman. 32, of Washington, who works in international development, said she supports the idea of two states for two peoples but demurred when asked whether she considered her- self a Zionist. "It's a loadgd word." she said. "It's a word I've not been real comfortable with." J Street Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.) (r) speaks Oct. 27 at a panel discussion of members of Congress at the J Street conference. Looking on is Rep. Jared Polls (D-Colo.). Nadelman added that if Israel didn't go along with U.S. requests in the peace process, she thought it was reasonable to reconsider aid to Israel. Israel needs to be "accountable," she said. Meanwhile, older del- egates many with years of Israel activism under their belt were less ambivalent about being called Zionists. "The moral heart of Juda- ism and Zionism is justice and fair treatment for all people," said Michael Peshkin. 52. a Northwestern University engineering professor. A proponent of the two- state solution, Peshkin has been a Chicago-area leader of the left-wing group B'rit Tzedek v'Shalom, which this week merged with J Street. Kay Elfant, 64, of Silver Spring, Md., said she is a proud Zionist who longs for a settlement of the conflict because she is troubled that "'my people could be in any way abusive" and "make life so hard for other people." While she wants pressure on the two sides, she has a red line, she said: no cut-off of aid to Israel. "Never aid, I can't go there." Elfant said. "That feels anti-Israel.'" Sally Gottesman, 45, of New York, said thinking about aid possibly being cut off to Israel is like "'worry: ing about a meteor striking Earth." "It could happen," she said, "but it is so unlikely that it's silly to worry about."