Calling themselves “pro-Israel and pro-peace,” some 60 Jewish activists from the New Brunswick and Princeton areas launched the Central NJ branch of the Washington-based lobbying group J Street.
The kickoff in a meeting room at the Princeton Municipal Building was one of 21 such events in cities across the country, as the left-leaning group officially began grassroots operations.
Similar chapter openings in northern New Jersey, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and Rhode Island are scheduled for later dates.
“There certainly are folks in north Jersey who have reached out to us,” J Street national spokesperson Amy Spitalnick told NJ Jewish News. “There is already a local established there essentially. It is just getting off the ground.”
Participants at the kickoff said they support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that J Street represents a widening of the debate in the American-Jewish community when it comes to Israel.
“We are in favor of the same goal everyone who is pro-Israel is in favor of across the spectrum. We don’t differ on the ends. We differ on the means,” said Michael Rappeport, a national J Street advisory board member from Princeton. “The goal is to get to an Israel that lives in a peaceful, secure, safe, Jewish democratic society.”
Other Jewish groups also support a two-state solution. But J Street has roiled members of established pro-Israel groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee by calling on the United States to “forcefully oppose” certain actions by the Israeli government, and by endorsing political candidates who “support assertive peace efforts and an active U.S. role in helping Israelis and Arabs to resolve their conflicts.”
J Street’s critics contend that such “assertive peace efforts” are a euphemism for applying pressure on Israel. They insist that J Street’s separate lobbying efforts and congressional endorsements are undermining a unified Jewish pro-Israel approach.
J Street’s NJ supporters say they are providing a voice for Jews who don’t think their views are represented by AIPAC or other established groups.
“The range of opinions in Israel is much wider than it has been in the American-Jewish community,” said Rappeport. “We are trying to extend the range of dissent in the American-Jewish community to the same as in the Israeli community. We are trying to make it feasible for the people across the American-Jewish community to say and believe and work together toward a safe and secure Israel. That is what this is about.”
Pressure on Israel
Rappeport said the organization expects to endorse 60 House candidates this year. Ed Witten from Princeton said those candidates will “support sensible efforts to advance peace, which hasn’t always been the case in past administrations, and we need public support if Congress is going to play a different role from what it has done in the past.”
Debbie Schlossberg will run the Central NJ chapter out of her East Brunswick home. The goal, she said, is to “work toward my view of a democratic, safe, secure Israel side-by-side with a viable Palestinian state. We are here to bring our pro-Israel, pro-peace message to our communities, to the press, to our elected officials, and amongst ourselves.”
David Adler of Princeton also said he saw J Street as an alternative to existing Jewish pro-Israel groups.
“If there isn’t a two-state solution, there will be more war. That is not good for Israel and it is not good for us,” he said. “We need to counteract the right-wing parts of the Jewish community who back the extreme Right in Israel. Backing further settlements is undermining Israel.”
Adler also suggested a way that peace was in America’s self-interest. “We paid a large price when we lost 3,000 lives on 9/11 and a lot of that was resentment over Israel and the Palestinian territories,” said Adler. Nearly all mainstream Jewish groups have rejected that linkage, saying that a ruthless religious agenda, not the Arab-Israeli conflict, is the root cause of Al Qaida’s terror campaign.