After 1,500 people left the J Street conference in Washington last week, many observers in the Jewish community asked the same two questions raised when J Street was established 18 months ago: Who speaks for American Jews? And for whom does J Street speak?
The conference indicated that there are many American Jews who were not satisfied with how their political views on the Arab-Israeli crisis, the status of the Palestinians, the future of Israeli settlements, the nature of the peace process, a two-state solution, and the role of American Jews are being represented by the current Jewish establishment. Despite the wide range of viewpoints expressed by attendees — considerably wider than that of the presenters — the only thing they all agreed upon was that the current direction of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations was not acceptable.
The key speakers — both guests and J Street leaders — did not seriously deviate from the company line of support for Israel and its future safety, differing only on how aggressive or quickly America and Israel should pursue peace with the Palestinians. Some suggested freezing all settlement construction, taking first steps in negotiations, and the relaxing of barriers to Palestinian movement. These positions were no more extreme from the Left than the kinds of statements that tend to emerge from the Jewish Right.
The attendees, however, were by no means monolithic in the nature of their support for Israel or in the directions they were advocating for the peace process. The participants represented virtually all positions on the Left. Many of the delegates and even some of the speakers had significant gaps in their knowledge of Jewish history as well as the political history of the Middle East. Many of them, although very enthusiastic, appeared to have had little or no experience in political lobbying and were more naive about the nature and functioning of the political process than one might have assumed.
While there were some extreme voices which were not supportive of Israel, they appeared to be marginal. On its most constructive level, there was considerable discussion as to whether or not the prospects for a two-state solution was still viable; whether it is possible to be pro-Israel and genuinely care about the plight of the Palestinians; and whether Palestinian economic development holds the key to peace.
Organizationally, J Street clearly sought to position itself toward the center: critical, outspoken, prescriptive, but not hostile. J Street wants to be an alternative voice for American Jews. The leadership was clearly giving public voice to two important themes: First, supporting Israel in 2009 no longer demands blind public allegiance to Israel and whatever positions Israeli governments may take. Second, Jewish leaders, even within the big tent of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, cannot and should not stifle public dissent within the American-Jewish community.
J Streeters reject the argument that public dissent gives fodder to Israel’s enemies, or undermines American support for Israel, especially in Congress. The best evidence of this was the fact that, despite last-minute cancellations from lawmakers who were discouraged from attending — either by friends or campaign contributors — a significant number of friends of Israel in Congress did attend the J Street gala. The earlier keynote speaker, General Jim Jones, President Obama’s national security adviser, furthermore, did not use the occasion to pander to the Left, but outlined the same policies the administration has been pursuing to date.
The real message to the larger, established Jewish community was to broaden the conversation and to include all voices in that discussion, more common in Israel than here. Israel’s Ambassador Michael Oren — who declined an invitation to attend — undoubtedly would have addressed a like meeting of Israelis back home. Similarly, Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chair of the Presidents Conference, has addressed groups who hold positions considerably to the right of positions of the Israeli government.
J Street’s message is that theirs is not an extremist voice, and that it must be acknowledged and heard. It will not hurt Israel and might well help. It might also help to develop — in 2009 — a more legitimate and appropriate role for Diaspora Jewry.