Peter Beinart meets students at J Street conference 370.
(photo credit: J Street)
WASHINGTON – When J Street debuted four years ago, one of the established Jewish
organizations with which it had one of its early open spats was The Israel
Over its first couple of years, J Street continued to tangle
with TIP over settlement policy, terms of reference and polling on attitudes
toward Israelis and Palestinians. The arguments were often heated and
But at the third annual J Street conference this
year, The Israel Project is a participating organization. Top leadership figures
have appeared at two panel discussions, one on human rights and one on how NGOs
can advance a two-state solution.
“I know that they have a constituency
that’s interested in models for peace,” explained TIP President Jennifer Laszlo
Mizrahi of the decision to participate, which she said came at her initiative.
“I want to engage them with our engagement with Palestinians and the Arab
It is unusual for J Street to have centrist Jewish organizations
like TIP appear at its conferences, and Mizrahi noted that she received
criticism from her funders over the decision.
Several Jewish groups have
charged that the progressive lobby is far outside the mainstream on its policy
toward Israel and hurts the Jewish state by calling for American pressure on the
In some instances, members of such organizations have
declined to participate in events with J Street officials.
“A lot of
people were surprised,” Mizrahi acknowledged. “We had some donors who
complained, ‘Why are you talking at J Street?’”
While she doesn’t agree with
everything J Street stands for, “We do agree that we care about Israel and we do
agree that more can be done to create a two-state solution, so I think it’s
important to exchange ideas,” she said.
J Street executive director
Jeremy Ben-Ami said it was important to reach out to groups across the
ideological spectrum even if they have differences with his
“It would be a cheap conference to pull off if we only
allowed people who agree with everything I say. It would be in a phone booth
somewhere,” he said.
This year’s conference more than in the past has
included other panelists who say forthrightly that they don’t agree with J
Street. Jewish Journal
President David Suissa told the audience Monday morning
that he was an American Israel Public Affairs Committee supporter on the right
side of the spectrum and that he disagreed with J Street’s overall strategy on
the peace process.
But while there are also leftwing voices at the
conference that contrast with J Street’s own positions – including Peter
Beinart, who recently called for a settlement boycott that Ben- Ami publicly
rejected – there are fewer groups and representatives from the far Left included
in the program than at the first two conferences.
During the first
conference, room was provided for an unofficial session where voices that
opposed the two-state solution were given free rein. Last year, a panel
on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement featured a member of the
Jewish Voice for Peace who endorsed BDS, in addition to opponents of that
“We just got slammed,” recalled J Street Education Fund vice
president Rachel Lerner of the reaction in the broader Jewish community to last
year’s BDS panel. “It seems so bizarre to me that you can’t even have a debate,
you can’t even have a disagreement,” she said, speaking at the same panel Suissa
Lerner explained that she felt it was important to
include that panel last year given the large number of students who were
attending the conference and grappling with BDS drives on their own
This time, that issue and groups representing those positions
are not on the agenda.
Ben-Ami attributed this to a desire “to find new
things to talk about” rather than to a decision made by J Street not to include
“It’s great that people come here who have a range of
views,” he said. “It should be a place that people come and air them out. It
doesn’t change what J Street stands for. There’s a benefit to the Jewish
community having that argument.”