J Street's Ben-Ami: Our stance is like Kadima's

J Street Our stance is

By HILARY LEILA KRIEGER
October 28, 2009 00:12

 
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Seeking to place J Street firmly in the Israeli and American mainstream, executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami compared his organization's positions to that of Israel's centrist political party. "The party and the viewpoint that we're closest to in Israeli politics is actually Kadima," Ben-Ami told The Jerusalem Post during the new lobby's first annual conference, which runs through Wednesday. "A two-state solution and the establishment of borders," stances Kadima supports, "is a centrist, realistic position," Ben-Ami said. "That's who we're looking to engage both here [in America] and in Israel." J Street, an 18-month-old self-described "pro-Israel, pro-peace organization," has provoked many quarters of the Jewish community to its political right for taking positions critical of Israel. But throughout the multi-day convention, J Street officials emphasized support and love of Israel, described the lobby as embodying the American and Israeli mainstream and otherwise sought to reduce the voltage of its lightening-rod image. Some participants, though, warned that J Street risked losing the large base of support on the left of the spectrum as well as the enthusiasm that prompted more than 1,500 activists to show up, among them 500 last-minute participants who jammed hallways and caused panel sessions to overflow. But Ben-Ami stressed that "our worldview is going to be out of touch with some of the Left" and predicted left-wing outrage as a result, some of which has already surfaced on liberal blogs during the conference. "It's going to come because we are pro-Israel, while there are many on the Left in this country at this point who believe in a one-state [solution]," Ben-Ami said. "We don't want to be defined as a left-wing organization," David Avital, a member of J Street's advisory council, explained. Pointing to support in America and Israel for a two-state solution, he continued, "In reality, we represent the majority views of the Jewish community." "I think the J Street conference, the platform of J Street, the concept of J Street, of building a two-state solution now, that's Kadima‚s agenda," maintained Kadima MK Shlomo Molla, who flew to Washington for the convention. Kadima MK Meir Sheetrit, who also attended the conference, took a more equivocal view of whether J Street's views aligned with his party's. "We believe in peace as well. We believe in two states," he said. "They are more left than Kadima, but on this main issue, which is peace, I think we agree." He took issue with the group for not supporting an immediate ratcheting up of strong sanctions against Iran and called its perspective "a little naïve" in blaming Israel for not achieving peace after decades of effort. Still, Sheetrit noted that he came in order to find out whether J Street indeed backs Israel. "My impression is that they're supporting Israel, not supporting everything Israel says," he said. "I don't support a lot of things that the government is doing." Former Meretz MK Avshalom Vilan argued that the rank and file of J Street is much more liberal than Kadima, but that it made political sense for the leadership to position itself as more centrist. "J Street is trying to define itself as being as centrist as possible," he said. "From the American political perspective they're right to try to be more influential and to try to get as vast support as possible." But he added that if the 1,500 attendees were polled on their favorite Israeli party, "Meretz will get the majority, no doubt." And he warned, "The real soldiers are really on the left side. You need them." One long-time progressive activist at the conference said the position articulated at the conference had led some on the Left to question the stance of the organization and express disappointment at the answers they found. "More and more people are asking, where do they really stand? Who is the real J Street?" he said. "People feel there's too much flip-flopping in terms of policy and that he [Ben-Ami] is trying to be everything to everyone." The activist continued that J Street's "not losing the left flank - yet. But there's more and more grumbling." He added that whatever J Street's organizers would like to claim about its stance on Israel, the reaction of the crowd betrayed a different perspective. "I look at the applause lines," he said. "When he makes patriotic Israel [statements], it falls flat. The moment he says Palestinian rights, it's 'Rah, rah, rah.'" Still, many on the Left who spoke on the record said they understood and supported the J Street perspective and its decision to take center-left positions as a more productive approach. Even Sydney Levy of Jewish Voice for Peace, a left-wing organization Ben-Ami singled out in an interview last week in expressing that hope that it would have a negative reaction to J Street's views, said he was understanding of J Street's perspective. "They're looking for their own legitimacy, and if they're getting it from [Opposition Leader] Tzipi Livni and [President] Shimon Peres, that's a fine thing," Levy said of the Kadima leaders who sent J Street letters of congratulations on its conference even though they did not attend. "J Street is redefining the game. We want to redefine it more." But at a conference bloggers' panel - an unofficial session not part of the J Street program - Levy explained that he did not feel the slogan of "pro-Israel," a key aspect of J Street's message, was something he was comfortable with. The issue surfaced at other panels, where audience members rejected the label. Judith Baker, a member of Brit Tzedek V'Shalom, a grassroots progressive group recently absorbed by J Street, was among them. "Are you keeping me out of J Street because I don't like the rhetoric?" she asked. "To say that you have to love Israel or be pro-Israel to be part of J Street is a terrible mistake." She added, "People like myself have to know whether we are welcome to work for peace in this organization or we are not welcome to work for peace in this organization." Baker described J Street as being at a crossroads, with one direction leading to a place that's "not going to be that different from what AIPAC proposes," referring to the massive American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobby. "I don't think it's illegitimate. It just doesn't give a place for the very large group of disaffected Jews who have been driven out of the [organized] community," the Boston-based activist explained. "There's no place for me. You don't need me. I don't need you. My position hurts you." But she added that the debate within J Street wasn't over, regardless of what the leadership said. "I don't think it's a settled thing," she said. But Ben-Ami told the Post that while she and everyone else who attended the conference - both on the Right and the Left - were welcome and in fact underscored that point during his opening address Sunday night, J Street was unabashedly supportive of Israel. "This is a pro-Israel organization, make no doubt about it," he stressed. "If you don't feel comfortable, don't come." Ben-Ami made the same point when it came to students at J Street U, the group's university branch, who have in some cases decided to only use the "pro-peace" part of J Street's slogan. "If there is any student who isn't comfortable explaining their relationship with Israel within a pro-Israel organization, then they can find a different organization," he said, defining pro-Israel as supporting a two-state solution. He added, "This is a place where we're going to let people work that through [their feelings on Israel], but within a tent that says on the front of it that this in an organization that supports Israel." That message was one that J Street planned to bring to members of Congress when the group lobbies Capitol Hill Wednesday afternoon. "We don't want members of Congress left with the impression that we‚re Jews lobbying for a Palestinian state. The first point is that we're Jews committed to the security of the State of Israel and the ongoing alliance between the US and Israel," explained Maryland Rabbi Sid Schwarz, who helped organize the lobbying effort. A member of Rabbis for Human Rights, which delivered a letter to the Israeli embassy Monday calling for Israel to conduct an investigation into the events in Gaza this winter, Schwarz explained that as part of that message of support for Israel, Congress would be told of the group's belief that a Palestinian state would ultimately be best for Israel. But Schwarz questioned the utility of comparing J Street to any Israeli political party, if only because Israeli politics shifts so often. "I don't think it's helpful to tie J Street to an Israeli political party, because I can't keep up with Israel's political parties," he said. "What used to be right is left and what used to be left is right."

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