Speaker chastises J Street for opposing US veto at UN

Israel activist appeals to Dennis Ross, who will address confab in DC, to ‘deliver much-needed moral clarity’.

By HILARY LEILA KRIEGER, JPOST CORRESPONDENT
February 28, 2011 01:59
at the first annual J Street conference

J Street conference. (photo credit: .)

WASHINGTON – Reform Movement leader David Saperstein opened J Street’s second annual conference on Saturday by chastising the group for opposing the recent US veto of a UN resolution condemning Israel settlements.

Saperstein told 2,000-plus J Street advocates that its position on the veto jeopardized its support among mainstream Jews and backers on Capitol Hill and could diminish the three-year-old lobby’s political influence.

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“You lose your political and media clout if you lose your mainstream wing,” said Saperstein, who heads the Washington-based Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism. “Successful strategy and tactics need to consider not only the theoretical decisions you take but the practical impact of those you choose.”

He noted that so many Jews, on the Left as well as the Right, so distrust the UN on Israel that supporting a resolution is seen as supporting the UN’s stance on the Jewish state.

“You know that the vast majority of the members of Congress that you support and support you while criticizing Israel’s settlement policy cannot support UN condemnation, and you will put them all in a very difficult position, driving some to feel they have to choose between remaining with J Street,” Saperstein said.

Similarly, he pointed out that many Conservative and Reform rabbis who support J Street didn’t endorse this position.

“If they begin to move away from J Street and they leave one by one, this has the potential [for J Street] to become just another group that says the right things but without real impact,” he said.

Saperstein, who strongly backs the organization’s “pro-Israel, pro-peace” message, stressed that supporting the UN resolution was “a tough call,” but urged the group only “to take the most controversial decisions when it really counts.”

J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami, who followed Saperstein on stage, thanked Saperstein for his “inspiring words,” as well “for the challenge” he laid down for the organization.

Ben-Ami told The Jerusalem Post after Saturday night’s event that the organization faces the disadvantage of alienating supporters on controversial decisions, but that “the upside is that J Street stands up for what it believes and maintains the connection to the people who are part of J Street.”

Ben-Ami said he was aware of the content of Saperstein’s comments ahead of time, and said the decision to feature him as the night’s first and longest speaker showed that “we actually engage in an open and free discussion about issues.”

He said the same principle underpins the group’s decision to include a panel on the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel that is anathema to many Israel advocates.

The panel’s participants, particularly Rebecca Vilkomerson of the pro-BDS group Jewish Voice for Peace, were roundly criticized by Noah Pollak of the Emergency Campaign for Israel, among others included in the three-day convention.

In a letter to Dennis Ross, the top White House adviser on Middle East issues, who will be addressing the conference on Monday, Pollak wrote, “There are few moments when someone with your experience and credibility is invited into the anti-Israel echo chamber and provided an opportunity to dispel myths, combat falsehoods, deliver much-needed moral clarity – and state clearly that the United States stands with Israel. I trust that you will seize this moment to explain why the Jewish state is not just one of our closest allies, but a country that fully deserves the admiration and moral support of all Americans.”

Ben-Ami said that J Street itself strongly opposes the BDS movement, but that “we engage with people we disagree with. We don’t shut them out. Those who are involved in the BDS movement in the Jewish community should be argued with and shown that they’re wrong, but to just shut them out is wrong.”

At the same time, Ben-Ami, as well as Saperstein, distinguished between campaigns to boycott Israel entirely versus those targeting products and institutions in the West Bank.

Saperstein argued that if Israel is going to succeed in defeating the delegitimization campaign, “we have to distinguish between delegitimization and BDS under any circumstances.”

Not distinguishing between the Israeli artists’ boycott of a new theater in the Ariel settlement and boycotts on goods made in the West Bank, and calling Israel an apartheid state, means “we’re running out of the community millions of Israel’s avid supporters,” Saperstein said.

He said that Israel’s advocates need as broad a tent as possible to succeed on delegitimization and other important issues, such as maintaining aid for Israel.

Saperstein specifically warned about the danger of cutting foreign aid to every recipient other than Israel, or removing Israel from the traditional foreign aid basket. A Tea Party-infused Congress has recently cut millions of dollars in aid in various programs but left funding for Israel intact, as well as for Egypt and the Palestinian Authority.

But Saperstein warned about reductions to humanitarian programs while Israel remains untouched.

If Congress cuts “money for environmental protection and to combat poverty and to combat HIV/AIDS and... combating the burden of debt, and all of this is endangered while Israel aid remains secure, it’s a disaster for Israel, a disaster for the United States,” he said.

J Street’s main lobbying piece during participants’ trip to Capitol Hill on Tuesday will focus on promoting democracy and prosperity in the Middle East, as well as urging Congress to continue funding the PA.

“Continued assistance to the Palestinian Authority’s institution and state-building efforts in the West Bank will allow the PA to grow its economy, meet the basic needs of its people and reduce the risk of terror aimed at Israel,” reads a letter from Illinois Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky that J Street activists will press members to back.

“Such aid is also essential to maximize the prospects for a negotiated resolution that establishes two states for two people living side by side in peace and security.”


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