PHILADELPHIA – Jon Grabelle Herrmann grew up in a mainstream American Jewish family. He attended summer camp and traveled to Israel on a teen tour, but largely sat on the sidelines of Israel advocacy.
“I have never been involved in a Jewish event before, other than marrying a rabbi,” he joked on Thursday night, addressing some 200 people gathered in Philadelphia for the kick-off of a local J Street chapter.
As a lively klezmer band quieted down for the main event, Herrmann described how he became involved in J Street after attending this fall’s policy conference, where he found a place to express his views on Israel. Now co-chairman of Philadelphia’s chapter, he said, “I think that my story may be emblematic of many other supporters.”
As J Street seeks to mobilize its Internet support base into grassroots activism, its message – like Herrmann’s – focused on the kind of “pro-Israel, pro-peace” advocacy the group says is missing from the current discourse.
On Thursday night, J Street said nearly 2,000 people turned out in more than 20 cities for simultaneous events to kick off J Street Local, the vehicle for members to carry out educational and advocacy work in their communities.
“We made a pledge in October that we would be silent no more when it comes to Israel,” said J Street’s executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami, in a speech that was broadcast to the other events.
In nearly two years, J Street has amassed 140,000 online supporters and hopes to spur them to action, following the recent merge with Brit Tzedek V’Shalom. “Tonight we are opening a new chapter in the struggle for tzedek
and shalom, justice and peace in the world,” Ben-Ami said.
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He said J Street and J Street Local seek to inject new voices into foreign policy discussion, express support for Israel in accordance with Jewish values and promote a more open debate about Israel in the American Jewish community. In particular, J Street seeks to “expand what it means to be pro-Israel.”
During a question-and-answer session, a student at the University of Pennsylvania, where the event was held in space rented from Hillel, asked Ben-Ami about reports that J Street’s university arm was dropping “pro-Israel” from its messaging.
“We absolutely never, ever dropped the pro-Israel part,” Ben-Ami said.
Later, he told The Jerusalem Post
that J Street and J Street U share mission statements that support the State of Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people. “The question is whether or not every single group has to use the phrase, pro-Israel,” he said. “If they feel they can get more students to turn out using different words, they don’t need to put that in 48-point letters in everything they do.
“As long as their mission statement is clear, we’re going to give them some latitude in how they market their events,” he said.
Ben-Ami said J Street was injecting gray into an arena that previously was black and white. “We think we’re doing a service to the Jewish community,” he said.
Leading up to the event, the local Jewish community was divided over the decision by Hillel to rent space to J Street for the kick-off.
Despite mentioning Israeli security, Ben-Ami did not mention the Iranian nuclear threat during his speech. In an interview, he told the Post
that while J Street is on record supporting the Iran Sanctions Act, there is no shortage of Jewish advocates working on the Iran issue. (J Street opposes military action against Iran.)
“The real threat to Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic home is if we don’t solve this [Arab-Israeli] conflict,” he said. “We have said that this threat is more likely to undermine Israel’s existence than Iran.”
Lori Lowenthal Marcus, a Hillel board member who opposed renting space to J Street, held an event at Hillel the same night for her organization, Z Street. She called J Street’s positions “delusional, although very seductive,” and said her event was designed as an opportunity “to educate people about the reality of creating peace.”
Penn students circulated a flier accusing J Street of undermining Israel’s right to defend itself and attempting to dictate Israeli national policy.
“Although J Street calls itself ‘pro-Israel,’ the group’s policies, statements, and actions provide ample evidence to the contrary,” the flier read. “J Street is not only misrepresenting what it means to be pro-Israel, but they are tarnishing the good name of our Hillel in the process.”
Other students, including some who do not agree with J Street’s positions, said they do not want to stifle anyone’s expression of free speech. “I’m all for the debate, even if I don’t support it in the least bit,” said Jeffrey Rollman, a freshman at the university’s Wharton business school.
Hillel leaders made clear that by renting space to J Street, they were not taking a position on the organization’s policies.
many community members, the primary issue in considering Hillel’s
decision is how to properly understand the character of J Street and
what needs to be done to stop them or promote them, depending on one’s
perspective,” read an op-ed by Rabbi Howard Alpert, executive director
of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, and Prof. Edward Newman, chairman of
Hillel’s Israel Campus Coalition. “For Hillel, the primary issue is how
to properly understand the character of today’s Jewish college students
and what needs to be done to engage them in the Jewish conversation.”
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