Reporter's Notebook: J Street evolution

The "pro-Israel, pro-peace" lobbying group is setting aside its differences with other groups at this year's conference.

Peter Beinart meets students at J Street conference 370 (photo credit: J Street)
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 Project.
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 occasionally nasty.
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 world.”
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 Israeli government.
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 organization.
“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 position.
“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 participated in.
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 campuses.
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 those perspectives.
“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.”