J Street unveils grassroots field effort

Organization to launch operations to encourage more US involvement in resolution of ME conflict.

jeremy ben-ami j street 248 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
jeremy ben-ami j street 248 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
J Street announced Tuesday that it would be launching field operations around America to encourage grassroots activists to become involved in shaping local debates on Israel and US Middle East policy. J Street, which describes itself as a "pro-Israel, pro-peace" organization that pushes for greater American involvement in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is looking to harness the power of its more than 100,000 online supporters into activists who will present the J Street perspective in community debates, meet with members of Congress to advocate J Street positions and write supportive letters and op-eds in local newspapers. "The next two years are going to be absolutely critical to the hopes of achieving peace in the Middle East, and especially between Israel and the Palestinians," said J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami, continuing that it's "vital" for legislators and policy-makers here to show "the depth of support for strong leadership on the peace process." Pointing to the large number of supporters on J Street's e-mail list, Ben-Ami said the idea is to "take this energy and excitement that we've generated in a little over a year [and] take that offline and into community meetings." To that end, J Street will be coordinating with Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, a left-wing grassroots network of some 50,000 backers founded in 2002 and engaged in similar activities, and exploring how the two groups might best work together. In welcoming J Street's announcement, Brit Tzedek on Tuesday also noted that it would no longer be looking to fill its executive director position, raising questions about whether the two organizations would eventually merge. The idea was raised during the creation of J Street in early 2008, but officials from both organizations indicated that it was premature to discuss such an eventuality. Still, combined with J Street's takeover of the campus-based Union of Progressive Zionists, which gives J Street a college presence it will be re-branding and expanding over the course of the year, the organization is increasingly becoming a dominant voice in the progressive Jewish community. "From the beginning of our existence, we're always been aware that to be really effective we need to have as big and powerful a presence as possible," Brit Tzedek President Steve Masters said Tuesday. "We've always tried to work with other organizations that share our point of view," running several campaigns in cooperation with J Street, "so this is a positive development." Brit Tzedek has close to 40 chapters in 30 states, along with offices in Chicago, Washington and San Francisco, cities along with New York, Boston and Seattle that J Street sees as key in setting up its own grassroots program. Yet some of J Street's detractors dismiss the idea that the field operation would have a significant impact on shaping the debate in America on Israel, and point to Brit Tzedek's low profile to support their thesis. "You're talking about a fringe, extreme group with no influence joining a group with pretensions on influence. Zero times zero in the end still equals zero," said Morris Amitay, who runs the pro-Israel Washington PAC and is a former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Washington's dominant pro-Israel lobby. AIPAC has 100,000 members according to its Web site, offices around the country and a growing campus presence. "To say J Street has as much support as AIPAC is ridiculous," Amitay said. "They have an e-mail list. I can get you an e-mail list with 100,000 people for a few hundred dollars."