Michael Oren rejects J Street conference invite

Oren rejects J Street co

Ambassador to the US Michael Oren has decided not to attend next week's J Street conference, the Israeli Embassy said on Tuesday. Instead, a lower-level member of the embassy staff will be sent to watch and report on the event. "In response to the question about J Street's invitation to participate in its conference, the Embassy of Israel has been privately communicating its concerns over certain policies of the organization that may impair the interests of Israel," the embassy said in a statement. "Accordingly, the embassy will send an observer to the conference and will follow its proceedings with interest." The move stands in contrast to the White House's, which will be sending one of its highest officials, National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones, to deliver the keynote address on Tuesday. "The White House always welcomes the opportunity to discuss the president's views and engage in a dialogue with interested parties," a White House spokesman told The Jerusalem Post, explaining the decision to send Jones as the Obama administration's representative at the conference, which runs from October 25 through October 28. J Street expressed disappointment with the embassy's statement, with spokeswoman Amy Spitalnick saying in a statement, "We believe the government of Israel will be missing an opportunity should it choose not to engage with the over 1,200 pro-Israel activists who will be in attendance at the J Street conference next week." She noted that her organization had yet to hear directly from the embassy and that the embassy's statement wouldn't preclude the possibility that Oren would indeed attend. "J Street still looks forward to receiving a direct response from Ambassador Oren," Spitalnick said. "The invitation to address the conference's participants remains open, and we look forward to working with the embassy to secure Israel's future as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people." The embassy's response follows the withdrawal of a handful of members of Congress from J Street's 160-member host committee list, in some cases because they said they were unaware of the nature of the organization. J Street itself announced the cancellation of a component of the multi-day event on Monday, scrapping a poetry session scheduled as part of the conference following revelations on right-wing blogs of controversial content. Poet Josh Healey, for instance, questioned whether "the chosen people" had been "chosen to recreate our own history merely reversing the roles, with the script now reading that we're the ones writing numbers on the wrists of babies born in the ghetto called Gaza?" He has also written that "Anne Frank is Matthew Shepard" and "Guantanamo is Auschwitz." Shepard was tortured and murdered near Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998, in a homophobic attack. While the group "respects the dissenting voice that poetry can represent in society and politics," a J Street statement noted that the organization "is critical of the use and abuse of Holocaust imagery and metaphors by politicians and pundits on the right." Accordingly, the statement continued, "It would be inappropriate for us to feature poets at our conference whose poetry has used such imagery in the past and might also be offensive to some conference participants." In a separate announcement on Monday, J Street noted that more than 1,000 policy-makers and activists from over 20 participating organizations would be attending the conference, including American officials, Israeli MKs from parties including Kadima and Labor and former Israeli cabinet ministers. Though the embassy didn't specify which positions could "impair" Israel's interests in its statement, the 18-month-old self-described "pro-Israel, pro-peace" lobbying organization has criticized Israel's handling of the war in Gaza, supported calls for a total settlement freeze and opposed several of the Iran sanctions formulations that Israel has backed. J Street has said, though, that it is supportive of Israel and believes its positions will best help ensure the Jewish state's survival. The organization initially invited Oren to attend the conference, the first such annual gathering by the new group, over the summer. Before making its determination about the ambassador's attendance, the embassy made comments critical of the organization, which prompted J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami to reissue his invitation in an open letter in The Jerusalem Post last week. In that letter, Ben-Ami emphasized his hope that the ambassador would attend. "Engaging this part of the community and finding common ground, even as we differ on policy, would be an important step for Israel in ensuring continued, long-term and deep support for Israel across the breadth of our community," he wrote. Some Washington insiders suggested that the embassy's criticism of the lobby and its equivocation over whether to participate had caused several members of Congress to question the "pro-Israel" label of the event and reconsider whether to participate. Several spokesmen for the senators and representatives who have pulled out told media outlets that the decisions were made at the staff level and in some cases their bosses didn't know that their names were on the host committee list. However, other members of Congress have defended lending their names to the host committee. "It's absurd that this has become a controversy," Lindsay Hamilton, spokeswoman for New York Democrat Steve Israel, told the Post. "The congressman agreed to be on the gala host committee. That doesn't mean he agrees with every viewpoint of every speaker at the event." She added, "He will remain on the host committee, though he is not able to attend."