By COLETTE AVITAL
There is a great deal of excitement in the Washington offices of J Street these days. Phones are ringing, e-mails are pouring in. More than 1,000 people have already registered for the first annual conference to be held in the capital on Sunday.
One hundred and fifty members of congress and senators are members of the host committee, among them representatives with a known record on Capitol Hill. For an organization that is barely 18 months old, this is quite an achievement.
J Street is the new kid in town. It was born out of a need to give a large number of progressive Jews in America, who love Israel and support policies that put the peace process on the front burner, a voice. For a long time, perhaps for too long, there has been no real movement, no real progress in our relations with our next door neighbors. Israel has not taken real advantage of Arab overtures or the Arab peace initiative.
Like many Israelis, a large number of Jews and non-Jews in America believe that there is a solution to the conflict that has torn us apart for generations: the two-state solution. They believe that it is possible, moreover it is necessary and urgent. The new administration in Washington headed by President Barack Obama, has brought hope that a new policy giving priority to progress in our area will be put in place. They believe that this is an American as well as an Israeli interest, and that there is no contradiction between the two.
Over 110,000 have signed in and have become supporters of the organization. This is, by far, one of the largest memberships in the organized Jewish community. Small and large donations have poured in through the Internet. Indeed this is a new fact in Jewish life in America.
TO FULLY grasp the importance of this phenomenon, one must understand what successive studies of Jewish life in America have shown: that a majority of American Jews are unaffiliated; that they do not feel that existing Jewish organizations represent them; that they drift away from Jewish life in general and from Israel in particular. At the same time, many are engaged in American politics and support progressive causes and policies in America. Many of them want to be involved and to support Israel in a different way.
This is a new generation with whom we have not known how to communicate. J Street gives them a voice, a face, a cause they feel comfortable to support. It speaks their language and addresses some of their concerns. It is pro-Israel and pro-peace. And deep in our hearts, we all know that there in no contradiction between the two. This is what an increasing number of politicians at the local and national level want to hear.
Often times the views of "official" Israel do not concur with those of American Jewish organizations. But this is the role of Israeli diplomacy: to explain and to try to iron out the differences. This is precisely what successive Israeli governments and diplomats in Washington have done. Ambassadors representing right-wing governments have engaged in dialogue with the American Friends of Peace Now and with the Israel Policy Forum. Ambassadors representing left-wing governments have met with and spoken to groups like the ZOA and Parents of the Settlers. Refusing to meet Jewish organizations, be they left, right or center, is not a policy. It is a mistake that Israel cannot afford to make.
All attempts to portray J Street as an "anti-Israel, dangerous organization" are as misleading as they are futile. Israeli politicians and diplomats should understand that our country needs support from all parts of the political spectrum in America. The estrangement of the young generation and the hostility on campus should be a cause of grave concern to us. The young progressive students supportive of J Street are best qualified to address this issue.
Rather than fearing, criticizing and spreading rumors which have no relation to reality, the organized Jewish community should make some room at the table. Our diplomats should take advantage of any venue, any stage given to them to express their views and those of the government they represent.
J Street is voicing today what successive governments in Israel have learned: that peace with the Palestinians and the Arab world can be achieved only through openness and compromise. Prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert and foreign minister Tzipi Livni have understood and expressed it, as well as prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak before them.
And at the opening of the Presidential Conference this week, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has moved one more step forward and has declared that peace with the Palestinians is possible.
J Street is here to stay. Nay - it is here to grow. Rather than trying to delegitimize or marginalize it - embrace it.
The writer, a former diplomat and member of the Knesset, was recently appointed as Senior Advisor to the political arm of J Street. She is also the director-general of the Berl Katznelson ideological center as well as international secretary of the Labor Party.
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