Monday, February 28, 2011

J Street--A Breath of Fresh Air

 I am in my third day of the J Street annual conference here in Washington. What I have seen in person on the ground here is an energized and committed group of people--almost all Jews--who care deeply about Israel and the Jewish people and who are very concerned that the policies of the current Israeli government and religious leadership are doing a great deal of harm. I have always been taught and believe that acting and speaking out on those kinds of concerns are the highest form of patriotism and Jewish responsibility. 

The sessions have featured amazing speakers, including former AIPAC execs Tom Dine and Doug Bloomfield, Dennis Ross, Rabbi David Saperstein, Imam Faisal Rauf of the Cordoba Initiative, Peter Beinart, Steven Cohen, Daniel Levy, many members of Congress, and five members of the Knesset representing different parties who are here to both express their views and to show their support for J Street and what it represents. 

Although J Street is barely two years old, the conference has attracted more than 2,000 attendees including 500 students. More than 11,000 people have attended J Street events during the last year and the are now 38 local chapters in 26 states and J Street U chapters on 182 campuses. 

The conference has featured a number of plenaries and dozens of breakout sessions. I haven't heard a single comment from anyone who doesn't care deeply about Israel's future as a Jewish state.  As with all healthy organizations, I have heard a lot of introspection and self-criticism. 

In Rabbi Saperstein's keynote address, he broadly praised J Street for filling a huge void that existed in the pro-Israel pro-peace conversation but went on to criticize J Street for it's politically questionable decision to urge the U..S. to refrain from vetoing the resolution condemning Israel's settlement policy.  It is refreshing to be part a pro-Israel group at a conference where people are encouraged to express their personal opinions, criticisms,  and concerns out loud. 
I am saddened that so many of my Jewish friends have resorted to the Fox News-like tactics of using lies, partial truths, and distortions in an effort to demonize J Street and smear its donors and professionals. Virtually every viral email I have received was written and/or forwarded by people who are not here at the conference nor have they ever had any first-hand contact with anyone from J Street 

What we have now in the Jewish and pro-Israel movement is a healthy alternative. For Jews who believe our top priority--not the only priority but our top priority--is to protect and defend the State of Israel, then AIPAC  (I support AIPAC financially and have served on it's local board) provides a great way to leverage that feeling.
For those who believe our top priority is to live out their Jewish values and who are focused on the commandments to work for peace, to improve the world, and to love the stranger then J Street provides a vehicle to leverage that approach.  As a serious Jew who cares deeply about both Israel and Jewish values, I am thrilled that both organizations are part of our political and Jewish landscape. 
I attended a J Street leadership meeting here a few months ago where Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren congratulated J Street for having "made it" and expressed his desire to work closely with J Street in the future. 
I have not heard AIPAC negatively mentioned once here at the conference and yet I read articles and receive frequent emails from my AIPAC friends trying to delegitimize and destroy J Street. It is as though they believe if they say enough bad things, J Street will just go away.  They remind me of the Wizard of Oz frantically scurrying around telling Dorothy and her friends to "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."
As the Wizard found out, that is not an approach that works well or for long. 

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