Full disclosure up front. I have been very involved in Jewish and pro-Israel organizations for three decades and I try to use Jewish wisdom, values and ethics as my moral filter. I have chaired two Federation campaigns, chaired state Israel Bonds campaigns, made 20 trips to Israel, served on our local AIPAC board and am now on the National Advisory Committee of J Street.
I spent the last couple of days in Washington, D.C. at the J Street National Leadership Summit and came away proud and enthused over how J Street has evolved and matured during over the last few years. It has truly taken its place among the ranks of the important national Jewish and pro-Israel organizations in a very short period of time.
You don't have to take my word for it. The list of speakers who addressed us and their tone and message said it all. I'll deal with some of what I heard and learned in subsequent articles over the next couple days.
But first and foremost, my many self-described pro-Israel friends who have been anywhere from very suspicious to downright hostile toward J Street since its inception just a few years ago should all know once and for all that J Street is here to stay and has clearly established itself as a major pro-Israel player on the national and international scene.
The days are long gone when small, wealthy passionate groups of wealthy Right wing Jewish community leaders will be able to intimidate community professionals and rabbis who have agreed to host J Street programs and speakers. The most egregious example of that behavior occurred two years ago in Boston where a speaking invitation to J Street head Jeremy Ben-Ami was cancelled by a synagogue rabbi just hours before a scheduled event after the rabbi said he was pressured by a few large donors. But those days are behind us..
J Street's amazing growth (more than 180,000 donors and followers and a Rabbinic Cabinet of more than 600) is a reflection of the huge void in the American Jewish discussion about Israel it has filled. It is the only place where honest, open and balanced conversations about the many nuanced and complicated issues surrounding Israel can really take place.
Look at what happened in just 24 hours in Washington this week. Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren spoke to our group of about 75 J Street leaders. Although his specific comments were off the record, the difference in his tone was like night and day from his appearance at the same event two years ago when he spent all his time criticizing J Street for everything from its unhelpful statements and policies to its logo.
This time, he didn't talk about J Street's credentials as a pro-Israel group--that was a given. Instead he gave us a detailed update of all the issues and challenges confronting the Jewish state. It seemed obvious that his different and friendlier tone was based on J Street's clear stands on a number of issues over the last year that removed doubt about its commitment to Israel as a Jewish democratic state. Oren answered many questions from the audience--all of which were respectful and asked by people who clearly cared about Israel. But he still hates our logo.
His talk was followed by an interview of former Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff General Dani Haloutz who is in the U.S. on a three-day J Street speaking tour. Gen. Haloutz was interviewed by
Jeffrey Goldberg--a highly respected reporter with The Atlantic who had accepted an invitation to appear at a national J Street event for the first time. Jeff told me after his interview that he was surprised by the "moderate" tone of the questions and the crowd in general.
That night, our group attended a J Street fundraiser for former Virginia Governor Tim Kaine who is running for the Senate in a close race. Kaine has accepted J Street's endorsement--as has California Senator Dianne Feinstein and more than 60 other Congressional and Senate candidates. Just two years ago, candidates of that stature told J Street they couldn't accept our money or endorsement for fear of being ostracized by those on the pro-Israel Right.
But a lot has changed in two years.
The next morning, we heard from PLO Chief Representative Maen Areikat who gave us a very different perspective than the one presented by Oren. He was also treated with respect and was pressed hard by the group with questions about his version of the story.
Then we went to Capitol Hill where I had the opportunity to meet with two Congressmen from former homes--Ron Kind of Wisconsin and Marcy Kaptur of Ohio who represents the district including Oberlin where I sent to college and lived for nine years.
It was an energizing and informative couple of days and I came away very aware that only J Street could have put a program like that together. No other Jewish or pro-Israel organization would invite and treat with both respect and probing questions a group of top level speakers representing such a rich and broad range of perspectives.
That's because J Street doesn't do pep rallies and is not strictly a booster club for the Israeli government . J Street promotes conversation and informed discussion for those who acknowledge how complex and complicated the issues surrounding the relationship between the democratic State of Israel and most Jewish Americans have become. What an opportunity and what a blessing it is that J Street has filled that gaping void in our national Jewish conversation.
It is defiinitely time for those who have never attended a J Street event or read a J Street statement or policy from our website but instead have forwarded vicious emails decrying J Street's hidden agenda of destroying Israel to actually do some reading and get some first-hand knowledge of the important role the organization is playing on the political scene after just a few short years.
Thankfully more and more people like Michael Oren, Jeffrey Goldberg, dozens of members of Congress and many, many others are no longer part of that crowd and are acting out the Jewish mandate to try to learn from all people and to embrace disagreements that are the result of good, caring people all working to make the world a better place.