Now that the folks at JStreet are finished patting each other on the back for a job well done, I’d like to give them a perspective on the conference from one who did not attend. I just read about it here, on my laptop in sunny Bat Yam.
There wasn’t much to see here. Not on TV, and not in the papers. I also understand that there wasn’t much coverage in the American media. In fact, if one visits JStreet’s website and clicks on the media coverage link, it’s easy enough to compare the coverage received by this conference to the first one in 2009. Not only is the list about a third in length, but some big names don’t show up: The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Times, The Economist, and others.
After seeing this, I decided to take a small, totally unscientific survey of numerous friends and family in the States, all liberal, Obama-voting Jews: none of them knew the conference was going on. My only solace was found in a cousin who told me the only info he had from the conference was +972.
Look, if you can’t get an item in the NYTimes and if you can’t get the attention of the audience you’re preaching to (even though my poll was unscientific, my gut feeling is that it’s not far from the truth) – your media department is having difficulties. This is basic stuff, folks.
But media is the least of JStreet’s problems. What about what went on in the conference rooms? Sure, the speeches were nice. The two new mega stars that everybody just HAS to love these days – Mona Eltahaway and Peter Beinart – sent chills down many spines.
And, apparently, some of the panel discussions were very interesting. Take for example the groundbreaking panel on BDS – the fact that JStreet even opened that topic for debate is quite impressive.
But unfortunately, nice panels aren’t enough. Don’t get me wrong, creating discussion inside the Jewish community is extremely important, and I’m sure that’s what happened at this conference. All in all, it looks like it was a feel-good, nice n’ fuzzy kinda gathering. But a failure nonetheless.
Where JStreet failed this time is where it hurts most: the political aspect. Its most important arm is JStreetPac, the political action committee. The fruits of this pac’s efforts should have been seen in the caliber of speakers from Congress it brought to the event. Based on the 50 or so politicians who showed up, most of them minor league players, J Street supporters (myself included) should be worried. Even more so, when the best you can get from the Obama administration is a speech from Dennis Ross. I think it’s safe to say that’s even a downgrade from James Jones attending the 2009 conference.
Nathan Guttman of The Forward wrote about the possible reasons for this:
“Some members of Congress who participated in J Street’s conference spoke of the difficulties of embracing J Street’s agenda on Capitol Hill.
During one panel discussion, Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat, said that “there are prices to pay” for supporting J Street’s views in Congress. In another discussion, Rep. Lynn Woolsey, a California Democrat, argued that on Middle East issues the “most important decisions are governed by fear, fear of losing votes, of losing campaign donations.”
And Natasha Mozgovaya pointed out how J Street is still a novice in some areas:
The problem with J Street is that it seems to have lost a bit of its policy focus, instead plunging into controversies and acting, as some Congress staffers hint, too hastily and even arrogantly. They point to the lobby’s practice of putting out controversial statements without consulting enough with key players, making some congressmen sympathetic to a two-state solution feel uncomfortable.
J Street has got its work cut out for it. The organization must now roll up its sleeves in what will be its most difficult task: Ahead of the 2012 U.S. elections, it must prevent its next conference from being just as parve, since its arch-nemesis AIPAC will be doing some serious muscle flexing to keep its Senators and Representatives in rank.
In an emotional plea to participants of the conference, Eltahawy asked for J Street not to be 10 days too late, as were the Mideast leaders who eventually lost power. I fear Eltahawy’s request is too late in itself. American Jewry, and J Street, seem to have woken up too late. It could be that by the time J Street gets its act together, the two state solution will be dead.
The only way to make a change is to get a massive movement of big gun politicians from AIPAC to J Street. And it has to happen soon, before the next conference.
2011 is J Street’s make or break year. Otherwise, their next gatherings are in danger of turning into nothing more than annual pep rallies.