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The J street conference: An "A" for effort, “F” for results

From this Israeli’s perspective, the J Street conference looked like a pretty sleek production. Too bad that’s all it amounted to.

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.

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  • COMMENTS

    1. Rabbi Tony Jutner

      Mr Kaufman, I agree with you, but for different reasons. As long as J street cannot sort out whether it is a zionist or antizionist group, the best it will get from the Obama govt is the Postmaster General to speak (whoever that is). It will always be AIPAC Jr. However, if J street adopts the principles of NewJudaism, with its emphases of SOcial Justice, Economic Justice, and Right of Return of Endogenous Inhabitants, especially the Palestinians. I have a better idea than relying on the Obama administration, which is now zionist occupied territories. Next year, J Street should invite Erdogan from Turkey, Ahmadinejad from Iran, and Goerg Soros, and make it clear that between the financial resources of Soros, and the combined military might of Turkey and Iran, it is time for the zionists to call it quits. Nobody would call that J Street meeting parve.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Shelly

      What JStreet lacks is what AIPAC has in spades.
      Money (as in Lauder and other rightwing gazillionaires) and Passion. For example, conference T-shirts (themselves a waste) were printed with an image of Peter Beinart (as depicted in “The Forward”). They should have been printed with an image of the Separation Fence. As far as Passion goes, both JStreet and Israel’s left wing should take Egypt’s youth as an example to aspire to.

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    3. Ben Israel

      J-Street is hardly a new phenomenon. There already are a plethora of far Left Jewish groups such as MERETZ-USA, Israeli Policy Forum, American Friends of Peace Now, American Council for Judaism and Jewish Voice for Peace immediately come to mind. Although they all agree that they don’t like Israeli policy and they don’t like the settlements, there is little beyond that they do agree on. Some are Zionist some are anti-Zionist. Some are anti-capitalist, others are pro-capitalist. J-Street is just one more group crying for attention in the dwindling crowd of “progressive” (or Far Left) Jews. The fact is that the main group they are appealing to is the Jew with limited contact with the organized Jewish community, i.e. the assimilating Jews. They are more likely than not to be apathetic about Israel rather than to be involved actively in opposing the Israeli government and the organized Jewish community that is pro-Zionist. As the other groups I mentioned are sputtering along, so J-Street will end up the same way.

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    4. Kenfolk

      To Ben Israel: MeretzUSA, Israel Policy forum, and J Street are essentially Zionist, in that they all believe in the right of Jews to self determination in the State of Israel. The American Council for Judaism (does it really still exist?!) was an anti-Zionist movement that rejected the idea of a Jewish State. JVP claims to not support or reject the idea of a Jewish state. However, its enthusiam for BDS, which makes no distinction between boycotting Israel and boycotting the settlements is part of the larger campaign to delegitimize Israel. Also, JVP’s willingness to co-sponsor events (like the anti-Israel demonstration in Dearborn, MI that I personally witnessed not long ago) in which P.A. attempts to make peace with Israel were vehemently opposed makes one question its commitment to peaceful co-existence between Palestinians and Israelis.

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    5. Your answer lifts the itelnligecne of the debate.

      Reply to Comment

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