Download this story in Microsoft Word format here.
WASHINGTON, DC—As a crowd of 2,500 people gathered for J Street’s third annual conference, keynote speaker Amos Oz used the self-labeled “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group’s opening plenary Saturday night as a platform to slam the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
Oz, the famed Israeli author and left-wing activist, received a standing ovation when he questioned the “hawkish, militaristic banner of AIPAC” and encouraged the crowd to “unite now under the banner of J Street.”
J Street conference attendees echoed Oz, promoting what they claimed to be political positions favored by the majority of Jews. George Washington University student and J Street activist Adam Lucente said, “I feel that J Street better represents the overall Jewish community than AIPAC, for example.”
Yet, AIPAC’s conference earlier this month drew 13,000 participants, more than five times the crowd attracted by J Street. While J Street has marketed itself as an alternative to AIPAC by frequently and vociferously backing President Barack Obama’s policies on settlements, borders and Jerusalem, Obama did not mention J Street’s core issues when he spoke at AIPAC’s conference March 4. The president instead stressed points such as “Israel’s sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs.”
In addition to Obama, addressing the AIPAC conference were dignitaries including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The same could not be said of the J Street conference, whose special guests included Tony Blinken—Vice President Joe Biden’s national security staffer—and embattled former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has been indicted on bribery charges.
However, regarding the crowd J Street drew, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi—founder and soon-departing director of The Israel Project advocacy group—told JointMedia News Service: “There are a lot of people here. It took AIPAC a lot of years to get to that point.”
Oz on AIPAC
AIPAC did not return a request for comment regarding Oz’s statement that the pro-Israel lobby is “hawkish, militaristic.” Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) President Mort Klein said in a telephone interview with JointMedia News Service that Oz’s words show that he “knows nothing about what AIPAC does, or says, or supports.”
“AIPAC embraced Oslo from day one, they embraced the Gaza withdrawal as soon as [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon mentioned it, before any discussion of the issue…They (AIPAC) repeatedly, regularly lobby for aid to the Palestinian Authority, openly support a Palestinian state,” Klein said.
Oz also said that, “There is more than one way to be a good Zionist…No one can claim Zionism to themselves. It’s a surname.”
Israeli journalist Stav Shaffir, a leader of last summer’s massive Israeli social protest movement, said Israel is “a more fragmented and segmented society than ever.”
“It’s many different societies in conflict with each other,” Shaffir said. “If one can’t solve that, we can’t deal with our borders. If we can’t manage to redefine Israel according to our own values, then we lose. We are so close to that.”
Beinart’s call for boycotts
Peter Beinart, whose recent New York Times op-ed called for boycotts and other civil protests against Israeli settlements and settlers, debuted his new book—The Crisis of Zionism—at J Street’s conference. Leading up to the conference, J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami said Beinart’s op-ed “immediately raises pressure on J Street and other organizations over giving a platform to Peter.”
Maintaining that J Street was “thrilled” to host Beinart, Ben-Ami admitted that the group disagrees “with some of the actions that Peter is calling for.” Disagreeing with Beinart’s tactic of putting pressure on settlers and “the ideologues driving the settlement enterprise,” Ben-Ami called for a “focus on borders, not boycotts, as it is a recognized border that will save Israel’s democratic and Jewish character.”
ZOA’s Klein said many of the Jews who move to Judea and Samaria do so “because it’s beautiful, and it’s less expensive,” not out of ideological reasons.
“What Ben-Ami and others refuse to acknowledge is that this is no one’s sovereign land,” Klein said. “Jordan captured this illegally in 1948, the UN refused to recognize their sovereignty over Judea and Samaria, King Hussein relinquished his claims in 1988…This is simply unallocated international land, and until there’s some sort of final resolution, why can’t 300,000 Jews live in Judea and Samaria among 2 million Arabs when 1.2 million Arabs live among 6 million Jews in Israel?”
Lobbying and student activism
As conference attendees gathered to listen, talk, argue and question, supporters of groups such as Rabbis for Human Rights, B’Tselem, the New Israel Fund, Partners for Progressive Israel, and others displayed their literature and promoted their agendas.
About 800 activists descended upon Washington’s Capitol Hill on Tuesday to lobby Congress on behalf of J Street’s agenda, which favors a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the conference’s Sunday afternoon plenary session, Carinne Luck—J Street’s vice president of field and campaigns—kicked off the organization’s “We are the Future of Pro-Israel” campaign, whose stated goal is to “fight for an Israel whose people live in security with recognized borders, an Israel living in peace and prosperity alongside a Palestinian homeland where citizens can thrive and build their own country.”
J Street’s new campaign also calls for the U.S. government “to invest all possible resources to help Israelis and Palestinians create a peaceful and secure future.”
Conference attendees were young, old and in-between, and from hundreds of locations. About one in four attendees was a college student, with 650 students representing 125 schools across 24 U.S. states and five different countries. Aimee Riese, a student at the London School of Economics who represented J Street’s UK counterpart, called Yachad, said, “I identify as a Zionist and Israel is important as the historical homeland of the Jewish people.” When asked why she supported J Street and why she attended the conference, Riese—who has been to Israel 10 times—said, “Settlements is the issue.”
Regarding settlements, J Street has “supported criminalizing the Jews who live in Judea and Samaria,” but has “never supported any actions against the Arabs” building there, Klein said.
“If you really want to say ‘I don’t want these areas changed in any way,’ say ‘Everyone should stop building.’ Everyone. Why only Jews?” Klein said.