Fish And Fowl
I’ve only been served fish and fowl on the same plate twice. Both times were in the USA, the second was at the J Street inaugural conference Gala dinner in Washington DC this October. J Street is a new Washington lobbying group intent on ‘changing the face of pro-Israel advocacy in the US’. It wants an open debate on Israel, on the same plate as the Israel Right or Wrong lobby, epitomised by AIPAC. As Republican Senator Boustany put it, ‘there must be room for a more open and vigorous debate on the Mid-East conflict.’ For fifty years, AIPAC has monopolised the pro-Israel field. Its legendary influence brooks no criticism of Israel.
Jeremy Ben Ami, J Street’s Executive Director never mentions AIPAC publicly. ‘They can welcome us in; this is a language and a dialogue they are not used to. It will ensure the long-term survival of their institutions and it will mean that the community is a broad tent, strong and vibrant. The other choice is they say “you’re not welcome” and then we’ll either create our own home, or a lot of these people are going to walk away. Everybody loses.’
Someone spotted the absence of J Street on the Washington grid map. K Street is where all the lobbyists are. The organisation seeks to create a new, but not exclusively Jewish, Pro-Israel Pro-Peace voice. A table guest told me ‘we aren’t anti anything!’ Post-Cast Lead that’s an interesting interpretation. At a session titled The Maze, veteran Knesset Members admitted that the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee is powerless, prompting the question ‘who are the Government of Israel and the IDF accountable to?’ The panellists smiled wryly and shook their heads.
J Street numbers 160,000, after only eighteen months. Its success is partly explained by‘Netroots’ — the combination of networking and the internet — to disseminate political messages via blogs and internet media. Ben Ami learned the effectiveness of Netroots as Policy Director to Howard Dean’s 2005 Presidential campaign. He says ‘Barack Obama owes his presidency to internet politics.’ The other part — some 50,000 supporters — comes from Brit Tzedek V’Shalom — Alliance For Justice and Peace — a more traditional grass-roots organisation integrated into J Street.
The breadth of American Progressive Jewish Israeli interests was reflected in the twenty organisations participating in the conference, including Ameinu and The New Israel Fund. Numbers for the three day conference exceeded 1500, a wow-factor many speakers commented upon. ‘The voice of the silent American Jewish majority’, Ben Ami declared, ‘is silent no longer.’
Reform Rabbi Andy Bachman from Brooklyn wanted to bring his pre-67 Zionism to a jaded younger generation, ‘above all else we have to be a blessing, a moral people.’ Two days prior to the Conference, J Street had hosted 250 students from 60 campuses.
It was like Limmud, but exclusively devoted to Israel and peace. The multiplicity of sessions made choosing hard. In one morning, concurrently: The American Left and Israel; Where Has Israel Peace Activisim Gone? Israel’s Social and Domestic Challenges; How Jews Christians and Muslims Can Work Together For Peace; Setting The Stage For Peace; Culture As A Tool For Change.
C-Span (a private, non-profit company created in 1979 by the cable television industry as a public service to provide free access to the political process) broadcast conference sessions.The Washington Post carried a full page of congratulations from Israeli politicians and ex-Generals.
Located in a hotel an easy walk from the White House, it was a seminal moment in American Jewish and Diaspora–Israel relations, consisting of several seminal moments: invariable applause whenever a Palestinian state and an end to the occupation were called for.Bassim Khoury, who’d just quit the Abbas cabinet over Goldstone said, ‘Its not Left-wing versus Right-wing, but Correct-wing versus Wrong-wing.’
General Jim Jones, National Security Adviser, thanked J Street for ‘the honour of addressing the conference in the name of the President of the United States. You can be sure this administration will be represented at all future conferences.’
During the lobbying day on Capitol Hill, seven hundred J Street conference participants met with senatorial aides. We’d been given a clear brief about the pro-Israel pro-Peace message, but it didn’t prepare us for a chief aide’s ‘What about negotiating with Hamas?’ We discussed it and the aide told us, ‘I don’t even get an answer to that when I ask AIPAC.’
And all the time there were Jewish faces, so familiar I kept asking myself ‘Isn’t that…?’ The indefinable American quality about them promoted stimulating discussions. What about beyond America, I ask Ben Ami. ‘These issues apply to the worldwide Jewish community, in Europe as much as in Israel. We’re going to have to tap into that. It will give everybody strength.’
Washington cabbies all seem to be Eritrean. Mine asked me if I was from J Street. I was stunned. ‘It’s all over the radio,’ he explained, ‘but you’re better than the other group.’ ‘Which other group?’ I asked. ‘AIPAC,’ he said.
And for the record, the fish — cod — was fresher and tastier than the fowl — ‘rubber’ chicken.