Wednesday, October 28, 2009

J Street Conference: Report 2

This article by Haaretz's Natasha Mozgovaya is a very fair analysis of the conference, and I agree with a lot of her points.

The report left off yesterday at the Rockin' the Status Quo party, which mostly turned out to be a few young people and more older people on a dance floor. But it seems that an analysis of the event might be more worthwhile.

I liked the energy and potential of the conference. The pro-Israel left certainly was happy to have a voice in J Street, and the conference had a heavy media attendance (at least two long tables at the opening event). Many of the panelists were true experts in their fields, and the prescence of National Security Advisor James Jones speaks to the influence the group has in Washington.

That being said, what I didn't like was the consituency. In order to garner public support and grassroots networks, the generally centrist/left-of-center J Street co-sponsored the conference with a number of legitimate but far left groups such as Peace Now and Settlement Watch. While all points of view have their place in the debate, the conference included a number of speakers who clearly were not criticizing Israel for the sake of improving it. Bassim Khoury, a minister in the Palestinian authority, went so far as to classify the political spectrum not as "right and left" but "right and wrong," to approval from the audience. As disrespectful as his presentation was for a pro-Israel conference, the audience tended to clap far more for left-wing statements than right-wing or centrist statements. While it's important for J Street to have nuance, that nuance must span the political spectrum, and not just between center-left and far-left.

There's a reason those who sit on the far left do not have a strong voice in Washington, which is because they are a minority. J Street's aim is to be able to be effective in Washington, which requires centrism and compromise. Having been to J Street events in the nation's capital, its almost as if there's J Street inside D.C., and J Street outside D.C. The group's director, Jeremy Ben Ami, said that he hoped he would be criticized from the far left. This will require taking a much more centrist approach in the future, and not being afraid of alienating some of J Street's current friends.

That being said, it seems Ms. Mozgovaya and I were not the only ones concerned. I spoke with other participants at the conference who expressed similar sentiments. One issue seems to be that many constituents come from a Jewish activist background rather than a policy background. Looking to balance these two networks would be a really good way to appear more mainstream and attract more credibility as an authority on America-Israel affairs.

Now that the group has had its first successful conference, the real work of changing policy can begin. While the overall slant of the conference and its attendees was troubling, I have faith that the organization is acting deliberately and will be a constructive actor in policy debates to come.

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