Tuesday, October 27, 2009

J Street Conference: Report 1

The J Street conference is ongoing in downtown Washington, D.C. Entering the hotel Sunday night, I saw only 2 protesters, one of whom was dressed in traditional Arab clothing for some reason. Inside the hotel were swarms of people wearing the J Street lanyard and identification tags. The crowd assembled was extremely diverse, spanning all age ranges and originating from all parts of the country and around the world. I spoke to two graduate students at Georgetown University about their involvement with the conference, and sat at the opening event next to a British member of the Liberal Jewish movement, who had been sent to the conference to report on the state of progressive Judaism in the U.S.

The opening event itself was headlined by Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street's director, who was followed by the new New Israel Fund director Daniel Sokatch. Both spoke to themes of changing the status quo. Ben Ami spoke extensively about the way in which J Street was an "umbrella organization" emphasizing his desire to "widen the tent of pro-Israel activism."

Sokatch spoke about the traditional sidelining of the progressive left on Israel. He mentioned links to Jewish values and a "Yom Kippur" style approach.

The event then featured three discussants for the evening including a young woman, a college intern, and a rabbi who spoke far too long.

Then the tables were urged to discuss questions which had been left on the table. In a show of J Street's prowess in social media and Web 2.0, participants could twitter their comments to the central display in the auditorium.

Ben Ami concluded the event with a rousing speech arguing that "Progressive is the mainstream."

The crowd at the event came from a variety of different backgrounds, which was evident by certain camps clapping at certain statements. Overall the crowd learned very activist liberal (not suprisingly) and young and old were disproportionately represented compared to middle aged. The breakdown appeared to be roughtly 30% college students/young professionals, 20% mid-career professionals and organizational representatives, and 40% activist liberal progressive Jews who were at least in their mid to late 50's.

The diversity of the crowd illustrates one of J Streets future challenges which the conference made evident. The group has a lof of different age groups who all have lots of different opinions. One of my colleagues at the conference expressed suprise that there were so few policy and security-focused people. Unlike AIPAC which specifically holds a "policy conference," the tone of J Street's event was much more "Jewish" to judge from the type of people who attended.

In a suprise event which was exciting only to me, halfway through the conference, former Minister of Defense Amir Peretz walked into the room. He is known for his charcteristic moustache, and stoood out a mile away.

More updates and analysis tomorrow.

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