Saturday, February 26, 2011

J Street Conference Kicks Off in DC

The 2nd annual J Street Conference kicked off this evening at the Washington Convention Center in downtown Washington DC. The conference boasted 30 participating organizations who were joined by informal delegations from Windows, the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement, and a number of other organizations. Together they comprised 2000 conference attendees, among them 500 students. The attendees still largely represented the young/old dichotomy of the first conference, but noticeably less so this time around. The tone of the event, more so than last time, had the aura of a serious policy conference.

Opening the event, J Street VP Rachel Lerner stressed the idea of J Street as a community, versus other organizations as "institutions meant to speak for us." Her message took an overall centrist tone, but still expressed "confusion" over support for J Street translating into betrayal of the American Jewish community.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the night was the speech by Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform Action Committee (RAC). Rabbi Saperstein began his speech with a rousing call to social justice heavily rooted in a religious call to action. However, roughly halfway into his speech, Saperstein criticized J Street's tendency to appeal to its radical base rather than centrists in Washington. He noted that if J Street "alienates the center, it risks losing everything." The room was noticeably filled with an awkward silence as Saperstein criticized J Street's choice not to support a US veto of last week's UN settlement resolution. He also called for J Street to stand united with other Jewish/Israel organizations against Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (which J Street currently does oppose).

Taking Saperstein's comments in stride, J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami characterized J Street as a "liberal political voice on Israel." This is a shift from previous characterizations which took on a more centrist tone. However, Ben Ami noted five J Street principles, all of which fall into roughly centrist terms. The organization:

1) Reaffirms of the right of the Jewish people to a national home of their own.
2) Contends that being pro-Israel doesn't have to mean being anti-Palestinian.
3) Contends Israel supporters have an obligation to speak out if they think policies are hurting Israel.
4) Vibrant respectful debate is good for the American Jewish community.
5) Its work is grounded in Jewish values.

The leaders of J Street U, the organization's on-campus organization, then presented lists of all of the campuses represented at the conference. J Street took meticulous care to recognize students as much as possible throughout the evening.

From there, 3 speakers presented their views on Israel. They included noted author and liberal thinker Peter Beinart of the New Republic, Sara Benninga of the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement, and Dr. Izzeldin Abulaish who lost three daughters and a niece in Operation Cast Lead. Beinart's comments were eloquent and reflected a mastery of the written word. Benninga's comments were piercing and the stuff of activists. Her radicalism was tempered by Dr. Abulaish, whose remarks reflected a theme of freedom. He ended with a call for hope, and peace in the Middle East.

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