Tonight's program was largely content one would expect from a serious policy organization, rather than a small outsider group trying to knock its way into the Washington policy arena. While a bit of healthy liberal indignance remains part of the organization's talking points, the general tone set by J Street's staff tonight was generally moderate and reasonable. No doubt, those in attendance from the right will find plenty at fault with Jeremy Ben Ami's direct criticism of AIPAC, the AJC, and the ADL. They will certainly take issue with the simplistic presentation of the very complex legal issues in Sheikh Jarrah (which was not necessarily Ms. Benninga's responsibility to explain).
Yet despite these misgivings, J Street's opening plenary session was technically flawless, with the timed precision of a broadway play, and a carefully crafted message. Bringing in high profile speakers versus the last conference's voices from among the activists was the correct choice. Big names like Peter Beinart add legitimacy to J Street as an organization, and inspire activist audiences. They also appeal to the many policy folk in attendance.
J Street also made it a huge point to recognize its student delegations. The organization has invested significant time and effort into J Street U, though its independence on campus has sometimes landed J Street in trouble in Washington. Yet J Street U President Moriel Rothman spoke eloquently and passionately, even if his passions did not align with the more centrist tone of Rachel Lerner and Jeremy Ben-Ami.
Criticism by Rabbi David Saperstein of the RAC no doubt raised some pulses, especially as only the second speech of the evening. Given the semi-controvery over Reform Movement Head Rabbi Eric Yoffee from last year, this "hate-that-I-love-you" relationship between the Reform Jewish Movement and J Street is nothing new. However, the content of Saperstein's comments were dead on. Rabbi Saperstein is correct that being moderate most of the time will give J Street leverage to take a stark position when it really matters, and that radicalism can alienate those with power in Washington. Most attendees will likely spurn these comments, but more moderate attendees likely appreciated his candid, frank assessment. President Ben Ami, for his part, was gracious in accepting these criticisms.
As the conference goes on, it will be interesting to see whether the moderate thrust of tonight's comments are reflected in the viewpoints of the attendees at the conference. While the last conference had something of a hippie-Jewish vibe, this time around was more policy oriented. There appeared to be more men in suits, and the exchange of business cards and mid-sentence glances at Blackberries were much more common. Questions asked at tomorrow's panels will shed light on whether this is in fact the case.