Monday, February 28, 2011

Who is a J Streeter?

It's almost insensitive to be blogging about J Street as a Middle East analyst considering the wide array of other topics from which to choose. The US today began sending aid teams to the Libyan border and moved American warships closer to Libya. Protests continue in Bahrain, where the parliament has now been blockaded. But the J Street Conference matters for the American Jewish community, and it matters for the Washington Middle East epistemic community as well. J Street's conference participants are a key indicator of where the organization stands, and where it is going.

The conference is having a profound impact on its participants. While those of us in DC eat, sleep, and breathe Middle East politics, the accountants, doctors, and teachers in attendance do not. Many of the participants expressed a sense of relief in being at the conference, where they could finally speak without self-censoring. They were curious to learn more about the movement, and excited to see they were not alone in their views.

Then there are the more extreme participants. Happy to have a captive audience to engage over breakfast or walking between panels, they were very outgoing and saw the array of panels and speakers less as a buffet of opinions and more as a kitchen for concocting support for their own ideas. In panels, they applaud and shout and boo freely and without reservation. They see no reason to do otherwise.

Somewhere in the middle of this are the college students. These young participants were generally there to listen and hear from the accomplished panelists they aspire to be someday. Not nearly as loud and rambunctious as the far-left crowd who are largely in their mid-50's or early 60's, they are a positive force in J Street, and it is clear why J Street is investing so much in its college organization J Street U. In a 5-10 year time period, these individuals will likely have a positive, moderating effect on the organization.

This will be a helpful asset in light of the challenges J Street will face. The strategic objective of the conference appears to be greater legitimacy for J Street. But today's panel on Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions was a dangerous move for an organization consistently criticized as extreme and anti-Israel. Given J Street's clear stance against BDS, this would have been a perfect point against which to contrast in order to gain legitimacy. Instead, the conference highlighted not only a speaker from the far-left Jewish Voice for Peace, but also the extent to which many in its constituency are pro-BDS. At the end of the day, it's not clear J Street made any friends on either the right or left by hosting this panel. BDS is a no-fly zone in the pro-Israel camp. It's not a zone worth challenging.

Fair enough, J Street wanted to encourage a wide range of ideas. But J Street's policies and J Street's constituencies are not aligned. The organization supports diversity of opinion. Many in its constituency do not. They will not sit quietly when an Israeli MK tries to justify Israeli policy. They are not content to hold their tongue when a centrist speaker makes a point with which they disagree. The bottom line is this: at some point, J Street is going to have to make enemies on the far left if it hopes to maintain legitimacy as a centrist organization. Rabbi David Saperstein's comments on Saturday night about J Street were pushy, and were this not DC politics, rude. But he was right. And while J Street gained legitimacy at this conference having well-known, mainstream speakers and a well-executed conference, it loses that legitimacy entertaining those who find meaning in criticizing rather than offering alternatives.

J Street as an organization may be seeking a wide array of ideas. This is a legitimate objective. It is unclear that J Street's conference participants would agree. Strategically, it may be that J Street is opening its umbrella over the wrong head. In the end, the moderate center gets left out in the rain.

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