Sunday, March 25, 2012

On Which Future Is J Street Betting?

After a day of plenaries and panels,  J Street's 2012 conference has adjourned for the evening. The day's programming ended with the launch of the "Future of Pro-Israel" campaign which attempts to crowd source J Street's mission as an organization and gain more command over the pro-Israel narrative in the United States.  

The future has a lot of opportunities for J Street.  Excitement from students and among young adults towards the organization is high, particularly among the policy community here in Washington.  President Obama is likely, statistically, to win re-election this November.  The Israeli public is growing increasingly disillusioned with the policy of the current conservative government towards the West Bank.  This situation is only likely to be exacerbated as the government responds to today's Israeli Supreme Court ruling knocking down a deal between itself and settlers in Migron, an illegal settlement in the West Bank.  Finally, comments at this afternoon's plenary from Ilyse Hogue of The Nation about "coming out" as a supporter of J Street resonate deeply among members of the American Jewish community, many of whom have received the cold shoulder in their communities for their progressive views on Israel.

At the same time, J Street continues to be an organization of its constituents that has trouble packing a meaningful political punch in Washington D.C.  Now that its novelty has worn off, neither Haaretz, JPost, or Times of Israel feature the conference on their websites.  While debate over a boycott of West Bank settlement goods might be fair play for a J Street conference, it is beyond the pale for the American public and certainly for most members of Congress.   Additionally, J Street is not the only shop in town.  2,500 attendees are in DC for J Street, but 2,500 students alone attended AIPAC, and over 10,000 attendees came in total.  J Street may be the pro-2 State Solution camp now, but AIPAC is not an organization whose message is set in ideological stone.  Last year, the indefensible 1967 lines were the top priority at AIPAC.  This year, they hardly mattered.  As public opinion shifts towards the center and left over the coming decades, there is no obvious reason it will be a center AIPAC does not hold by slowly shifting its rhetoric over time.

What quickly becomes clear is that AIPAC and J Street inhabit two very different political spaces.  This afternoon's panel about Judaism and its relation to Israel crystallized these differences perfectly.  J Street might be focused on what American support for Israel can be, but AIPAC is focused on what it is now, and not only for Jews.  J Street talks values, AIPAC connects values to talking points, money, and action, and real outcomes.

None of this is to say that J Street should become more like AIPAC.  However, unless the Future of Israel campaign can serve as a bridge for J Street to the center of the American Jewish community, the organization is not likely to make a meaningful policy difference in Congress in any future likely to come to fruition soon.  Given the very important issues the conference has raised thus far regarding Israeli human rights, social inequality, and diplomacy, it is difficult not to be disappointed in this outcome.