Wrong turn — or turnaround — for J Street?

Wrong turn — or turnaround — for J Street?

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

Last week’s J Street Washington Conference may very well prove to have been its most successful yet in terms of participation but it also, ironically, may have signaled the beginning of a shift in or even the demise of the organization.

Approximately 2,500 people were reported to have attended. Almost one-third were students; older members were also over-represented, with a much smaller group in the middle.

Their politics, and that of most of the speakers, was clearly Left. Speakers included two representatives from the White House and an Israeli government representative, as well as former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Outside of J Street there are some who continue to have serious and growing reservation about the organization. They sense that J Street is more committed to the pro-peace side of its slogan than to its pro-Israel side.

At the same time J Street now is one year away from reaching the five-year threshold when it can petition to be admitted to the “big tent” of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. This might suggest that J Street has moderated some of its views and statements precisely to obtain a place in the mainstream Jewish organizational world.

Substantively, J Street’s concerns for Israel and for peace continue to resonate, but the audience which cares to listen appears to be waning. The Middle East is in a state of chaos since the Arab spring.

With the world’s attention focused on Iran, Syria, and oil consumption, the issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been pushed to the periphery. It is virtually impossible to convene a reasonable discussion concerning Israel and the Palestinians or even about the Palestinian control of the West Bank and Hamas’ control of Gaza. The very issues which J Street would have politicians and diplomats focus on — a two-state solution, security for the Israelis, autonomy for the Palestinians, a Jewish and democratic Israel — are largely ignored.

Israel and its mainstream American supporters, who often set the terms for debate within the Jewish community, have argued consistently that while they want to discuss peace with the Palestinians, they have yet to find a sincere or committed interlocutor. Combined with the existential issues Israel faces, J Street has found only a token level of support within Congress.

The seriousness of this internal tension within J Street — between its left-wing instincts and mainstream aspirations — was demonstrated by how it dealt with Peter Beinart. The former New Republic editor had been a “darling” of last year’s program after he wrote an essay suggesting Israel’s right-wing policies were eroding ties between it and young American Jews. This year, Beinart expanded those views into a new book, The Crisis of Zionism. In the midst of the publicity surrounding the book, his J Street appearance seemed somewhat anti-climactic. According to attendees, Beinart got a lukewarm response from what should have been his primary audience of supporters as well as a rather tepid, half-hearted non-endorsement from J Street’s executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, as he introduced Beinart at a Sunday evening program.

Beinart’s call for a boycott of West Bank products garnered considerably less than an endorsement from the convention. Beinart’s tactic, in the abstract, might be worth considering but it seems that the entire Jewish community has dismissed his proposal by telling him that anything that smacks of BDS is totally unacceptable. The collective message was: We have enough problems from opponents. We don’t need a left-wing Jewish intellectual endorsing a proposal which is championed by Israel’s enemies.

J Street’s weaknesses and Beinart’s poorly received proposal are bad news for those seeking a credible alternative to AIPAC and the Presidents’ Conference. If J Street were to join the Presidents’ Conference, things may change. But if J Street runs out of gas — and funding from its heavy donors — and if Beinart gets no traction as the voice of Liberal Zionism, committed members of the pro-Israel left will be further marginalized, and the Jewish conversation over Israel much diminished.

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