The J Street Conference: Where’s the Outrage?

Summing up last week’s J Street conference, Uriel Heilman of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency writes that “by any measure, the massing of 2,400 people for a conference by a 3-year-old Jewish organization is a sign of notable success and an indication that in the future this pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby may have greater influence over U.S.-Israeli issues.” If so, J Street and its director Jeremy Ben-Ami are worth continued scrutiny. As Heilman notes: “The detractors of J Street like to portray Ben-Ami as so far to the left of mainstream American Jewish opinion as to be out of bounds. If they think Ben-Ami is too much of a lefty on Israel, just wait til they meet J Street’s rank and file.”

Heilman goes on to convey some of the flavor of the conference. He quotes an “activist” who says J Street is “too kind to the Israelis” and “Obama’s too soft on Israel.” He notes that “many audience members applauded when a questioner on one panel asked why the United States doesn’t impose economic sanctions on Israel.”

"Ben-Ami,” claims Heilman, “wasn’t entirely comfortable with every speaker at the conference.” And yet

Ben-Ami said J Street is committed to having an open conversation, including parties with which it disagrees.

That’s why, he said, he invited Jewish Voice for Peace -- an organization classified by the Anti-Defamation League as one of the top 10 anti-Israel groups in the United States, and which promotes the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement targeting Israel -- even though, Ben-Ami says, he and J Street are against the BDS campaign.

These words -- especially considering that Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, was one of the speakers at the conference -- are worth pausing over. Here’s some of what the ADL says about Jewish Voice for Peace:

JVP calls for an end to U.S. aid to Israel, accuses Israel of “apartheid” policies, and supports divestment campaigns against Israel. Like other Jewish anti-Zionist groups, JVP uses its Jewish identity to shield the anti-Israel movement from allegations of anti-Semitism and provide a greater degree of credibility to the anti-Israel movement.

In March-April 2010, leaders of JVP unsuccessfully lobbied for the passage of a divestment resolution at the University of California, Berkeley, targeting companies that do business with Israel.

I think I understand Jeremy Ben-Ami’s method. Let’s say I go back to the U.S. and organize a conference of Likud USA. I invite a group such as Kahane Chai -- followers of the late rabbi Meir Kahane, who called for the expulsion of all Arabs from Israel -- and grant its executive director the podium for a speech. Raised eyebrows? I explain that Likud USA is committed to having an open conversation, including parties with which it disagrees. The difference, of course, is that I wouldn’t get away with it. The whole Jewish world, and not a little of the non-Jewish world, would be in an uproar. It would be said that Likud USA’s -- and even the Israeli Likud Party’s -- mask had been lifted, that those claiming all along it was really a radical-nationalist movement had been vindicated. There would be calls for new elections in Israel, and even for outlawing Likud as a racist party.