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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.
In other words, there are supposed to be groups — on both sides of the spectrum — that are considered too radical to be legitimate, to be part of the “conversation.” A group, for instance, advocating the expulsion of all Arabs from Israel. And what of a group that “calls for an end to U.S. aid to Israel, accuses Israel of ‘apartheid’ policies, and supports divestment campaigns against Israel”?

Jeremy Ben-Ami says, if not in so many words, that such a group is legitimate. He claims he and J Street “disagree” with it — but he invites it to their conference as a full participant. There could be no clearer conferral of legitimacy.

What’s most striking, though, is how many appear to agree with him. Members of Knesset from Israel’s opposition Kadima and Labor parties attended the conference and spoke at it. So did Dennis Ross, chief Middle East adviser of the Obama administration. So did Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. So did journalist Peter Beinart. So did Ron Pundak, director of the Peres Center for Peace in Israel. All these supposedly mainstream, left-of-center Israeli and Jewish figures were willing to share the podium with Rebecca Vilkomerson. And, for that matter, with Edina Lekovic of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, who — in the words of Noah Pollak in a letter to Ross before the conference — was a managing editor of a magazine that praised Osama bin Laden as a “freedom fighter”; or James Zogby of the Arab-American Institute, who “has compared Israelis to Nazis and accused the IDF of ‘genocide’ and a ‘Holocaust’”; or Michael Sfard, a lawyer who “is best known as a leading advocate of ‘lawfare’ — prosecuting Israeli soldiers and officials in European war-crimes trials”; or about a dozen others of that ilk.

All part of the “conversation”? Something was on display at last week’s J Street conference in Washington, and it was not pretty. Is opposition to Israel’s worst slanderers and foes now a “right-wing” position? Those concerned about Israel, the U.S.-Israel relationship, and U.S. Middle East policy can look at this spectacle and draw their own conclusions.