J Street and the Battle for the Jewish Soul
Ross, Jack, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
THE INAUGURAL conference of J Street, held at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington, DC from Oct. 25 to 28, lived up to the media fanfare which led up to it. The self-styled "pro-Israel, pro-peace" lobby, launched in 2008, has been at the center of controversy since it opposed the Israeli war in Gaza. Expecting an attendance of around 1,000, the conference ultimately exceeded capacity at 1,500-a sure sign that large numbers of Americans are looking to J Street with hope for extrication from, if not the resolution of, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the same time, the controversies which raged going into the conference are no less ferocious coming out of it.
Unlike past likeminded Jewish organizations, J Street has typically avoided any talk of "Zionism" or "the Jewish people." This line appeared to break down in the opening plenary of the conference, however, most strikingly with a film prepared by the leftist New Israel Fund featuring several American rabbis speaking effervescently of their love for Israel as their ostensible homeland.
But overall, as the conference wore on, this avowed progressive Zionism demonstrated itself to be mere "crossdressing," as David Brooks called it in the context of the Democratic and Republican conventions, projecting a markedly different image to the public than would be evident on the floor and in breakout sessions. The marked absence of progressive Zionist platitudes from all of the breakout sessions attended by this writer may be exactly analogous to the contrast reported on by bloggers such as Philip Weiss at recent AIPAC conferences: between the warm regard for the Obama administration expressed in their public program and the frank neoconservatism dominating the breakout sessions.
Notable in this connection was the postscript for the conference written by The Forward's J.J. Goldberg, who in multiple breakout sessions eagerly held the line for steadfastness to Zionist ideology, even to the point of invoking such antique platitudes as that "the Jews"-as opposed to mere Israelis-were entitled to national self-determination "just like the French." Writing after the conference, Goldberg rued that "[b]y calling for unfettered debate, J Street essentially invited the un-Zionists to come and participate. Objecting to their presence would undercut its declared commitment to open discussion. But embracing them would undermine its credibility as a pro-Israel organization advocating compromise as a means to strengthen Israel's security, not weaken it."
Permeating the conference throughout, and perhaps especially in the "crossdressing" main program, was the theme that we are rapidly approaching the point of no return with respect to saving the two-state solution. There was probably no one more alarmist about the rapidly closing window than Eric Yoffie, leader of the Union for Reform Judaism. Yoffie had issued a highly publicized attack on J Street last January over its opposition to Israel's war on Gaza, and while many observers had expected him to make some effort to be conciliatory in his highly anticipated address to the conference, he came out forcefully with no apologies for his positions on Gaza. Indeed, he began by lecturing about what it means to be a "pro-Israel organization," that this required no less than to "recognize that Jewish life cannot be sustained without Israel at its core."
Most notably, however, Yoffie was roundly booed by the audience for declaring that "Richard Goldstone should be ashamed of himself," referring to the recent U.N. report finding that both Israel and Hamas had committed war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity in Gaza. This was followed with a polite questioning from the floor by Ellen Lippmann, a co-chair of Rabbis for Human Rights, speaking candidly about the devastation to Gaza's civilian population and infrastructure in repeating her organization's endorsement of the Goldstone Report-only to receive the cold shoulder from her rabbinic colleagues. …