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Oct. 26 2009 - 5:59 pm | 6 views | 0 recommendations | 7 comments

Jewish Americans Turn Out in Droves for J Street

WASHINGTON, DC – The hardest things to accomplish at the first annual J Street conference here today were the basics: Finding a seat in one of the many seminars and speeches, navigating the throngs to get from one meeting to the next, lining up for coffee. The young liberal political advocacy organization, avowedly pro-Israel and pro-peace, was blessed with abundance: 1,500 overwhelmingly Jewish participants showed up – 50% more than had registered.

Even without the crowds, the fact that the J Street meeting happened at all is considered an indicator of success. The Obama administration’s National Security Advisor Jim Jones will speak tomorrow. Letters of support came in from Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni and Israeli President and Nobel Laureate Shimon Peres, who wrote: “The Israel that reaches out its hand in peace is not only an Israel that addresses a geo-political reality and discharges its strategic interests; it is an Israel that acts according to the commands of the conscience and and values of the Jewish people.” But the speakers’ list showed the effect of right wing groups that had been sending letters and faxes to members of Congress for months, urging them not to participate: Both New York Senators, who were expected to participate, bowed out, as did Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren also declined to join this large gathering of Jewish Americans, though he is a Jewish American and was a Georgetown University professor until resigning his American citizenship to become an ambassador just a few months ago.

Did anyone miss Oren, who has chosen to “leave” the U.S. for a coalition government of the right, the settler-right and the ultra-religious-right? Not that I noticed. Just about one year ago 79% of American Jewish voters cast their ballots for Barack Obama, and their liberal values were very much in evidence here today – the difference being that these folks don’t usually get to focus their human-rights and peace-loving lenses on the state of Israel. As Jo-Ann Mort put it, “American Jewry remains the most liberal organized entity in American public life. We embrace ideals like human rights, pluralism and diversity. We cling to democracy as a way to defend our own rightful place in America’s polity. And these are the values we want to see–but don’t–in the Israel so many of us love.”

Many of the people I met today are activists either in their own clubs, temples, or human and civil-rights organizations – both in the U.S. and Israel. They seemed overwhelmingly pleased to be able to get together and share their views, as they so deeply share values – and without fear of being labelled anti-semitic by their friends or colleagues on the right. ”I’ve never felt more marginalized than this year, with the high percentage of the Israeli public who supported the Gaza war, who support attacking Iran,” said  Rabbi Arik Ascherman, who heads an organization known as Rabbis for Human Rights.

The national politicians who did show up included Democrats Steve Cohen of Tennessee, Bob Filner of California, Jared Polis of Colorado, and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois – who said she had received phone calls from “other organizations” urging her not to participate “for my own good.” She denounced the veiled threats: ”Being united in support Israel should not preclude a vigorous debate,” to thunderous applause. She added:

“When people in the administration are called self-hating Jews, this is not in Israel’s interest. If the line is so very narrow, we begin to exclude people….A member of the Congressional Black Caucus had a meeting with some members of the Jewish community in his district. They expressed concern about Jewish children from bomb, and he expressed concern about Palestinian children. They said there was no moral equivalency. He objected to that…… He found himself in the local Jewish newspaper in a photo that looked like a wanted poster.”

Rep. Filner, too, said he was unintimidated by phone calls from individuals saying, “I thought you were Jewish, and I’m not going to give you any more campaign contributions.”

Only one Republican showed up, Rep. Charles Boustany of Louisiana, saying that “controversy’s good; it can be invigorating.”  ”Fear of the new and fear of this competition is what this blowback is all about.”

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  1. collapse expand

    This is ‘Pro-Israel’ in the same way Jews for Jesus is pro Jewish.

  2. collapse expand

    Sounds like it was a great event Eileen, I’m so glad it was well attended, maybe next year I’ll be able to make it. No Wexler sighting? :)

  3. collapse expand

    Excellent blog! Best parts of the conference were the Palestinians and the former Knesset members. All had good sense of humor but serious about the issues.
    General Jim Jones read his speech and was totally uninspired.

    Gotta go next year – maybe some of the wimps in Congress will show up!

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    About Me

    I'm a former Wall Street Journal defense, technology, and telecomm reporter and helped launch the Friday Weekend Journal as a contributing writer. For the past several years I have been a writer, editor, and communications professional for international NGOs in human rights, microcredit, and advocacy. Currently working on an anti-genocide project at a Washington, DC, think tank.

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    Contributor Since: June 2009