White House to J Street: We have your back

J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami speaking at the group's first conference in Washington, Oct. 26, 2009, as Rabbi Eric Yoffie looks on.<br />
 (J Street)

J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami speaking at the group’s first conference in Washington, Oct. 26, 2009, as Rabbi Eric Yoffie looks on.
(J Street)

REPORTERS’ NOTEBOOK

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Israel’s ambassador turned down an invitation to speak this week at the inaugural J Street conference shortly after his spokesman was quoted as saying that some of the group’s positions would “impair” Israel’s interest. The Obama administration seemed to have a different message for the group: We have your back.

On Sunday, before the official launch of the conference, the White House’s top outreach official urged Jewish and Arab leaders to change their communities’ "hearts and minds" about President Obama’s peace push at a joint session convened by J Street and the Arab American Institute.

"We need to build support" for Obama’s efforts to restart Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, Tina Tchen said. "There are hearts and minds in the United States that need to be changed."

On Tuesday, another Obama administration official — James Jones, the White House national security adviser — hammered home the point to the 1,500-plus attendees at the Grand Hyatt Washington. His message from the White House to the J Street conference was one of inevitability: of peace, of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship — and of J Street.

"You can be sure this administration will be represented at all future conferences," Jones said.

Jones’ message was otherwise boilerplate — Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab states need to do more to achieve peace, President Obama is committed to a two-state solution, Iran must stop enriching uranium. He did, however, add a new wrinkle to the Iran equation, making it clear that the United States expects Iran to give up all, not just some, of its low-enriched uranium.

But the "I’ll be back" assurance earned an extended round of applause and meant a great deal to an organization that struggled to attract mainstream and right-wing speakers. A behind-the-scenes campaign from some other pro-Israel groups and conservative pundits had warned away establishment figures. (Among the critics’ complaints: J Street backs U.S. pressure on Israel and the Palestinians, it slammed Israel’s invasion of Gaza and it has criticized other Jewish groups.)

Jones’ message was echoed by U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), who introduced the Obama administration official. Until his recent announcement that he was quitting Congress to head a Middle East peace think tank, Wexler was about as mainstream as it gets in Congress’ unofficial Jewish caucus. He was very strongly pro-Israel, and his wife works for the American Jewish Committee.

Wexler, who was candidate Obama’s lead Jewish outreach, remains loyal to the president’s insistence on broadening the dialogue.

"As Americans, we are among the most fortunate people in the world," he told the crowd. "I applaud your political energy; we need more of it."

Boos, cheers for Yoffie
Rabbi Eric Yoffie drew cheers from the crowd on Monday during a discussion with Ben-Ami when he said that too many Jewish communal leaders have their “heads in the sand" when it comes to Israeli settlements.

"You cannot convince Americans that it makes sense for an Israel that supports a Palestinian state to maintain a large settler population in the heart of the West Bank where that state must come into being,” said Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “The simple fact is that it makes no sense at all and Americans, being a sensible people, know that.”

Later, however, Yoffie was booed when he criticized Richard Goldstone, the South African jurist who chaired the United Nations commission that issued a report stating that Israel and Hamas might be guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

"Richard Goldstone should be ashamed of himself," Yoffie said, "for working under the auspices of the U.N. Human Rights Council."

Yoffie, a longtime backer of a two-state solution and critic of Israeli settlement expansion, welcomed the creation of J Street. But he ended up harshly condemning the organization for criticizing Israel’s invasion of Gaza.

Debating pro-Israel money
It’s not every day that two Jewish congressmen politely debate whether Jewish political contributions control U.S. policy in the Middle East. Or one of those members gets a major applause after saying he voted against a resolution that condemned a Nation of Islam leader.

But that’s what happened Monday afternoon at the J Street conference.

It all started when Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.) told the story of voting against a 1994 resolution condemning the hateful and anti-Semitic speech of Khalid Abdul Muhammad, at the time a top lieutenant of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Filner said he couldn’t condemn the speech because of the First Amendment — "How can Jews survive without the First Amendment?" he asked — and was the only Jewish member of Congress to vote against it.

Filner said the vote hurt him among Jewish supporters, costing him $250,000 in contributions per election cycle.

"That kind of money is an intimidating factor. I raised a lot less money in succeeding years, but my conscience was cleared," he said to huge applause.

As the discussion among Filner and Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Charles Boustany (R-La.) continued, Polis cautioned that "we need to be careful to not give cover" to those "who think there is a Jewish conspiracy" to control U.S. foreign policy. Filner retorted by citing two members of the Congressional Black Caucus — Earl Hilliard of Alabama and Cynthia McKinney of Georgia — who were defeated with the help of pro-Israel donors.

"That intimidates people," Filner said.

Polis responded by saying that the pro-Israel lobby is no different than any other single-issue interest group in American politics, from labor unions to low-tax proponents like the Club for Growth to supporters of gun rights.

"This is not unique to American politics," Polis said about the pro-Israel lobby. "Nor is this even one of the most influential groups in either of the parties.”

But Filner persisted, arguing as an example that labor unions were at least providing health benefits for the members — but on Israel, members of Congress "are taking positions that can lead to war" based only on how it affects their campaign coffers.

"The Republican Party doesn’t give a damn about Israel," he said, but only support it on political grounds.

That finally led Boustany to chime in, suggesting that Filner not "generalize about Republicans."

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