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Criticism of J Street speakers is unfair

To the Editor:

As a freelance journalist who also covered the J Street conference, I believe that JTA’s criticism of J Street for not having had more speakers from a right-wing perspective is unfair and misdirected. Consider the following:

* Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren was invited to attend but chose to decline. Knesset member Orit Zuaretz has said that J Street’s opponents phoned all 80,000 Kadima Party registered members, urging them to pressure her and her colleagues not to attend the meeting. The half-dozen members of Knesset who attended J Street from the Kadima and the Labor parties said they had received thousands of phone calls warning them not to appear at the J Street conference. They were assailed in the Israeli press for giving, as one Op-Ed put it, an "imprimatur of legitimacy" to J Street.

* Members of the U.S. Congress from both political parties were invited to attend and speak; only Democrats accepted the invitations. Two Republican lawmakers — Reps. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Jeffrey Fortenberry of Nebraska RSVP’d and said they would attend the Tuesday night dinner — their names were listed on the program — but did not show up.

* Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy was on the program to speak about Iran but "called in sick" at the last minute.

* Dennis Ross, the Obama administration’s senior envoy on Middle East issues, did speak, even though he was urged to cancel his appearance in a Feb. 24 letter from Noah Pollak on behalf of the Emergency Committee for Israel. The letter was replete with falsifications and misrepresentations of J Street’s stated positions on issues such as the BDS movement. While Ross did address the conference as scheduled, from the tone and content of his speech it was clear that he was doing so with more concern for what J Street’s critics would be saying than for his audience. (Not surprisingly, the response was polite but muted applause.)

Under these circumstances, JTA faulting J Street — and manipulating a few college students in attendance who might be unaware of the numerous speakers representing more diverse perspectives who chose to absent themselves into doing so — for not including more voices from "the right side of the political spectrum" is either deliberately misleading or inexcusably misinformed. The logic is like that of the old Jewish joke that exemplifies as "chutzpah" a guy who kills father and mother and then pleads for mercy on the grounds that he is an orphan.

I am neither a member nor a financial supporter of J Street, since as a journalist, I feel ethically bound to remain as objective as possible regarding the subjects about which I write. J Street is one of them.

That said, having covered the conference, I have been truly appalled by the unfair coverage in the American Jewish and Israeli media before and after the event. The range of opinions expressed by J Street speakers are often and openly expressed by respectable Israelis in Israel, but are muffled and marginalized in the American Jewish community. One tactic for marginalizing these opinions is by refusing to even discuss or debate those who hold them.

JTA’s readers are due a more forthright explanation as to why the spectrum of voices heard at J Street was almost exclusively "left of center."

Marsha B. Cohen
South Miami, Fla.

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