After just 13 months, and despite some criticism lobbed their way from members of the Jewish establishment, the left-wing pro-Israel group J Street seems to have quickly become a significant player in the Washington, D.C. Jewish world — judging from those who attended the reception the group held Wednesday night to celebrate Jewish American Heritage Month.
The honoree for the night was the Washington director from a national Jewish organization, a popular Jewish congresswoman co-sponsored the event, and a representative from the White House came by as well.
Hadar Susskind, vice president and Washington director for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, received the Spirit of Service Award from J Street, which favors a more active role for the United States in the Middle East peace process and has portrayed itself as an alternative to what it claims are the more hawkish views on Israel that dominate other pro-Israel organizations.
Rachel Lerner, J Street’s chief of staff, said the organization wanted to honor Susskind for his work on social justice issues at JCPA, and also noted that he had helped "connect" J Street to the Jewish community. (The JCPA annual Plenum this past February was the first major Jewish organization to include J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami as part of a panel discussion at a national conference.)
Susskind said that JCPA and J Street "definitely have differences of opinion" but "we firmly believe it’s a big tent. We disagree on policy matters, but they’re an important part of the Jewish community."
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) was the co-host of the event, and said she does programming and events with any organization that wants to celebrate and raise the profile of Jewish American Heritage Month, which she spearheaded congressional recognition of three years ago. And while J Street has been portrayed as a competitor with AIPAC, the congresswoman said she sees them merely as different voices in the broad pro-Israel community.
"I will meet and participate with any organization that supports Israel and supports peace and is working to foster an advanced peace process," said Wasserman Schultz in an interview. "I want to be able to maximize my ability to advance the interests of Israel, and there are different organizations doing that. AIPAC is one of them, and I’m committed to them. J Street has worthy goals as well. The more advocates for Israel in America, the better."
Both Wasserman Schultz and Susskind received actual copies of President Obama’s signed proclamation declaring Jewish American Heritage Month, something the congresswoman noted she didn’t receive from the Bush White House in previous years. Susan Sher, associate counsel to the president who does engagement work with the Jewish community, brought the proclamations to Capitol Hill bar Top of the Hill and said she had come to celebrate JAHM with J Street and Susskind.
Asked whether her appearance at Wednesday’s event could be seen as having any kind of broader implications, considering J Street differs from AIPAC on a number of Middle East issues, Sher responded that she has attended AIPAC events in recent months as well, and noted how much she enjoys the diversity of the Jewish community.
Also among the nine members of Congress who attended the reception were Jewish Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), both of whom were endorsed by J Street in the 2008 election, and Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fla.).
And speaking of Jewish American Heritage Month, Wasserman Schultz put together a list of "10 Things You Didn’t Know About Jewish Americans," for her home state voters, featuring entries includihng "There was a Jewish Paul Revere," "The first Jewish member of Congress was from Florida" and "Dodgers Pitcher Sandy Koufax Missed a Game of the World Series for Yom Kippur." (Actually, I think a lot of people know that last one…)