Many people, especially its critics, have been trying to define what J Street is all about over the past few weeks. Sunday evening, J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami did it himself, saying that his movement is doing nothing less than "fighting for the heart and soul of the Jewish community."
The Jewish community "should reflect the best of what it means to be Jewish," Ben-Ami told a downtown Washington hotel ballroom filled with some 1,200 conference delegates at J Street’s inaugual conference. And that includes "tolerance and free expression," values praised in Judiasm, he said, adding that "no one group speaks for Jewish Americans as a whole."
"We want to change the nature of the Jewish communal conversation on Israel," he said, and he said he trusts the American Jewish community is "strong enough to handle wide open discourse."
What should be a prominent part of that discourse? "Defining support for the creation of a Palestinian state as a core pro-Israel position," said Ben-Ami.
"No longer should this ‘pro’ require an ‘anti,’" said Ben-Ami.
He also stressed that J Street wants the United States to be pushing the parties forward as urgently as possible.
"We want action and we want resolution — we want the conflict to end," he said to big applause.
Ben-Ami stressed that his movement "gives expression to the most basic and universal values of Judiaism," which includes caring "about the future of the Palestinian people — not because it is in our interest, but because the Palestinian people deserve a future. Palestinian children should enjoy peace and happiness every bit as much as Jewish children."
"Only through peace can there truly be a state created in our image," he said, one of "treating your neighbor as you wish to be treated yourself."
Ben-Ami claimed a majority of the Jewish community agreed with J Street’s policies, and made a very questionable assertion when he seemed to say that the 78 percent of the Jewish community who voted for Barak Obama last year are all "progressive Jews" who have long focused on other "extraordinarily important" issues besides Israel and thus had their voices "drowned out by single-issue advocates" with a different opinion. (While there’s no question some of that 78 percent does agree with J Street, plenty don’t)
The conference of the self-described "pro-Israel, pro-peace" orgnaization was hit in the last two weeks by the withdrawal of a dozen members of Congress who had previously signed up to be part of the group’s 160-member host committee. Their drop outs came after pressure from critics who have depicted the group as outside the Jewish and pro-Israel mainstream because of J Street’s criticism of last winter’s Gaza war and opposition to additional Iran sanctions at the present time.
Ben-Ami thanked the members of Congress that stuck with the group. "I know the pressure they came under the past few days," he said. "The overwhelming number showed the political courage and practical sense so sorely needed" to achieve solutions in the MIddle East.
Ben-Ami also pointed out that the "voice" being projected at the J Street conference is not new, but "we have found a megaphone." Indeed, while a good portion of the crowd was made up of college students and Jews in their 20s and 30s, there was also a significant contingent of participants with gray hair. The crowd seemed most enthusiastic when Ben-Ami and other speakers Sunday evening made calls for the creation of a Palestinian state.