J Street leader opens confab with plea for discourse


WASHINGTON (JTA) — The leader of J Street said his movement is "fighting for the heart and soul of the American Jewish community," as the group’s inaugural conference opened in Washington.

"I trust the American Jewish community is strong enough to handle wide-open discourse," J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami told more than 1,000 delegates at the conference’s opening session. "The Jewish community here should reflect the best of what it means to be Jewish," adding that "tolerance and free expression" are values that are praised in Judaism.

Ben-Ami, who claimed that a majority of American Jews agree with J Street’s policies, said a key goal of his organization is to "change the traditional conversation when it comes to Israel and broaden the notion there is only one way" to be pro-Israel.

"No longer should this ‘pro’ require an ‘anti,’ " Ben-Ami said, who also said his "movement" aims to define support for the creation of a Palestinian state as a "core pro-Israel position" and that they "want action" and "want the conflict to end."

The conference of the self-described "pro-Israel, pro-peace" organization was hit in the past two weeks by the withdrawal of a dozen members of Congress who had signed up to be part of the group’s 160-member host committee. They dropped out 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.

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