There’s an expression in Israel roughly equivalent to "reinventing the wheel": "Discovering America."
It can mean, less charitably, that someone is going over well-tread territory, but it also means that someone is figuring something out, finally, for better or worse.
At its third national conference, J Street seems to be "discovering America" when it comes to Israel.
Of course, J Street has, since its inception in 2008, been all about Israel, or pro-Israel. And it has always had Israeli guests at its proceedings.
But it has also missed a critical component common to other pro-Israel groups here, on the left and right: A definable Israeli constiuency. Americans for Peace Now was founded by Peace Now; AIPAC has deep ties in the Israeli political mainstream establishment, as well as in the defense establishment; ZOA has settler ties.
This conference appears, in large part, about redressing that gap: J Street ISO Israeli partner.
The lack of an Israeli constituency led J Street to fuss and bother for a long time about whether it should back Iran sanctions. Significantly, when it leapt in in late 2009, it was because a top American lawmaker — Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) — did so. Not that other pro-Israel groups do not seek U.S. leads — they do, eagerly — but J Street’s sanctions decision was dependent purely on an American dynamic: Berman wanted to make sure the sanctions were timed precisely to advance, and not to scuttle, President Obama’s efforts to build an international coalition aorund them.
It’s not that that calculus is unreasonable, but it was divorced from the urgency that Israel attached to sanctions. And instead of being perceived as having helped lead the U.S. polity toward a sanctions policy, J Street ended up being perceived as a follower.
So this year, J Street’s opening session all Israel — three speakers representing considerable breadth: Amos Oz, the peace activist and novelist; Stav Shaffir, the social protest movement leader; and Michael Bitton, the mayor of Yerucham, a development town. (Not only that, but for the first time I can remember in covering loads and loads of "national conferences" in this town, I heard a speech in Hebrew — delivered by an Israeli Arab lawmaker.)
Contrast this with last year, when there were also three honorees at the opener: An Israeli, yes, and an American and a Palestinian.
More significantly, two of the three speakers this year represented the country’s indigenous social protest movement — a constituency that remains untapped to a degree by American groups. (The exception is New Israel Fund.)
If that seems an odd coupling — J14, a social protest movement that has gone to great lengths not to involve itself in matters of Israel-Palestine, and J Street, an American organization founded on the principle of achieving Israel-Palestine as a two-state solution — Stav Shaffir, a leader of J 14 went to great lengths to wrap them together in her speech.
"I talked about the cross-communal partnerships we build," she said to an adoring crowd. "One is missing: You. I know and admire the histories of many of the communities and individuals in this room. I know of your important history in the trade union movement, of your involvement in the civil rights’ struggle, and of the role that American Jewry takes today in fighting got social justice in the US and throughout the world. I know you fight not only for my country, but also for my values."
Will this partnership take? Does J Street finally have an Israeli home? Time will tell. Israeli officials monitoring this event (it’s streaming!) are telling me that they’re surprised at its pro-Israel tenor.
But how Shaffir framed her vision — as one of liberals uniting to buck conservatives — circles back to J Street’s other issue: discovering America.
This is not a conference that a Republican or a conservative would slide easily into. That’s not simply stating the obvious: There are conservatives and Republicans who are not averse to a more assertive U.S. role in peacemaking. (A Republican president, George H.W. Bush, kick-started this process, after all.)
Jeremy Ben-Ami told me today that he wants J Street to be their home as well. "The voter education that you do is non-partisan," he said, explaining his strategy. "You tell people there’s a choice" on pro-Israel, "whether they’re Republican, Green Party or Democrat."
Yet a session on Jews and the vote was solely about getting Jews to vote Democratic. Yet the biggest applause lines at today’s plenary were delivered when Obama’s closest advisers, Valerie Jarrett, defended his record on… health care, gay rights and contraception. Yet the session yesterday on conservative evangelicals devolved into caricatures of that group’s eschatology.
J Street is discovering Israel. America — it seems to be half way there.