Washington — It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book: When planning an event, make sure the room is a little too small for the number of people you are expecting; that way, the room will always be full. But as J Street began its inaugural national conference October 26 at a Washington hotel, the rooms were way too crowded to suspect any deliberate underestimation. Organizers expected little more than 1,000 participants, but as the doors opened, the numbers grew. Walk-ins brought the number of conference participants to 1,500. A huge success for J Street, it was a big problem for those who tried to make it into the breakout sessions packed beyond capacity.
According to Israel’s American embassy, concerns over J Street’s policies have led its ambassador, Michael Oren, to turn down the invitation to join the conference. The Israeli Embassy, however, did send a representative “to monitor” the proceedings. It was Galit Baram, counselor for public and academic affairs. In terms of diplomatic rank, she is two levels below the head of mission — a fact that sent a clear message from Israel to J Street.
Despite Oren’s boycott, a handful of Knesset members showed their support and were united in their criticism of the Israeli Embassy’s conduct. Nitzan Horowitz of Meretz reminded ambassador Oren that “U.S. Jews don’t work for [Benjamin] Netanyahu and [Avigdor] Lieberman. The government of Israel must acknowledge the diversity of views in the American Jewish community.” And Meir Sheetrit of Kadima called Oren’s decision “very odd,” adding that he had never heard of boycotting a Jewish organization.
A closed-door meeting with the Israeli officials was dedicated to presenting the Israelis with J Street’s beliefs and the polls it has conducted on the views of American Jews. The purpose, said one of the participants, was to show the Israeli public that U.S. Jews are much more dovish than Israelis may think. But for J Street officials it was also an opportunity to learn how Israelis see the dovish lobby.
At the meeting, the Israelis said J Street was mistaken in opposing sanctions against Iran, and in its approach toward the Goldstone report, the recent U.N. inquiry into the Gaza military conflict. Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s executive director, said that his lobby does not oppose sanctions against Iran, but believes that now is not the time for moving them forward. He also explained that J Street opposes the Goldstone report, in which Israel is accused of war crimes, but calls for an independent Israeli inquiry.
It is not every day that Rabbi Eric Yoffie gets booed by a lefty crowd. But that is one of the risks when standing up as a keynote speaker at a J Street conference. Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, was one of the earliest critics of J Street; in a Forward column published on January 9, he chastised J Street’s opposition to the Israeli military operation in Gaza. On the first day of the conference, Yoffie shared the stage with Ben-Ami for a discussion moderated by the Forward’s editor, Jane Eisner. The boos came after Yoffie condemned Richard Goldstone, saying he should be “ashamed of himself.” The audience didn’t like the harsh tone, although J Street, as a group, also expressed reservations about the Goldstone report. The J Street gathering wasn’t an easy ride for Yoffie, but he left the hall with the crowd applauding, and he received a warm embrace from Ben-Ami.
Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com