First Day Coverage of J Street Conference

Welcome to TC Jewfolk’s coverage of the 2013 J Street National Conference. We’ll be covering the ups and downs, highs and lows, talls and shorts, heavens and hells and all the other size-related metaphors for the entire conference. Your fearless reporter did this kind of thing once before at the AIPAC conference in March, so while I’ll try as much as possible to talk about the J Street Conference as its own thing, I’ll likely sink into comparing the two quite a bit.


Vertically gifted J Street MN Chair Ron Garber

For instance, you should know that the J Street Conference is much smaller than its AIPAC counterpart. Everything from the rooms rented in the DC convention center, to the number of attendants, to the size of the press corps. The whole thing is a much smaller affair—well except for J Street Minnesota Chair Ron Garber. He’s still as big as ever.
The conference also started at 8:00 PM on a Saturday night. Shabbat in Washington D.C. ended at 7:36 PM, according to the Chabad website. Walking into the convention center I found myself wondering whether AIPAC would ever dare to start their conference so close to Shabbat. What if that was the only time all weekend the president could speak… what do you think?
Before I go further, let’s talk about J Street. J Street is a DC lobbying organization focused on promoting a two-state solution in Israel. They have a stigma of being anti-Israel, at least compared to AIPAC (and/or according to AIPAC supporters). J Street has also been negatively labeled pro-Palestinian. Personally, I don’t see any sound basis for those claims, but I’m also not going to dwell on it—at least not in this article. From what I’ve gathered, J Street is solely focused on finding a two-state solution, and will continue to search until one is found.
To that end, because J Street basically demands the debate about how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they open themselves up to more criticism. A few years ago, novelist Haruki Murakami accepted an award in Jerusalem. In attempting to explain why he could accept the award yet still feel morally obligated to support the Palestinians, he said, “Between a high solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg… no matter how right the wall may be and how wrong the egg…”
If one can view Israel as the egg and the surrounding Arab Middle East as the wall, it becomes fairly easy to identify with Israel’s struggle to create a thriving Jewish nation amidst a region of hostility. By not mentioning AT ALL the Palestinians during their March national conference, AIPAC presents this picture of Israel. Israel is the eggs. When J Street frames Israel’s issue as being with the Palestinians, they open up Israel to lots of eggs against its wall. All this to say that I saw more criticism of speeches and statements on Twitter last night—from attendees and supporters—than I did during the entirety of the AIPAC conference.
If you’re a supporter, AIPAC doesn’t let you disagree. Do you support Israel? Great, you agree with our mission. But take a sampling of Twitter posts from attendees to the session last night (and some press) and notice the difference:

(Our own Sarah Brammer-Shlay)
Not all of those people were strict attendees, and it’s sometimes hard to verify what’s what on Twitter—but (and this is where I justify TCJ sending me to Washington) you could just feel it in the room.
There was way more of a “No bullshit” vibe. Talking with people after confirmed it. Nobody loved Tzipi Livni’s speech. They appreciated her coming to speak, but didn’t get why she gave that speech. Representative Lewis is an amazing speaker, and even he got lovingly chided for only slightly altering what’s probably been his stump speech for twenty years.
On the other side, J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami brought it with some blunt declarations like, “How can you support a two-state solution without making the Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem the capital of Palestine?” and other incendiary questions sure to be making the rounds this morning. Go to the new website J Street launched last night about the realities of peace to see more.
Tomorrow is filled with small breakout sessions and a keynote from Knesset opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich. Tweet us @TCJewfolk, Facebook us, or email me if you have questions or want me to cover anything specific.