To those who have been supporters both of the state of Israel and of stronger efforts to make peace with the Palestinians, the recent conference organized by the organization called J Street was a fantasy come true. J Street is a nonprofit group founded in April 2008 by, among others, its current executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, a Democratic policy adviser in the Clinton administration who has had much experience in public relations. He called it J Street partly as a play on the K Street lobbyists and partly because there is no J Street in Washington and he wanted to suggest that the new organization was filling a gap. Everything about the J Street conference, “Driving Change, Securing Peace,” that was held in Washington, D.C., in the last week of October was far larger than most expected.
While in the past a gathering of mostly Jewish advocates of a two-state solution of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict might have attracted one or two hundred participants, here there were 1,500. They jammed the rooms at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, in which discussions took place on such subjects as “Human Rights in Israel,” “How Christians, Muslims and Jews Can Work Together for Two States,” and “The View from the Hill: Congress and the US–Israeli Relationship”—to name three of over two dozen sessions.
Formerly, a single member of Congress or one prominent elected official might have attended such an event, but here half a dozen members of Congress gave talks, dozens more attended a reception and banquet, and an “Honorary Host Committee” consisted of 150 members of Congress. General James L. Jones, Obama’s national security adviser, gave the opening speech for the second session of the conference.
Why is J Street apparently achieving what has eluded so many others? One reason is surely that the time is ripe. The gap has kept widening between the spectrum of views held by American Jews, especially those of the younger generation, and the far narrower range of views advocated by those who represent the national Jewish community in Washington, particularly the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which is widely seen both as influential with legislators and as reflecting the perspective of the Israeli government.
According to exit polls, 77 percent of American Jews voted for President Obama; polling data show that a very wide range of American Jewish opinion supports a two-state solution and vigorous US action to achieve one. This is not the picture that our elected officials have heard from prominent Jewish organizations, and this discrepancy has created an opportunity for J Street.
J Street has also exploited a second opportunity. New technology, just as it enabled Barack Obama to run a new type of presidential campaign in 2008, has created new opportunities for such a movement. The Internet makes …