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Sunday at the J Street Conference 2012. (Liz Malby)

“Greetings, fellow self-haters!” That’s how Peter Beinart, former editor of the New Republic and author of the controversial new book The Crisis of Zionism, began his speech Sunday at J Street’s annual confab, to the delight of the audience. Over the next 30 minutes, Beinart reiterated his proposal for a “Zionist boycott”—of any products made beyond the Green Line—and also called for the dismantling of the Israeli position of chief rabbi, arguing that the position violates a needed separation of church and state.

It was a speech that no official representative of J Street could have given, since the liberal pro-Israel organization seeks to reach more of the Jewish mainstream. But part of why Beinart seemed to appeal to the 2,500 person-crowd was that his story— struggling privately with Israeli policies, and then coming out publicly as a critic of the Jewish state—mirrored the political trajectories that many J Streeters shared with me over the past few days.

I joined the members of the D.C.-area J Street group, which hosted a happy hour before Beinart’s speech for its members at Busboys and Poets, a popular D.C. bookstore and café. Leah Wilkes, who is studying for a master’s degree in international affairs as she works for J Street, spoke of her inability to address her complicated relationship with Israel with her mother.

“My mother was deeply involved in the civil rights movement in the South. She loved everyone, but there was one group of people we could never seem to talk about.” she said, referring to Palestinians.

Wilkes went on to say that her mother passed away before J Street was founded in 2008, but that for many, the organization provides a way for people whose views on Israel are outside of the mainstream to discuss it with their families. People like Ilyse Hogue, a writer for The Nation. At a forum called “The Future of Pro-Israel,” one of the conference’s most dynamic events, Hogue spoke about visiting Israel in her earlier years and being able to spend time playing hide-and-seek with her friends and roaming through the shuk in the Arab quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, an activity that children visiting Israel today are much less likely to partake of.

“Come out, come out, wherever you are,” Hogue said, urging more supporters of J Street to reveal themselves.

Speakers at the conference’s major events and staff members mostly adhered to J Street’s platform, but at smaller sessions, the standards seemed looser and the tone could often be incendiary. At “Palestinian Perspectives: What’s the Next Move?” statements made by panelists—Mustafa Barghouti, a prominent Palestinian politician and member of the Palestinian parliament; Randa Hudome, a strategist and international affairs expert; and Aziz Abu Sarah, a Palestinian academic and writer—would have likely alienated liberal Zionists.

“Israeli society, instead of moving toward peace…finds itself moving more toward the extreme right wing,” Barghouti said. “In all new polls it is clear that Mr. Netanyahu will maybe increase his power by maybe 30 or 40 percent if there are elections soon, and this whole spectrum is moving to the right for one very simple reason and that is because this occupation, which is the longest in modern history for now more than 45 or 46 years, is a profitable occupation. It’s profitable. They make profits.”

Barghouti went on to estimate that the area around Bethlehem, “which was confiscated,” is worth $30 billion. “They [Israelis] confiscate 90 [percent] of the water in the West Bank,” he added.

He also seemed to equate Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier kidnapped by Hamas and released late last year, with the Palestinian prisoners he was traded for, many of whom had committed or plotted acts of terrorism. He accused the IDF of routinely shooting and killing nonviolent protesters. A participant asked the panel to criticize J Street itself, at which point all the panel’s members fired away at the organization’s opposition to the attempted Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations last fall. The audience applauded.

“It would be a really cheap conference to pull off if we only allowed people who agreed with everything I said. It would be in a phone booth somewhere,” J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami told me. “I think one of things we’re trying to change in the way J Street operates, which is different from a more traditional, mainstream, or established, Jewish organization, is that we are not dictating the acceptable vocabulary of everybody who walks through the door.”

It was here Ben-Ami best drew the implicit comparison with AIPAC. Both groups have designs on being big tents, and AIPAC has already achieved high status as a power lobby with a collection of very different people who support Israel, albeit with limited room for rhetorical wiggling. Perhaps this is why the movement is picking up among university students.

“One thing I’ve liked are the audience reactions when issues like BDS or the U.N. bid came up.” said Rachel Richman, a student from the University of Chicago. “I could see that while J Street’s position is one thing, there are a lot of people here who are further to the left. It made me feel good that I wasn’t in the minority there and also that they brought in Palestinians and Arabic speakers.”

“People with a lot of different opinions can say they are all behind the same thing.” said Eric Siegel, a junior at Tufts. “And that’s a powerful thing.”

Jonathan Rich, a student at the University of Georgia, perhaps summed it up best:

I think I’m personally more progressive than J Street is and I feel like my concern was what the average person at J Street was going to be like. My experience has been that more people are like me and are more progressive—like about the United Nations bid and the inclusion of Palestinian voices as well as pro-Israel ones. In a way it’s good because [the conference] gives everyone access to the mainstream, in the same way that the Democratic Party is not as left wing as I would consider myself, but I still vote for the Democrats because that’s what you have available. I feel the same way about J Street. For now, this is good enough.

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Monday, March 26: The start time for the first set of panels at the J Street Conference was 8:15 a.m. Sunday morning. Those put off by the serpentine line for coffee could instead be jolted awake by a session on the impact of the Arab-Israeli conflict on U.S. interests. Arad Nir, head of the foreign news desk at Channel 2 News in Israel, was joined by three retired high-ranking members of the American military. It was still before 9 a.m. when the military brass reached a consensus: Israel has become a strategic liability to the United States.

Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell during his tenure as secretary of State, led the charge: “Since the end of the Cold War, Israel has become more of a liability than an asset to the U.S.,” he said to nods of agreement.

The packed room—which included many college students, despite the hour—sat rapt as the panelists sprinkled their answers with references to apartheid and Vietnam. What was billed as a conversation about the Arab-Israeli conflict—the centerpiece issue of this year’s confab—soon became one about Iran. Every panelist decried the idea of an attack (by the United States or Israel). “A strike on Iran will do nothing,” said Brigadier Gen. John H. Johns, former deputy assistant secretary of defense. Like others at the conference, Johns argued that a strike on Iran would only solidify its decision to build a nuclear weapon.

A recurring theme over the past two days has been participants’ broad opposition to military confrontation with the Islamic Republic. Meantime, the official J Street line is that the focus on Iran is deflecting attention away from Israel’s myriad domestic problems and a peace plan with the Palestinians.

“Polls show an increasing number of non-Jewish Israeli citizens are expressing extraordinary displeasure with their third- and fourth-class citizenship in the state.” said Wilkerson during the panel. “This is not a positive development. But it’s a development brought on, in many respects, because the national security argument can be used by the government just as it’s used in this country to do all sorts of things. … You can justify the liquidation of civil liberties, you can justify killing American citizens, for example, without due process, you can justify all kinds of things under that argument. And increasingly in Israel, that is what Netanyahu and [Foreign Minister] Avigdor Lieberman and others like him are doing. And this is very dangerous to the future of this state.”

Later, at a press conference at the Convention Center, J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami said: “Some are using the beating of the drums of war to try and shift the agenda from the critically important work that needs to be done to end this conflict.”

This is J Street’s major challenge: The organization is trying to avoid making Iran Topic A, but the Islamic Republic’s march toward nuclear weapons just so happens to be the biggest foreign policy issue facing the United States and Israel. Putting aside the fact that confronting Iran was the singular focus of the AIPAC conference earlier this month, many of J Street’s own members want to talk about Iran. Specifically, they want to advocate against a potential Israeli or American attack. The issue has dominated key panels, as well as happy hours.

Stand by to learn what subject—resolving the Israel-Arab conflict or advocating against a strike on Iran—will prevail as J Street activists head to the Hill to lobby on Tuesday.

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Sunday, March 25: Denizens of D.C. and history wonks (by no means mutually exclusive groups) are fond of explaining why Washington’s alphabetical street layout does not include a J Street among its lettered grid. Across the city’s four quadrants, every letter has its own street all the way from A through W (sadly X, Y, and Z didn’t make the cut, either), excepting J. One moth-eaten myth is that Pierre L’Enfant, the city’s original designer, had a beef with John Jay, the first chief justice, and left “J” out as a slight. The truth is actually that until sometime in the mid-19th century, the letters “I” and “J” were difficult to distinguish from each other. As usual, the explanation is much closer to pragmatic than exciting.

On Saturday, J Street, the organization designed to be a liberal counterweight to the more hawkishly pro-Israel AIPAC, kicked off its third convention under the banner of “Making History,” history being something the group has assiduously tried to avoid becoming. As its 2,500 participants gathered, it seemed as though the group might have found some footing. Nearly a quarter of this year’s attendees are college students from over 100 different universities in five different countries. This young, 650-strong contingent was the point of much attention, as they were featured parading through the conference’s opening plenary on Saturday night. It was announced that J Street U, the organization’s campus outposts, had reached 33 colleges.

Nearly four years ago, when J Street was founded, it received the L’Enfant treatment. Regarded by many as an insurgent excess or a confusing, unwanted presence, the group got the cold shoulder from most of the various Washington, Jewish, and pro-Israel establishments. Along the way, J Street endured a notable share of controversy, from its controversial funders (rhymes with Beorge Boros) to the organization’s initial response to Israel’s Cast Lead operation, which placed the group politically to the left of even marginal Israeli political parties such as Meretz. But four years later, the group persists.

This year’s conference has also already benefited from a surge of publicity, thanks to Peter Beinart, the movement’s so-called troubadour, whose new book (which, at this point, you cannot possibly have not heard of) is being promoted prominently. To boot, Beinart’s recent call in the New York Times for an American boycott of the West Bank settlements drew heavy note from the commentariat this week, touching off a series of high-level blood matches from public intellectuals and Jewish functionaries alike. Yet for all their closeness, J Street founder and head Jeremy Ben-Ami pointedly refused to back Beinart’s boycott.

The literary undercurrent at J Street this year is bolstered also by Gershom Gorenberg and Ben-Ami himself, both of whom will be hawking books that raise alarm about Israel’s policies and present an alternative approach to what many would consider the mainstream view of Israel’s political future. It also didn’t hurt that the Israeli novelist Amos Oz, a perennial contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature, was a featured speaker at Saturday night’s opening plenary. It was at this event that Oz took a shot at AIPAC for its status as K Street monolith, lambasting its “militant, hawkish, extremist manner” to wild applause. He added: “There is more than just one way to be a good Jew. There is more than just one way to be a good Zionist.”

Here’s where the idea of “Making History” makes its play for J Street. While at AIPAC’s conference earlier this month, American and Israeli politicians issued warning calls about the Iranian nuclear program (to over 13,000 attendees, in the same cavernous Washington Convention Center), the J Street conference will emphasize what’s receded: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The panels, discussions, and workshops also have a staggering breadth, from issues like Iran, Jerusalem, and the two-state solution to pinkwashing, Gilad Shalit, and the environment. Emblematic of the available flavor is a session called “Strange Bedfellows: Neocons, Hawks, Christian Zionists, and Casino Magnates” (don’t they mean Casino Magnate, singular?) as well as a feature called “Home Front: Portraits From Sheikh Jarrah.”

What will be missing is any notable presence from the White House, and little from Congress. As many have noted, the highest-level guest at J Street will be Anthony Blinken, the well-regarded national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, as well as Valerie Jarrett, a close adviser to (and close friend of) the First Couple. From Israel, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (well on his way to Jimmy Carter status at home) will appear. Like AIPAC, J Street will close out on Capitol Hill, where its members will seek an audience with various congressional representatives. Unlike AIPAC, J Street won’t already have hosted many of those representatives over the past few days.

According to (also disputed) legend, President Ulysses S. Grant’s wife forbade cigar smoking in the White House. Not to be denied, Grant would set out for the nearby Willard Hotel to satiate his craving, accompanied by a glass of brandy. Word spread of his routine, and political wheelers would come to the Willard to sit and angle to speak with him about various issues. And where in the Willard was this? The lobby, of course.

In addition to covering the goings on here at the J Street conference, we will be focusing our coverage on what is not going on. For a group that is working to forge its own avenue into American influence, where does J Street appear in the lobby? Is it close enough to smell the cigar smoke? Check back with us over the next few days.

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