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J Street Lobbied Congress, But Did They Listen?

Government shutdown sends J Street’s lobbying day into disarray

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The White House is seen behind a stop sign in Washington, DC, on October 1, 2013. The US government shut down Tuesday for the first time in 17 years after a gridlocked Congress failed to reach a federal budget deal amid bitter brinkmanship. (KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)

Back home in the United Kingdom, lobbying is an activity that is the preserve of either professional, registered individuals or smaller pressure groups. It would be highly unusual to have hundreds of activists young and old descend on Parliament for pre-arranged stunt meetings with their representatives, as AIPAC does every year during their conference and J Street has arranged today in order to make a push for the two-state solution.

The focus of J Street’s advocacy day is S.Res. 203, introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Its thrust is to formalize Congressional support for “a sustained United States diplomatic initiative to help Israel and Palestine conclude an agreement to end their conflict,” stressing that “while only Israel and Palestine can make the difficult choices necessary to end their conflict, the United States remains indispensible to any viable effort to achieve that goal.” A similar resolution has been introduced by Rep. Jan Schakowsky in the House of Representatives.

J Street’s image is a main concern in all this, and the organization made efforts to manage the day—and the lobbiers—as best they could. Advocates received a sheet on ‘tips for effective lobbying,’ Remember to “set the right atmosphere”—“be punctual, courteous, non-confrontational, reasonable and friendly.” Listen—“Did he/she say, ‘I sympathize with your point of view’ or ‘I will support your point of view’”?

Advocates are told to “carefully consider the impact of any thoughts about the meeting that you decide to post to social media” after their meetings. Moreover, they have been requested to “stick to the talking points” and “please do not stray into topics not in the talking points, even those on which J Street has taken positions.”

The talking points come in a separate memo: “the two-state solution is the only way to ensure Israel’s survival as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people. It has been bipartisan U.S. policy for twenty years, and the objective of the Israeli and Palestinian governments, and majorities of both peoples.” Those lobbying have also been told to stress the size of the conference this year, the guests, and John Kerry’s call for “a great constituency for peace,” which links to J Street’s brand new 2 Campaign.

There is something strange, to me at least, about the way in which this event is so public—with J Street stressing that 250 meetings have been arranged on the Hill today featuring 800 activists—and yet the actual act of lobbying itself is so secret and private. J Street organizers and participants were reluctant to allow me even to follow groups around the halls of the Cannon Street building where the Congressional offices are located, lest some activist say something out of line that might embarrass the organization.

The lingering question throughout the day, however, was whether J Street activists would be heard at all. On the one hand, the House Democratic Caucus still managed to turn out in good number at last night’s gala dinner, including Nancy Pelosi and Donna Edwards, even as the clocks ticked closer to midnight and the looming budget deadline. Moreover, Reps. Chris Van Hollen and Keith Ellison made it to kick-off events this morning, offering speeches encouraging J Street’s involvement in the political process. In the halls of power, the positions of J Street are now the “majority view,” Ellison said.

But with the government shutdown in effect, and members of Congress shuffling in and out of the chamber trying to reach a solution, meetings were being cancelled and moved, staged and re-staged. The schedule was completely in flux. While still going out of their way to make time for J Street’s activists, there was a sense that the priorities of those on the Hill might just be elsewhere.

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J Street Lobbied Congress, But Did They Listen?

Government shutdown sends J Street’s lobbying day into disarray

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