Supporters of J Street, the left-leaning Israel lobby group that just wrapped up its first national conference, will exit the cozy confines of the Washington Grand Hyatt this morning and head over to Capitol Hill to, well, lobby. Policy director Hadar Susskind tells Tablet Magazine that the contingent has 210 meetings scheduled with various Congressional offices and expects the members of Congress themselves (not just their staffer) to show up at about half of those meetings.
But it’s worth noting that the J Street crowd has, this week, appeared wholly uninterested in the minutiae and insider baseball that animates the Hill. At last night’s big $250-a-plate gala dinner, the 800-plus attendees cheered when recognizable members of Congress in attendance were named—Barney Frank, Keith Ellison—but kept up their chatter as lesser pols were thanked. And few people in the room seemed to notice when speaker Steve Clemons—who directs the foreign-policy program at the New America Foundation, a progressive think tank—let slip that Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, a moderate Republican who gave the evening’s keynote address, had been tapped to co-chair of President Barack Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board. (Though in fairness, they may not have been paying attention in part because Clemons walked onstage wearing a paper mask of Vice President Joe Biden’s face, in a Beltway Halloween joke that went over like a lead weight).
Attendees did, however, sit rapt as King Abdullah of Jordan congratulated their efforts via a video link. And the audience whooped and cheered later in the evening when one of J Street’s initial funders, New York attorney Victor Kovner, accepted the organization’s inaugural “Pursuer of Peace” award. Kovner, a longtime board member of Americans for Peace Now, was introduced with a video tribute that included photographs of Kovner standing with Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (not both in the same photograph, though). In his acceptance, he invoked both the U.S. Constitution and the prophet Isaiah as he talked about making sure that the state of Israel lives up to Jewish values, rather than just being a state full of Jews. “What we American Jews owe to Israel, what we owe to our friends and family in Israel, is our best advice,” he said, to loud applause. And then he wound up with a finale worthy of Elie Wiesel, repeatedly intoning “never again” as he said that, thanks to J Street’s existence, members of Congress would be free of fear when taking positions in favor of Palestinian rights, and the president would have the room to maneuver in order to strike a peace deal. Now that the conference is over, of course, the big question facing the organization is this: what next?