J Street has devoted much of its young life to trying to convince the conservative segments of the Jewish community that it’s not a left-wing organization. And indeed, nowhere at the left-leaning Israel lobby’s first conference this week did J Street organizers give an indication of being anything but staunch supporters and lovers of Israel—though ones who see that country’s political future darkening without a two-state solution. But it also seemed that the liberal blogger Richard Silverstein was onto something when he told Tablet Magazine, “The impression that a lot of us are getting is that the rank and file of attendees of the conference are to the left of J Street.”
On a few occasions at the just-ended event, this tendency was on public display: the booing Eric Yoffie, head of the Reform movement, received when he put down U.N. investigator Richard Goldstone; the semi-official convening of bloggers like Silverstein that the Weekly Standard took as evidence of J Street’s true left-wing nature; and the rumor(unfounded, as it turned out) that J Street’s college division had dropped “pro-Israel” from its motto. Far more commonplace, though, were participants who gave no indication—other than, perhaps, being outfitted in flowing scarves rather than Congress-ready suits—of departing from J Street’s party line but who, in conversation, acknowledged that their personal politics were further left of the organization’s. They weren’t wed to the idea of Israel being a Jewish as well as democratic state, for instance—but they also seemed happy to behave themselves for the sake of the organization.
“I see it as a division of labor,” said Michael Feinberg, a New York rabbi and labor activist, who wouldn’t go into detail about his politics because he’d “already been so trashed about the issue” from some on the right, he said. “J Street’s policies are not mine, exactly, though they’re closer to it than many other groups. But I’m not looking for a perfect fit, I’m looking to get something done. Let’s get the big policy work done and then we can fight it out within the family.” Elizabeth Bolton, a Reconstructionist rabbi from Baltimore active in Rabbis for Human Rights, agreed. Bolton said she was disappointed, for instance, that Jeremy Ben Ami, J Street’s executive director, criticized Goldstone as well, but, she said, “Ben Ami is trying to push the policy perspectives of the American government. I don’t want to be naïve.”
Other participants said that, since long before J Street formed, they’ve been accustomed to framing their opinions carefully when doing activist work with some of the smaller organizations that participated in the conference. “I tend to want to be more outspoken and it was made clear to me that if I wanted to join Brit Tzedek, I needed to deliver a certain message,” said Linda Iacovini, a member of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, which is being absorbed into J Street next year. “I had a friend who didn’t want to join because of that.” That’s fine, said J Street spokeswoman Amy Spitalnick, as long as participants understand that the group is “an explicitly pro-Israel organization, and it’s not going to be otherwise.”