J Street's second annual conference - Natasha Mozgovaya
Participants at J Street's second annual conference in Washington. Photo by Natasha Mozgovaya
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Aaron Weinberg, a 20-year-old freshman at Brandeis, stood up Saturday night with others to clap for Peter Beinart, one of the three people honored at J Street's national conference in Washington, when Beinart remarked that "Israel cannot be holy in the days of Bibi, Lieberman and Rabbi Ovadia." "There is no kedusha in Netanyahu's and Lieberman's conduct with peace process, and there is no kedusha in Rabbi Ovadia's monopoly on who is a Jew and his lack of engagement," agreed Weinberg, using the Hebrew word for holiness.

"When I was in high school, everyday I was coming home and telling my mom that I wanted to go to the airport, to make aliyah. I was making friends only with those who spoke Hebrew. But frankly, I feel very disenfranchised by the Israeli government and Israeli public voting for such a government. I think I would feel pretty uncomfortable to live with a group that holds such views," he said, explaining why he is still today in the U.S.

But Weinberg couldn't help caring about Israel, so a week after he went to college, he found J Street representatives at the campus and became active. This week, he spoke before over 2,000 people who attended the conference - and he feels empowered.

"I am a son of two Jewish educators, I was always involved with Jewish life, but I never felt there is a place for me to be true to my values," he told me. "There was no place to criticize Israeli policies and be productive. The view in the U.S. Jewish community is that Israel is invincible, we must defend it without preconditions. But I didn't want to join the other side, because I do feel connected to Israel, I even spent a year in Jerusalem."

He had his share of criticism towards some of J Street's decisions - he defines its recent call for the U.S. Administration to refrain from casting a veto against the UN Security Council resolution condemning settlements construction as "courageous, but strategically stupid."

"They can be right and moral, but they won't win over more Jews," he said. "Maybe they should have stopped at the call for the administration to make anything possible to prevent this vote. And not to push further."

J Street's second annual conference was held in the Washington Convention Center - an upgrade signaling the still-young group's seriousness. But unlike conferences of the America-Israel Public Action Committee, there was no heavy security and indeed no big guns like U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to protect.

Despite the growth in the numbers of participants this year, at the huge center there was still enough room for a parallel video game conference and another gathering. The Israeli Embassy decided to skip the conference altogether.

J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami said Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, in his opinion, "made an enormous mistake" by not attending, and that "to meet only with the people that you agree with is not the way you conduct diplomacy and not the way the ambassador of the State of Israel should relate to the U.S. Jewish community."

The shaky position of J-Street vis-a-vis the Israeli public was stressed when Ben-Ami, following a panel with five Kadima and Labor MKs, asked the audience to raise and applaud, to recognize "the incredible courage and leadership it took them to be here with us."

The Palestinians evidently had their own troubles - Mustafa Barghouti, a member of the Palestinian parliament, that was supposed to speak about Hamas, didn't come amid the sensitive political overtures the Palestinian Authority was making toward the militant group.

"It feels strange," said Kadima MK Nachman Shai, who admitted that he hesitated whether to cancel his participation following the UN Security Council resolution controversy.

"I was in many conferences of U.S. Jews - and there were always panels about social issues, poverty and philanthropy and aliyah, trying to push the political issues aside. And here you've got over 2,000 people, many young people, who are discussing the core political problems of Israel. I think it was a big mistake for the Israeli Embassy to shun this conference. Over 2,000 people, it's a serious event - how can you miss an opportunity to address them? I am really impressed by these young people, who are striving to know more, to be involved - while the Jewish Federations are strug gling to keep young people involved. I didn't agree with many things they said and made my opinion clear, but it was very refreshing."

It seems there was no reason for the Israeli diplomats to skip the conference. The reaction to Dennis Ross' speech, void of any specifics, was a good indicator of the fact that the public was not anti-Israel.

He got applause when he stressed the Obama administration's "unshakeable commitment to Israel's security"; the "unprecedented level of military cooperation," and vowed that "we remain determined to prevent Iran from acquiring the nuclear weapons and we won't be deflected from this goal."

It could be the same reaction he would garner at any AIPAC gathering.

The problem with J Street is that it seems to have lost a bit of its policy focus, instead plunging into controversies and acting, as some Congress staffers hint, too hastily and even arrogantly. They point to the lobby's practice of putting out controversial statements without consulting enough with key players, making some congressmen sympathetic to a two-state solution feel uncomfortable.

But it was much more successful on the grassroots level, bringing to the conference over 500 students from 128 universities. The students were a vivid reminder that there is a need for a left-leaning alternative within the Jewish community.

It will be difficult for J Street to give up its focus as a Congressional lobby, but at this moment it seems it's more productive for them to explore their potential as a national or even international grassroots Jewish peace organization.

The conference featured some inspiring and many times witty talk. The Egyptian author Mona Eltahawy reminded the audience of the need for direct contact with the Arab public and called on them to "stop being narcissistic - not everything is about Israel, for a change it's about us," she said, referring to the upheavals in the Arab world.

Lara Friedman from Americans for Peace Now said she doesn't care if President Obama puts down a plan or parameters or a grocery list, but there's got to be action at this point, not another great speech.

The Palestinian doctor who lost his daughters in Gaza also spoke, and a young Gazan woman whose family belongs to Fatah confronted Shai on the verge of tears, respectfully stating that she disagrees with his views about the siege on Gaza.

The discussions were serious, the young participants were hungry for information. Even if Israel's government chose to see J Street as an irrelevant, annoying, pretentious organization - they will have to deal with those young people who identify with it.