J Street Convenes as Liberal Jews Reel From Netanyahu Controversies

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A sign welcomes attendees at J Street’s 2013 national conference in Washington. This year's conference occurs at a pivotal time.Credit: J Street / JTA

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave his controversial speech to the U.S. Congress earlier this month, his spokespersons and disciples claimed that commentators were exaggerating the damage done to U.S.-Israeli ties for political purposes.

So now all the votes have been counted in the Israeli election, we can go back to more balanced assessments: Netanyahu didn’t lose all of America, only half; he didn’t burn his bridges in Washington, only those leading to the White House and half the Democrats in Congress; and he didn’t alienate American Jews, only most of its liberal majority. On the right, Jewish and otherwise, the victorious Netanyahu is possibly worshipped as never before.

Like most of the Israeli left, many U.S. critics of Netanyahu were disappointed by last Tuesday’s vote, more so because of the expectation that regime change was in the offing. Their distress was as deep as Netanyahu’s last-minute triumph was massive.

But the dramatic deterioration in Netanyahu’s image – and, through him, that of Israeli itself – wasn’t caused by the final tally of the votes, but by the tactics that enabled them.

Netanyahu’s denial of Palestinian statehood before the election, as well as his swift reversal less than a day later, demolished the remnants of his credibility and gave the White House a convenient whip with which it has been lashing him ever since. More injuriously, perhaps, his frantic warning against Arab voters “going out in droves” didn’t only portray Netanyahu as a politician willing to cynically draw the “race card” – it pictured Israel as a country in which such a deplorable move can pave the way to victory.

For many liberal Jews, including those who sympathize with Netanyahu, the prime minister’s statements were “like a kick in the gut,” as one told me. Jews are the most liberal group in America; they continue to identify with minorities and to wax lyrical about their support for the civil rights movement half a century ago, even though ties with African Americans are no longer as close.

“For many of our students and for their parents, Netanyahu’s statements were like a wake-up call about him and Israeli politics,” said Sarah Turbow, director of J Street U, the student division of the leftist lobby, which is launching its annual conference Saturday night, at an extraordinarily pivotal time.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s president, acknowledges both the dangers and opportunities faced by the group. “There are a large number of people in the center of the community that were really turned off not just by the political shenanigans that surrounded this election, but who also share a deep disdain for the type of politics that is represented by Netanyahu and the right. And now they see that traditional and communal organizations are unable to criticize that – this will hurt those institutions and benefit J Street. I think these people will find a home in J Street,” he said.

But there is also the danger that J Street will continue to bleed supporters on its left flank to anti-Zionist groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace and the BDS Movement – as it already has, to a certain degree, since last summer’s war in Gaza.

“There is a left to J Street that is built on anger and not love,” said Ben-Ami. “There is a real fury at Netanyahu and his policies that is not fueled by a deep concern for the future of Israel, its character or its values. I see that emerging in the growing strength of JVP and BDS as well: there are people on the left of J Street who will be attracted to that, because their first emotion isn’t to the State of Israel or to the Jewish people.”

About 3,000 people, including 1,000 students, are slated to participate in the conference, which will be held at the same Washington convention center in which AIPAC convened earlier this month, albeit with only a fifth of the pro-Israel lobby’s delegates. Ben-Ami says that over 70 Congress members are expected to attend the conference, though he thinks that number could grow in the wake of the recent brouhaha. The centerpiece of the conference, as far as news headlines are concerned, will undoubtedly be White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough’s address to the conference on Monday.

Although McDonough is a lower ranking representative than Vice President Joe Biden, who addressed J Street last year, he is equal in standing to National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who spoke at the AIPAC gathering. More significantly, perhaps, is the fact that McDonough will be faithfully conveying Obama’s exact views on the situation – albeit, one assumes, in softer and less confrontational terms. The president and J Street, at least, probably see eye to eye.

Absent from the conference will be a representative of the Israeli embassy in Washington, which has not maintained contacts with J Street since the arrival of Ron Dermer as ambassador in October 2013. President Reuven Rivlin, meanwhile, will greet the delegates by video address, which is another telling sign of the times.

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