In post-Kerry Reboot, J Street to Open Conference With ex-Palestinian PM

The much maligned lobbying group can be accused (and is) of many things, but predictability isn't one of them, as J Street taps Salam Fayyad to open its national summit.

Daniel Bar-On

SAN FRANCISCO - As a target of accusation, no major American Jewish organization can rival J Street. Despite, or perhaps because of, the dovish group's avowed "pro-Israel, pro-peace" watchword, U.S. Jewish critics have demonized J Street as tantamount to Hezbollah, Nazi collaborators, and even Jews for Jesus.

At least one accusation seems to have escaped J Street, however: That it is guilty of doing the expected.

This weekend in San Francisco - in itself, an unexpected venue for major American Jewish events - J Street's largest conference of the year is to open with an address by the former prime minister of the Palestinian Authority.

Joining Salam Fayyad at the Saturday night inaugural session will be Princeton Professor Daniel Kurtzer, who served as U.S. ambassador to Egypt during the Clinton administration and ambassador to Israel under George W. Bush, as well as jurist and former Israeli UN ambassador Gabriela Shalev.

Billed as a summit, the conference comes at what may prove a critical juncture for J Street. The collapse of Secretary of State John Kerry's intensive peace initiative has forced something of a reboot in tactical and strategic thinking, not only for J Street, but also for a range of other dovish and largely Jewish organizations across North America, among them Americans for Peace Now, the New Israel Fund, Ameinu, and Partners for Progressive Israel, several of whose leaders are expected to take part in the summit.

In recent weeks, J Street has been buoyed by a backlash to fierce rightist attacks against it. The attacks culminated in late April, when hardline members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations spearheaded a campaign to defeat J Street's application to join the high-profile umbrella body of U.S. Jewry.

The Conference of Presidents' secret-ballot rejection of J Street, coupled with a perception of back-room political deals and lack of transparency on the right, had the unintended effect of upgrading the standing of the lobbying group, which has positioned itself as a left-center alternative to hardline positions taken by AIPAC.

In an unprecedented move in response to the J Street vote, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who as leader of the Reform Movement represents the largest constituent group in the Conference of Presidents, threatened to effectively gut the umbrella group by having the Union of Reform Judaism quit the Conference unless it changed its procedures to become more representative of the American Jewish community as a whole.

The June 7-8 summit will be J Street's first large-scale foray into the maelstrom of the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish community, long known as a hotbed of confrontation over Israeli-Palestinian issues, marked by vociferous and politically extreme activism on both sides.

Although Jewish communities the length of the West Coast have grown significantly over recent decades, the leadership of the American Jewish community has remained largely oriented toward the Eastern seaboard. The choice of San Francisco, while unusual, may signal belated recognition of the fact that the Bay Area now constitutes the third largest Jewish community of the United States, behind New York and Los Angeles.

Other speakers and panelists at the weekend J Street summit are to include Labor MK Merav Michaeli, Bay Area Democratic Congresswomen Jackie Speier, Ghaith Al-Omari, Executive Director of the American Task Force on Palestine, Rabbi Sharon Brous, leader of the innovative IKAR congregation in Los Angeles, UCLA History Professor David Meyers, and activist Rabbi Amy Eilberg, the first woman rabbi ordained by the Conservative movement.