J Street Kicks Off Annual Conference Amid UN Settlement Resolution Controversy

Speaking at Washington conference, left-wing lobby leader Jeremy Ben-Ami says that the time has come for Israel to choose: to remain Jewish, to be democratic, or to keep hold on settlements.

The leftist pro-Israeli lobby J Street kicked off its second annual conference in the Washington Convention Center on Saturday night, with over 2,000 participants in attendance, including about 500 students.

The event was preceded by controversy following J Street's call to the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama not to veto the UN Security Council resolution condemning the settlements construction.

J Street conference in Washington
Oren Shomron

However, Washington did veto the resolution, while issuing strong rebuke of Israel's settlement policy, making clear the decision was made out of conviction that the resolution would only harm the peace process by leading each side to fortify their positions.

Dennis Ross, the U.S. president's special aide, is scheduled to address the conference on Monday.

Ahead of the conference, Noah Pollak, Executive Director of the Emergency Committee for Israel, wrote a letter addressed to Ross, saying that he was surprised that the presidential aide agreed to appear at the event.

"Speaking before a group that has worked diligently over the past three years to become a voice for weakening the U.S.-Israel alliance, for pressuring Israel to accept policies that Israeli voters have rejected as dangerous, and perhaps most important, for giving Jewish support to a global campaign of delegitimization directed against Israel and Zionism," he wrote.

Pollak went on to ask Ross: "Will you challenge those who seek to brand nearly every Israeli security measure a war crime? Will you take on the inventors and proponents of so many false claims about Israel? Will you repudiate the Goldstone Report?"

The Israeli Embassy in Washington will not be sending neither speaker nor representative to this year's conference, stressing to Haaretz, however, that the dialogue will continue despite the differences between J Street positions and the Israeli government positions.

Several Knesset members from both the Kadima and Labor parties attended the conference.

Rabbi David Saperstein from the Reform movement in his opening remarks stressed that a two state solution was the only solution for Mideast peace, adding that "there is so much J Street stands for."

"You matter politically," he said to the applause of the participants. He criticized the settlements and said that "anti deligitimization [of Israel] campaign can succeed only if we have wall to wall support."

J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami said: "We reaffirm our commitment to the people and state of Israel. We believe that the Jewish people have the right to a state of their own." "We value and share democratic values on which the country was founded."

"We realize that Israel has real enemies. We are profoundly and unapologetically pro-Israeli," Ben-Ami said, adding that his group believes "that the future of the state of Israel depends on the two-state solution. The time has come for Israel to choose: to remain Jewish, to be democratic, or to maintain all the land between Mediterranean and the Jordan. You can have only two."

"Israeli supporters have the right and obligation to speak out," he added.

"We believe that debate on Israel is good for the Jewish community. It stirs strong emotions, but it’s not something we can’t handle. Not only the status quo in the Arab world has changed – but the status quo between Israel and the Palestinians has to change," Ben-Ami said.

Moriel Rothman, J Street U board President, said: "I love Israel but I do not love the war in Gaza. I love Israel, but I do not love its treatment of minorities. I love Israel, but I do not love the occupation of the Palestinian land."

Three guests were honored at the opening plenary session: the author Peter Beinart, who caused a vigorous debate last year with his article about the relationship between Israel and the young U.S. Jews; Sara Benninga, an Israeli activist from the Sheikh Jarrah solidarity movement; and the Palestinian physician Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, who lost his three daughters in January 2009, and established "Daughters for Life" foundation.

In his speech, Peter Beinart said that "Israel cannot be holy in the time of Bibi, Lieberman and Ovadia Yosef."

Sara Benninga said in her speech: “Our critics portray us as enemies of the Jewish State. But it is ironic that a country claiming to be the victim of a campaign of delegitimization, shamelessly delegitimizes sections of its own citizenry. We reject the false dichotomy between security and democracy."

"We refuse to settle for anything less than a true end of occupation that is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for realizing our goal of substantive equality and genuine democracy in Israel. We know that true friends do not reinforce your weaknesses, but bring out the best in you," she said.

"We see the same story unfolding here in the United States, where an outdated Jewish Establishment vilifies those in the Jewish community who dare to criticize Israel’s policies. This is why J Street is such a ground breaking organization, and why I am so proud to receive this honor tonight," Benninga added.

Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, who lost his three daughters in January 2009, and established “Daughters for life” foundation said, "I am moved and proud to be with you at this hopeful event. If only my daughters could come out of their grave and see that their blood wasn’t in vain."

"We need to live the human values. As a Muslim I swore to God and to my daughters not to rest, because I will meet them one day, and I want to bring them the gift – to bring justice. To solve our problems peacefully we have to change our course." Abuelaish said.

“Our enemies are greed, ignorance and that we don’t know each other. I truly believe that political solution of the conflicts is based on mutual recognition and two states for the two peoples." She said that one cannot be pro-Israeli without being pro-Palestinian.

After the frustrations of Oslo it is tempting to give up, said Abuelaish. "But giving up peace is not the answer. I believe in you. Have hope, have faith, but take action."