WASHINGTON – The liberal Jewish group J Street will hold its annual conference this weekend, amid the backdrop of growing threats to democracy in both the Biden administration and Israel. The conference is the group’s first in-person gathering since COVID-19.
“We're in a very dicey moment on Israeli politics in the United States. The issue is more divisive than ever — not just in politics but in the Jewish community, and the new Israeli government only deepens those problems,” said the group’s founder Jeremy Ben-Ami ahead of the conference.
J Street’s main rival in the U.S. Jewish and pro-Israeli community is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Over the past year, one of the largest stories in the Jewish community has been AIPAC’s decision to officially enter the political sphere with candidate endorsements, including support for dozens of Republicans who refused to accept President Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election.
“AIPAC making the decision to reverse 50-something years of its policies and enter directly into politics was responding to these changes and can be traced directly to J Street and what we stand for emerging as the consensus within the Democratic Party,” said Ben-Ami. He added that his organization’s fight is not with AIPAC, but against those attempting to undermine democracy and incite people via racism and fear-mongering.
“AIPAC decided that didn’t matter, that’s the thing that’s distressing. They said as long as someone is pro-Israel, none of that matters. Our view is that’s exactly what matters: what are the values people stand for and what are the principles they put forward,” he says.
The conference comes weeks after the midterm elections averted a worst-case scenario for the organization, with Republicans barely eking out a House majority while Democrats held onto their Senate majority. Ben-Ami says the results further demonstrated the Jewish-American community’s dedication to democracy.
“It turns out democracy was the number one issue for Jewish voters, and a lot of voters. People underestimated how much it was a concern. This election was about some fundamental things; what’s validating is that the position we take on those issues was upheld,” he says. “The candidates we back and the values for which we stand won some really important battles.”
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Following the midterms, J Street only has even more broad of a reach across the Democratic Party, including moderates such as Reps. Abigail Spanberger and Elissa Slotkin, incoming progressive members like Summer Lee and Delia Ramirez, and progressive leaders like Reps. Pramila Jayapal and Mark Pocan.
Rep. Jamie Raskin, another key J Street ally, is offering keynote remarks to the conference Saturday night, hours before Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivers his own address on the state of the U.S.-Israel relationship amid growing Israeli-Palestinian tensions.
“We want to speak for the middle of the American-Jewish community, which is the middle of the Democratic Party. We speak for the 70-plus percent of Jews who vote Democrat and the 70-plus percent who identify as either liberal, progressive or moderate. We find ourselves smack in the middle of that consensus,” said Ben-Ami.
He recognizes, however, that his organization’s values were not reflected in Israel’s recent election results. J Street is now put in a position where it has to bolster its defenses, rather than pushing for any new initiatives.
“It’s been almost a decade since the last effort to seriously negotiate failed,” he says, referring to the John Kerry-led peace talks, noting that “since then, the world of J Street has been on defense.”
This has been reflected in J Street’s posture since Biden assumed power, pushing the administration and Congress in hopes of averting the worst, whether that means the construction of so-called “doomsday settlements” or village evacuations or outbreaks of violence.
“These are all on defense. How do you keep open the possibility that one day you could draw a border between the State of Israel and the state of Palestine? We're nowhere near having those negotiations and it's not J Street's position that now is in any way, shape or form the moment to pursue that,” he says.
Ben-Ami acknowledges there is an extra sense of urgency to help people understand how potentially dangerous Israel’s new government could be.
“We would never say this about a Bennett or Lapid-led government. They were trying to ‘shrink the conflict’ and do things to put the flame down a bit. They were not deliberately looking to make things worse. This government potentially has a whole series of actors who are actively going to look to try to make the situation worse,” he warns. “We’re in high-alert mode."
J Street’s call to arms is reflected in a newly published policy paper, which it is circulating throughout Capitol Hill, including points such as opposing unilateral annexation and settlement expansion; making clear that the U.S. will ensure accountability for the security assistance it provides Israel, in the same manner as it oversees such assistance to other countries; and refusing to engage with Kahanist Itamar Ben-Gvir, the newly appointed “national security minister.”
Ben-Ami notes some of these measures would have been previously unimaginable. “It’s very unique to call on the government to stop dealing with certain people and certain parties because it’s so out of keeping with our values. That’s unprecedented for us.”
He adds that the issue of U.S. oversight on military aid to Israel, most recently articulated by Dan Kurtzer and Aaron David Miller, has taken on added urgency due to the presence of figures like Ben-Gvir, necessitating levels of scrutiny unlike ever before.
This high level of concern, Ben-Ami notes, is present throughout Congress, notably articulated by Democratic pro-Israel stalwart Sen. Robert Menendez. Ben-Ami was among the U.S.-Jewish leaders to meet with a group of Democratic Senators earlier this week, during which he raised J Street’s concerns.
“If Senator Menendez is telling Bibi that this is going to be a problem, you can imagine how the other 49 Democratic senators are feeling. This is a problem, and a message that is being conveyed at many levels. J Street thinks there has to be a public component to that,” he says.
“This is a different moment and there is a higher level of concern on Capitol Hill. They’re hearing from us and they’re well aware of how serious this situation is,” Ben-Ami adds.
Ahead of the conference, however, he notes the threats are not all about Israel nor the U.S. but a global set of challenges collectively faced. “You either fall on the side of folks who believe in values core to Jewish identity or not. We’re on the side that does, and it’s a moment of deep crisis for Israel and the U.S. and for the relationship — one country may be heading in one direction while the other heads opposite."