Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) knew how to bring a crowd of 3,000 dovish pro-Israel activists to their feet as he spoke Monday at J Street’s 10th annual policy conference. He went after the current administration.
“Despite what the Congress thinks and what the president thinks, the power is with the people,” he said as he took to the podium at J Street’s 10th anniversary conference inside the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington.
It was a reconciliation of sorts for Cardin — who in 2015 had opposed the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration and other world powers — and J Street, which had vigorously supported the deal. J Street reportedly spent $245,000 in the Baltimore market where Cardin lives to run a pro-Iran deal television spot.
Despite his opposition to the deal, Cardin on Monday criticized Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu for his 2015 speech urging Congress to vote against it, saying it “created a partisan division in our own country.” He said he now believes that it would be a mistake for the United States to abandon the agreement.
The J Street conference styled its participants as the loyal opposition: opponents to Trump and Netanyahu, and carrying the standard of liberal democracy.
“All across the globe liberal democracy is in retreat,” Jeremy Ben Ami, J Street’s president, said Saturday as the conference opened. “J Street proudly opposes these trends, and we couldn’t be clearer in the threat President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu pose.”
“It’s great to see so many people supporting Israel, supporting peace, supporting a two-state solution, supporting democracy and supporting our liberal values,” former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni said Sunday.
Livni, a leader of the opposition Zionist Union, said those values include religious freedom and an end to the “monopoly of the ultra-Orthodox parties in Israel,” and equal rights for all Israelis. “This is the definition of a Jewish democratic state.”
Throughout the plenary sessions, the lines that seemed to get the most applause were those highly critical of Israel, especially regarding its conflict with the Palestinians.
Zumlot claimed that of the three parties to efforts to renew Israeli-Palestinian talks, only the Palestinian negotiators still were committed to two states, while the Trump and Netanyahu governments had retreated from endorsing that outcome. He especially decried Trump for his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
“Jerusalem is the key to peace,” Zomlot said. The recognition “did not do justice to the history of Jerusalem.”
Addressing that history, Zomlot said that Christians, Jews and Muslims have lived in the city for “millennia” — unusual for Palestinian officials, who often refrain from noting Jewish connections to the city. A Palestinian capital in the city alongside a Jewish one, Zomlot said, “will not only recognize the Jewish connection to Jerusalem but will celebrate the Jewish connection to Jerusalem.”
Zomlot earned loud applause, which was noticed by Merav Michaeli, the Zionist Union Knesset member who spoke after him and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). She chided the audience for being more enthusiastic in cheering Palestinians than Israelis.
“Frankly it hurt me when I did not hear you applauding the last speaker,” she said, referring to Schatz, “when he said he believes in the state of Israel and its right to exist.”
That earned her a round of applause.
Later she tweeted, “@jstreetdotorg is SO pro Israel that sometimes people take it for granted, it was a pleasure hearing the wonderful audience in #JStreet10 applauding Israel and peace for two states.”
Cardin also expressed concern about the global rise of anti-Semitism, placing much of the blame on Trump issuing mixed messages after the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., last August.
He condemned the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, an economic effort against Israel that J Street also opposes. (Some panelists at the conference nevertheless advocated for BDS.) He reminded the audience that he co-authored the Israel Anti-Boycott Act last year that would punish American companies that comply with international efforts to boycott Israel.
“You may have heard about it, it’s had some controversy,” Cardin said of his bill.
J Street opposes the legislation on the grounds that it does not adequately distinguish between Israel and its settlements. The American Civil Liberties Union also opposes the bill on the grounds that it violates free speech — an argument that Cardin refuted Monday.
“I can tell you that I have spent my entire political career defending First Amendment rights. Anyone who wants to criticize Israel or boycott Israel…I think you’re wrong. But you have your constitutional right to do that,” he said. “Let us work together to figure out a way to protect the freedom of speech, but also protect American businesses from being bullied into boycotting Israel.”
Retired Carnegie Mellon University professor Mark Fichman, one of 17 Pittsburghers to attend the conference, explained his opposition to the bill.
“That bill is viewed by us as a way of saying the settlements are part of Israel, which we don’t think they are,” Fichman said in an interview. “It’s a small move toward legitimizing the occupation of the West Bank. And in some ways, this bill steps on people’s free speech rights.”
Cardin assured the J Street crowd that his bill would not change American foreign policy of opposing Israel’s settlements.
“I believe that we should not take sides against how settlements have been unhelpful for Israel’s long term-survival,” he said. “I want to make sure we don’t do anything in this bill that would compromise the traditional view of this country in regards to Israel’s settlements.”
And Jerome Segal, founder of the Jewish Peace Lobby, who is challenging Cardin in the June Democratic primary, was handing out leaflets asking if J Street had lost its way by inviting Cardin, who he identified with the more bipartisan AIPAC. He referred to Cardin’s speech as the “kosherization” of J Street, Al-Monitor reported.
Fichman, who has attended two previous J Street conferences, said the tone this year was different. During the Obama administration, the mood of conference attendees was one of “optimism,” but that tide has shifted.
“People are angry,” Fichman said. “People are frustrated. People are really troubled by the parallel between the Trump administration and where it’s going, and what we see in Israel. So, there is a lot of discussion even about what’s been going on in the last few days — the Syria air strike, and what’s going on in Gaza.”
Nancy Bernstein, co-chair of J Street Pittsburgh, and a presenting sponsor of the conference, noted that J Street, while continuing “to prioritize the promotion of the two-state solution in Congress and in the American Jewish Community,” will also be working on the ground in the United States “to promote diplomacy versus war in the Middle East, by fighting against efforts to derail the Iran deal,” and by opposing the appointment of John Bolton to the National Security Council and the confirmation of Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State.
Bernstein, who is also one of four people leading J Street’s Women’s Leadership Forum — which “raises awareness and advocates for the significant role that women and civil society can and do play in peace building and negotiations” — said via email that in addition to focusing on its founding mission of advocating for the two-state solution, and supporting “basic humanitarian aid to Gaza,” J Street is now also taking up the cause of opposing “the current U.S. administration policies with regard to refugees and immigrants.”
“Other organizations take the lead on issues related to immigrant and refugees but as a Jewish organization,” she said, “we are compelled to weigh in with our opposition to the dangerous rhetoric against and treatment of refugees and immigrants by the Trump administration.” PJC
JTA contributed to this report.