PHILADELPHIA — It was a star-studded evening at the National Museum of American Jewish History July 27, at least in terms of Democratic National Convention star-power.
The self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” J Street held an event called “Breaking Convention,” which was attended by a bevy of Democratic legislators, including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and two politicians who spoke to the crowd directly, former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, now running for U.S. Senate, and Illinois Rep. Tammy Duckworth.
The event, said Jessica Rosenblum, J Street’s vice president of communications, was about “breaking out of the box” — a strategy made literal in the organization’s new logo, a letter J in a square with an arrow breaking through one of the box’s sides.
“It’s a celebration of the work we’ve done and the work we still have yet to do,” Rosenblum continued, pointing to J Street’s endorsements of candidates for the House and Senate.
Rosenblum stood with Dan Siegel, deputy regional director of J Street in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. A native Philadelphian, Siegel started working for J Street in 2015; the organization was founded eight years ago, and now has seven regional offices and 65 staff members.
“We exist to create political power around the American involvement in moving toward a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Siegel said. “For a long time, there’s been a single narrative on how to address the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and for a long time in the Jewish community we couldn’t have a robust conversation about it.”
J Street’s executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, echoed Siegel’s words.
“Politically, we started a PAC in 2008 and endorsed 29 winning members of Congress,” he said. “Steve Cohen, the congressman from Tennessee, was the first person who accepted our endorsement, and he did a video for us. We were so happy that a member of Congress would accept our endorsement and agree to appear publicly on our website. Today, eight years later, we have now endorsed over half of the Democratic caucus in the U.S. House, and when we are done, we will have endorsed 20 sitting U.S. senators who take their seats in January 2017.”
Ben-Ami had high praise for legislators who made the Iran deal — which he characterized as “the most significant nuclear nonproliferation agreement that has ever been entered into” — a reality.
“Many members of the U.S. House and of the Senate took what they consider and what we consider to be a politically bold and courageous step in stepping forward and doing the right thing,” he said.
Ben-Ami predicted that those who voted for the Iran deal would win reelection, while those who fought against it would fail.
“Standing for diplomacy,” he said, “standing for engagement on an issue as important as nuclear weapons in Iran, is, in the end of the day, a political plus, not a liability, and we will prove that in November.”
One of those who fought for the Iran deal was Strickland.
“I believe deeply and strongly in the special relationship that our country has with the State of Israel,” he said. “I believe that we should work to preserve and strengthen that relationship. But I can tell you that when the Iranian agreement was reached, I had people tell me that I did not need to take a position — that the politically wise decision would be for me to stay silent.”
The next speaker, Duckworth, also alluded to the way the Iran deal might affect her chances in November.
“For those of us who served in uniform, who’ve spent our lives defending our nation, we are proud and adamant in our support of the state of Israel being able to defend itself,” she said. “But we also know that sometimes the best path toward security is peace.”
Discussion of the Iran deal wasn’t surprising, given that it will be a critical issue in both Strickland’s and Duckworth’s upcoming election battles, and is probably the most controversial position J Street has ever taken.
In fact, it was the Iran deal that seemed to galvanize the protesters who stood outside J Street’s “Evolving Politics of the Jewish Community: Giving a Voice to Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace Jews” event that took place the day before at Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse.
Across from the entrance, there was a crowd of about 15 protesters, holding signs, and chanting, “J Street is not pro-Israel,” “J Street supports Iran” and “J Street does not speak for Jews.”
The grassroots gathering, comprised in part of members of the Zionist Organization of American and the Republican Jewish Coalition, had a specific purpose, according to organizer Lynne Lechter.
“It’s to get the message across that J Street does not speak for most Jewish people, that most Jewish people see it as just another group supporting Hamas, terrorism, the West Bank,” she said. “Under Clinton, Obama, Kerry, the rise of anti-Semitism, the proliferation of BDS, backed by J Street, is hurting our people, it’s hurting the people in Israel.”
Fellow protester Richard Tems, a Republican committeeman from the Philadelphia suburb of Doylestown, agreed.
“I loathe and despise J Street,” he said. “They’re anti-Israeli, which makes them anti-Semitic, and anybody who doesn’t understand that is delusional or is anti-Semitic.”
“Any Jew that supports the Iran deal is not speaking for Jews or Israel, so we want to get the message out about the Clinton, Kerry, Obama regime that has destroyed the Middle East,” said Lechter, a member of the Israel advocacy group of her Philadelphia-area synagogue, Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, and a self-described supporter of ZOA and RJC.
Tems, the son of Holocaust survivors, went even further.
“They don’t care about Israeli issues. They don’t care about the safety of Israel. They don’t care about the Jewish community,” he said. “What they care about is the Democrat Party. The Democrat Party doesn’t care about anything but power.”
He described going to a Christians United for Israel event at a megachurch where people were waving the Israeli flag and singing Hatikvah. “So I know who our friends are and I know who our enemies are.”
Regarding Lechter’s assertion that J Street does not speak for most Jews, Siegel said: “We believe that the only way to maintain a peaceful Jewish Democratic state is to create two states for two peoples, which is a long-held belief not just of the Democratic Party but of the American Congress as a whole and the overwhelming majority of the American Jewish community.”
Liz Spikol writes for the Jewish Exponent, an affiliated publication of The Jewish Chronicle.