Twenty-four Pittsburghers were in Washington, D.C., last week to attend the largest J Street conference held in the organization’s five-year history.
J Street — the lobbying organization that bills itself as “pro-Israel, pro-peace” as it advocates for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — drew 2,800 people to its conference, which ran from Sept. 28 to Oct. 1 at the Washington Convention Center.
Nancy Bernstein, who has been co-chair of J Street Pittsburgh since its launch in 2010, was appointed to the organization’s national board and opened the conference.
“With my co-chair Malke Frank, the Pittsburgh chapter has achieved success in being able to hold programs in different Jewish venues such as synagogues and at the JCC because we have developed good relationships with the Jewish community,” she told the Chronicle. “And we were able to show Rep. Mike Doyle, who is now a J Street endorsee, that there is a significant Jewish constituency in his district that supports the mission of J Street.”
The conference — the fourth for the organization founded by Jeremy Ben-Ami — drew a range of high profile speakers, including Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Israel Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and several Israeli MKs from across the political spectrum.
More than 900 of the attendees were students, as J Street’s university arm — J Street U — is growing, with chapters at about 50 campuses nationwide.
J Street leaders met with Hillel officials to encourage them to reach out to students who are critical of Israel, Bernstein said.
“The number of young people there was remarkable,” she said.
“I think this shows how important it is to promote Israel engagement for students who might not otherwise feel they have a place at the table, where they are not allowed to be critical of Israel.”
There is no J Street U chapter in Pittsburgh. David Katz, assistant director of Hillel-JUC, attended the conference, but was not available for comment for this story.
“We really want to recruit some students,” Bernstein said. “It’s exciting to be part of this vibrant, national movement promoting an end to the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors at a time when negotiations are finally under way. This is the moment J Street was founded to achieve, where there are real negotiations on a final status agreement.”
Rabbi James Gibson of Temple Sinai attended part of the conference and had a chance to speak with some of the students in attendance. He was impressed by their commitment to a two-state solution.
“They were idealistic, and they truly believe in the power of a two-state solution,” he said.
While there were many young people there, as well as senior citizens, Gibson noticed fewer people there in the middle age range, he said.
J Street rolled out its new “2 Campaign” at the conference, the goal of which is “to demonstrate to [President] Obama that the majority of American Jews stand behind Obama’s efforts to hold the parties to hard choices that will have to be made for a two-state solution,” Bernstein said.
Those “choices” will center on dividing Jerusalem, borders, refugees and security, she said.
Bernstein cited J Street-commissioned polls that show that “the majority of Jews support an end to the occupation, and end to settlement building in the West Bank and a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem.”
Gibson, a member of J Street, attended a session about the future of Jerusalem in which the urgency of dividing the city was discussed.
“Daniel Seidemann, the founder and director of ‘Terrestrial Jerusalem,’ discussed how that window is closing because of the hardening of the Israeli side,” Gibson said, “and that [Secretary of State John] Kerry is keeping it on life support.”
Noam Sheizaf, editor of +972 Magazine, spoke during that session about the relatively weak attachments that young Israelis in Tel Aviv feel to Jerusalem, according to Gibson.
“He spoke about how uninteresting Jerusalem is for many young Israelis,” the rabbi said. “Jerusalem is important to me personally, and extremely important to our people worldwide. But young people are not as tuned [to Jerusalem].”
Gibson is a “lifelong supporter of Israel,” he said, and has led eight trips there for Temple Sinai in the last 20 years. This was his first J Street conference.
“There is a genuine concern that the talks with Kerry might fail,” he said, “and a genuine desire to move toward the goal of a two-state solution.”
Livni delivered the keynote address at the opening of the conference on Saturday night. While she received “a rousing welcome and warm support from the crowd for her comments defending the two-state solution,” according to the Forward, “the reception was more ambivalent” when Livni spoke about the importance of defending the IDF.
“Delegitimization of Israel focuses on our soldiers,” the Forward reported Livni as saying. “Believe me, what they are doing is defending the State of Israel and trying to avoid civilian casualties.”
Bernstein said she was “curious” why Livni made those remarks.
“She may have some feeling that J Street is not supportive of the IDF,” Bernstein said, “but that is not what J Street is about. I am curious about why she had to defend the IDF. It is not J Street’s mission to say bad things about the IDF.”
Yet J Street has been accused of doing just that, by pundits including MK Ayelet Shaked, who, on Facebook, recently cited cases in which J Street called the IDF’s Cast Lead January 2009 offensive against Hamas “a crime” and also called the IDF commandos landing on the Mavi Marmara Gaza protest ship in 2010 “cruel brutality.”
The topic of the violence in Syria was not part of the J Street conference program, and Iran, and its perceived nuclear threat, was the topic of only a single session.
For at least one new attendee of the conference, Aaron Magid, a 24-year-old master’s degree candidate at Harvard University in Middle Eastern Studies, J Street is not the pro-Israel advocacy group that he hoped it would be.
“J Street is so polarizing,” said Magid, speaking to the Chronicle from Boston.
“I thought this might be the place where I could politically find a home, but they have no understanding of Israeli security concerns, and no understanding that even though Israel has taken acts like withdrawing from Gaza, rockets are still fired,” said Magid, who describes his politics as “center left.”
Magid wrote an op-ed about his experiences at the conference, published by the Jerusalem Post on Oct. 6.
“It was very uncomfortable for me,” Magid said of the conference.
“I think one of the key points [about the conference] is that when one speaker was advocating for the right of return —which would yield more Palestinians than Jews in Israel so it won’t be a Jewish state anymore — there was loud applause. But when Biden spoke about Israeli security concerns, the applause was much more minimal.”
While there was not a single session at the conference focused on issues of Palestinian terrorism or Israeli security concerns, Magid said, there was a session on “racism, exclusion and unilateralism in Israel.”
Magid noted the large number of students in attendance.
“There were many, many young students there who are frustrated with Israel, who view this organization as a way to express their discomfort with the Israeli occupation,” he said. “But I hope they would be equally passionate about maintaining Israeli security.”
“I will not be joining J Street,” he said.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)