More than 1,500 people — including around half a dozen from Pittsburgh — attended the four-day conference of J Street, the self-described “pro-Israel,” “pro-Palestine,” “pro-peace” and “pro-democracy” lobbying group formed around 18 months ago.
And while J Street is currently a national organization, it promises to be more visible in Pittsburgh in the coming year as it takes over a grassroots Israel advocacy group with a local chapter.
Criticism of J Street preceded the conference. Several publications questioned J Street’s choice of presenters. Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren declined an invitation to attend (although Israel sent an observer). Some congressmen also pulled out of the conference.
The Pittsburghers in attendance, though, describe J Street as being moderate.
“The conference and J Street were center left, certainly not far left, not by any stretch,” said Jeffrey Cohan, director of community and public affairs for the United Jewish Federation.
Cohan attended the J Street conference as a representative of the UJF. Pittsburgh is one of the few federations, especially of its size, to send someone to the conference, which Cohan chalked up to both Pittsburgh’s ideological diversity and “strong Zionist ethos.”
“We’re the United Jewish Federation,” he said, “and there’s a significant proportion of the Jewish community in Pittsburgh supporting the mission of J Street.”
Cohan doesn’t see J Street as rivaling the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the much older, larger, wealthier and more established Israel lobbying group. He believes the two groups have “complementary” missions: AIPAC to strengthen the relationship between the United States and Israel; J Street to be a strong voice for peace in the Middle East.
“AIPAC has created the conditions in which peace is possible,” Cohan said. “If Israel didn’t have such strong backing from the U.S., there would be even less willingness to consider a peace process in the Arab world. … Personally, as an AIPAC supporter, I’m not threatened by J Street.”
J Street used the conference to offer several concrete positions.
It believes peace in the Middle East is most likely with a Jewish state and a Palestinian state side by side with a shared capital in Jerusalem. It wants the permanent borders of Israel and a future Palestine to be along the 1967 boundaries, with “inch for inch” land swaps made to recognize existing population clusters in those contested regions.
It believes the Goldstone Report on Gaza is flawed in its conception, but that Israel should still investigate the allegations made by the report. It prefers diplomacy with Iran, but would support sanctioning Iran if the current round of diplomacy fails to yield results.
Several themes dominated the conference:
• J Street wants to broaden the definition of “pro-Israel” to include people who love the land and the country of Israel, but disagree with the policies of the current government.
• J Street argues that it represents the opinions of a “silent majority” within the American Jewish community that has remained quiet for years out of a fear of being attacked.
• J Street believes it can create a forum for younger Jews to engage with Israel.
“There definitely hasn’t been a forum,” said Adam Hovne, 25, a recent University of Pittsburgh graduate who attended the conference out of love and concern for Israel.
Hovne, who frequently visits Israel and whose mother is Israeli by birth, said he has found it difficult to express nuanced views about Israel because those views did not have a strong advocate on the national stage. When he told a friend he was attending a “pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-Palestine” conference, the friend asked, “So what is it against?”
“I guess it’s anti-war, anti-bigotry,” Hovne said. “I don’t understand why people who are for something necessarily have to be against something else.”
Age served an important role in the conference, as participants and attendees placed themselves into the context of modern Jewish history and Israeli history: those born after the Six-Day War in 1967, or those born after the First Lebanon War in 1982.
“It’s almost like another coming of age for the American Jewish community,” said Rabbi Art Donsky of Temple Ohav Shalom in Allison Park, who was 11 years old in 1967.
Donsky is chair of the local chapter of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, an advocacy campaign to mobilize support for a “two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
J Street recently announced plans to absorb the roughly 40 Brit Tzedek v’Shalom chapters, meaning J Street will be increasingly active in local communities.
The move gives J Street access to Brit Tzedek v’Shalom’s mailing list of 50,000 people.
The partnership is still new and largely undefined, but because J Street is not only a lobbying group, but also a political action committee that raises funds for politicians it supports, the partnership could increase activism in local congressional elections. It could also increase J Street’s presence on campuses through its student group J Street U, which doesn’t exist in Pittsburgh, yet.
Donsky believes the additional J Street presence in Pittsburgh will add to the discussions here. He and others cited the UJF’s Jewish Unity Project as proof that Pittsburghers of different political persuasions can debate issues and still remain united as a community.
Dr. Naftali Kaminski, an Israeli-American physician who came to Pittsburgh in 2002, said Jews must overcome political differences and find common ground, which is why he came to the J Street conference.
“I think we have to move away from the thought that disagreement divides us,” Kaminski said.
(Eric Lidji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 412-687-1006.)