By Mark Zivin
I found Ami Kaufman’s recent piece about the J Street Conference to provide some very valuable insight into how the conference was perceived outside of the United States. Part of the problem was not only the lack of media attention (and I would agree that this is a legitimate concern), but there also was a lack of depth and context to the coverage.
Part of the problem is that this conference represents more of an evolution in the development of J Street as a movement, rather than a revolution. And as we all know, the cutbacks in personnel and budgets in the traditional media make it much harder, at any point in time, for them to justify covering evolutionary progress. And particularly at this moment in time, there just might be a few other revolutionary things going on in the world that would capture their attention before a conference in D.C. So, let me provide some of that context.
Regarding the event itself, Ami failed to look at the numbers. Attendance was up over 50% from 1,500 at the first conference to about 2,400 this year. For comparison sake, the AIPAC policy conference last year had 7,500, including a large contingent of about 750 from Chicago, because a very popular Lee Rosenberg from their hometown was being installed as President. Attracting almost one-third as many people as AIPAC after being in existence for only three years seems quite impressive. Even more interesting, the AIPAC numbers included 750 students; J Street had 500 students. So, J Street was able to do even better with young people. That is significant.
But it is in the area of the “political aspect” where not having the benefit of a broader American political perspective resulted in Ami drawing some very wrong conclusions about the political effectiveness of J Street. There are much better measures of JStreetPAC’s effectiveness than looking at the “caliber of speakers”. Again, let’s look at the numbers. In the 2010 election cycle, JStreetPAC raised more money, over $1.5M, than any other pro-Israel PAC (AIPAC is legally not a PAC and so does not directly raise money for candidates) and 46 of 61 endorsed candidates won (granted many of these were incumbents in Democratic districts).
But, the big story of 2010 that Ami ignored was the huge Republican wave that swept Congress, including more than a few J Street incumbents – which would help explain why there were fewer Representatives at the conference. Here in Illinois, we actually lost two out of four J Street endorsees who J Street had developed strong relationships with. That scenario played out all across the country.
As for the Republicans, J Street reaches out to them on the Hill, and for the most part they will politely meet with J Street’s staff. However, it is nearly impossible to get them to accept an endorsement. There was a very brave Republican Congressman from Louisiana, Rep. Charles Boustany, who was with J Street from the beginning. He is a medical doctor of Lebanese Christian descent. He accepted J Street’s endorsement for both 2008 and 2010. Unfortunately, when the whole flap about funding from George Soros emerged, he was forced to drop the endorsement.
And speaking of brave, although “minor league” is one way to characterize the Congresspeople that came to the conference, I know several of them pretty well. I think that more accurate adjectives would be “tough”, “fair-minded”, and “sincere”, in addition to “brave”. And, although Ami quoted part of a paragraph from Nathan Guttman in the Forward, he missed the point on two counts. First, he failed to connect the very real political risk that there can be fallout from showing up at the conference with the fact that some people decided not to attend. So we have to really appreciate those that ignored that risk. Secondly, Ami left out the last sentence of Guttman’s paragraph:
“But Rep. Lois Capps, another California Democrat who is endorsed by J StreetPAC, said that there is a “noticeable change” in Congress and more openness to listening to other views on Israel.”
I have personally heard from many Congressmen and women how thankful they are that J Street exists. It has allowed many of them to be bolder and more outspoken in their positions than they could ever have been if it was not for J Street.
And speaking of political, the day after the conference was “Lobby Day”, where hundreds of conference participants went up on Capitol Hill to meet with Senators and Representatives to promote J Street’s positions and make some type of “ask” in favor of these views. This year’s “ask” was very interesting. Each Congressperson was asked to sign on to a letter that is sponsored by Jan Schakowsky (my Representative) and Anna Eshoo of California. The letter is in support of maintaining the level of foreign aid both to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The letter is very even handed and this was evidenced by its being the lead article in the Chicago Federation’s (JUF) e-newsletter last week. Significantly, J Street was the first group to lobby for this letter on the Hill. My hope is that we will be seeing more J Street actions which will be acceptable to a broader range of members of the Jewish community.
And speaking of Republican, one should be aware of what happened in my home district, Illinois’ Ninth. The above mentioned incumbent, Jan Schakowsky, who is Jewish, has been a strong supporter of Israel during her entire 12 years in Congress, and she was also one of the first in Congress to accept J Street’s endorsement. And although the mantra of traditional center-right Jewish groups, including AIPAC, has been that support for Israel should not be a political issue, her young opponent disparaged mercilessly both Jan’s support for Israel and her acceptance of J Street’s endorsement. There is a large enclave of Orthodox Jews in her district and many of them supported her opponent. Despite this, Jan won handily by margins similar to prior years.
The point being that this served as a test to find out both whether J Street could muster effective political support (which it did by turning out scores of people at key debates and rallies), and whether or not J Street support could actually harm a candidate in a district with a large Jewish population. J Street fared very well on both counts. And, realizing exactly how much a litmus test this district could be, J Street actually conducted very specific polling to be able to do more than judge the results anecdotaly. These poll results indicated that despite her opponent spending over $500,000 and despite the overall Republican trend in the nation, Jan’s popularity was unscathed by her association with J Street.
So all in all, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of J Street’s political demise have been greatly exaggerated. That isn’t to say that J Street has not made political mistakes or that the path forward is going to be easy, but it is to say that J Street has made, and continues to make, a significant difference in the tone of American political conversation about Israel, Palestine and Middle East Peace. And trust me, J Street’s leadership and staff didn’t spend too much time patting themselves on the back in self-congratulatory revelry. Despite tired minds and bodies, they spent the two days following the conference de-briefing, planning and preparing for what lies ahead. Knowing many of them, they certainly wouldn’t disagree with Ami that 2011 is a make or break year. But, rest assured, pep rallies aren’t in the plans. How to get to peace is what their sights are set on.
Mark Zivin is a member of J Street’s Political Finance Committee and a leader of J Street Chicago, its local branch. He was Treasurer of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, and has been a supporter of major American Jewish organizations for decades. He blogs about politics in general and Middle East Peace in particular at www.beyondzs.com and Tweets at www.twitter.com/Beyondzs.