At J Street, the Values Are Clear, but the Voices are Many

Note: From Saturday, February 26th to Monday March 1st, J Street hosted a conference of over 2,300 people across Washington, DC about Israel-Palestine and the Middle East. J Street is a "pro-Israel, pro-peace movement" based in Washington, D.C. Contributing Writer Mark Donig attended the conference and wrote the following article based on his experience.

J Street’s motto for this year’s conference was “Giving Voice to Our Values.” A more accurate motto would have put both nouns in the plural (i.e. "Giving Voices to Our Values"), which speaks to precisely the issue with which J Street continues to grapple as it attempts to broaden its base. 

Ambassador Dennis Ross, who has served as a Middle East advisor to various presidents over the past several decades, served as keynote speaker for the conference's final day. During his speech, only about half the crowd cheered for Ross, a proudly pro-Israel Middle East expert who has taken part in events with the more mainstream pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC (judging by their Congressional support levels). A much greater portion of the crowd cheered in support of New York Times Op-Ed columnist Roger Cohen as he criticized Israel for its so-called “siege mentality," a kind of damned if you do, damned if you don’t foreign policy outlook that Cohen and others attribute to Israel’s supposed risk-averse, security-first conservatism. Yet, some in the audience sat silently during Cohen’s comments (likely the same people who cheered for Ross).

There are divisions in J Street, and they are not inconsequential. While J Street purports to support only back-channel negotiations with Hamas, a panelist at one of the breakout sessions spoke to great applause when he advocated open negotiations with Gaza’s leaders. While J Street hosted Dennis Ross as its keynote speaker, the audience gave perhaps the loudest cheer of the entire day to Al Jazeera English senior political analyst Marwan Bishara, when he animatedly stated: “It is disappointing that (J Street) would host Dennis Ross after 20 years of failure in the peace process.” J Street's members are clearly divided from the organization's leadership.

J Street understands that there is both political space and popular demand for its existence, but also realizes that it needs to entrench itself in the Washington, D.C. mainstream in order to be impactful and knows that it has competition. As J Street begins to gain more members, it will be interesting to see if it can keep track of its many voices.

Photo Credit: Jake Horowitz