The 3,500 Jews from across North America who descended on Washington last weekend for J Street’s annual policy conference arrived to tell a new president and Congress that the prospect of a two-state solution for the Israelis and Palestinians should not be abandoned.
“Political muscle” was the phrase used by J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami during a Q-and-A session with reporters Sunday in which he outlined the dovish pro-Israel organization’s agenda in responding to early Middle East policies set forth by President Donald Trump and his Cabinet.
“As of this moment, our opposition is not grounded in opposition to Trump. It is grounded in what they’re doing, what they’re saying, how they ran the campaign and the values they’re putting forward,” he said at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.
Ben-Ami said J Street’s three main priorities are to oppose any efforts to scrap the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between the United States and Iran, to oppose efforts by Congress to defund the Palestinian Authority or the United Nations, and to lend “support to coalitions” advocating for immigrants.
While Ben-Ami said that J Street will not be adopting a “catch-all liberal agenda” that extends to American domestic matters, he believes the group should combat Islamophobia, as religious persecution is familiar to Jews.
“What we can be is an added benefit because of the political machinery that we’ve built,” he said, referring to J Street’s political action committee, the group’s “muscle.”
J Street has vehemently opposed the confirmation of David Friedman, Trump’s nominee for ambassador to Israel due to his lack of foreign policy experience, support for the Israeli settlements and past opposition to the two-state solution.
Yet Ben-Ami said his organization was encouraged by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who have affirmed their support for a two-state solution. He said Mattis’ hawkish stance on Iran indicates they are “not 100 percent in sync.
“I think that there are still some voices and some statements coming out that we can support and agree with, but I think there’s going to be a fight within the administration. I think it’s inevitable that you do have those two schools of thought. … Somebody’s going to have to settle that,” he said.
Asked about Trump’s son-in-law and now Middle East policy adviser Jared Kushner, Ben-Ami offered no opinion but indicated he was open to having a conversation.
“[Jared] Kushner’s going to be a very important player, that’s clear,” he said. “We have not met with him; after the conference we will continue to try to meet.”
The trepidation that Trump’s rise to power has brought was reflected in sessions on Sunday.
At “Fighting for Israeli Democracy and Human Rights in the Age of Trump,” panelist Hagai El Ad, the executive director of the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, noted that Trump’s admiration for Israel is rooted in the country’s strong security, including the West Bank barrier.
“This is no laughing matter, and it’s no coincidence that the new American president has been celebrating Israel not because of cherry tomatoes, but because of the wall and because of profiling,” he said. “Some see these four years as an opportunity to get ahead with the occupation project that was not possible during the last 50 years.”
Another concern was Trump’s disdain for the news media. Panelist Boaz Rakocz, head of an organization that scrutinizes Israeli media for their reporting angles, said he hopes the American media do not become anything close to the Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom, which he said borders on the state-controlled media of Russia and Turkey.
“Politicians lie, and the media can either pick it up or refute it,” he said. “And it has become easier to lie.”
For attendees, the conference served not only as an anti-Trump pity party, but a chance to regain a sense of optimism about the Middle East despite the dark shadow the election has cast for many.
First-timers Ann and Richard Roth of Pittsburgh, found the conference inspiring and not “cult-like.
“I think that J Street and liberal Jews in the United States are looking for the same thing, and that is doing what’s right,” Ann Roth, 59, said. “And human rights are first and foremost. And isn’t that about Israel, too? Taking care of one another. And I hope that the messages become intertwined.”
Richard Roth, 62, said his top reason for attending the conference was the political situation in the United States.
“I think we both came here concerned about America and Trump and his crazy alt-right conservative agenda more than we came here worried about Israel,” he said. “We wanted to learn about how both work and the circles intersect, and so we’re going to have to figure that out.”
For 24-year old Washington resident Jonathan Edelman, who has attended all but one J Street conference, the event served as a personal motivator.
“We were just in a session on Israeli settlers where someone posed the question, how have 80,000 people in the settlement movement taken over the entire political system in Israel,” he said. “Shimon Dotan [a filmmaker] said it’s amazing what 80,000 people who are so dedicated and committed to their goal can do. I want to take, not the same goals, but the same kind of fervor and sacrifice to making peace and putting in good American policy toward the Middle East.”