“At the dawn of the Trump era, we find ourselves staring down darkness right here in the United States,” said J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami during his opening remarks Saturday night. “We have a clear message: the most hawkish voices may be loud, but they don’t speak for us, and they don’t speak for the majority of Americans.”
In a Q-and-A session with reporters on Sunday, Ben-Ami described his organization’s “political muscle,” saying that 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 any 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 adopt 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.”
In all, 3,500 people attended the conference, J Street’s sixth and its largest to date, according to the organization.
On Monday, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) alluded to a political climate that may be difficult for J Street.
“I know that this seems like a more difficult endeavor today than it has in the past,” Murphy said, referring to J Street’s advocacy for the two-state solution. “And it is. Your work is going to be more difficult, but you’re here because you know this. It’s also going to be more important than it has been before.”
J Street has vehemently opposed the confirmation of David Friedman, Trump’s nominee for ambassador to Israel, citing his lack of foreign policy experience, support for 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 Mattis and J Street 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.”
At various points in the conference, participants alluded to the difficulty of opposing the Trump administration. At Sunday’s “Fighting for Israeli Democracy and Human Rights in the Age of Trump” session, panel member 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.”
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.”
Daniel Sokatch, the CEO of the liberal civil rights group the New Israel Fund, drew a connection between the Trump administration’s rise to power and mainstream American Jewish institutions.
“When you have 76 percent of the Jewish community voting emphatically not for Donald Trump, when you have a set of domestic policies that challenge and threaten deeply held values of the American Jewish community, we have a deep problem,” he said. “And that problem is exacerbated by the fact that the unelected leadership of the American Jewish community has built an American Jewish identity predicated on a certain kind of relationship to Israel.”
Sokatch then argued that while he opposes the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, the mainstream Jewish community’s emphasis on opposing people like Palestinian activist Linda Sarsour, who raised more than $100,000 to repair a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis that was vandalized, is misguided. He then pointed to another example of Jews and Muslims coming together to raise money to repair a mosque in Florida that was attacked by arsonists.
“If there’s hope for the future, that’s the hope for the future,” he said to applause.
George Altshuler and Dan Schere write for the Washington Jewish Week, an affiliated publication of The Jewish Chronicle.