The first national conference of the surging Jewish-American peace movement, at Washington's Grand Hyatt Hotel, has drawn over 1,500 participants, exceeding organizers' expectations.
Called "Driving Change, Securing Peace," the Oct. 25-28 inaugural conference of J Street is signaling a major shift in the political winds in Washington.
J Street, founded in early 2008, calls itself "the political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement." Its aim, it said at the time, was to change U.S. policy to one of pro-actively working to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace with a two-state solution, and to mobilize and build support for that among Jewish Americans.
Now, its official debut on the national scene is featuring a high-profile array of U.S. and Israeli policymakers and peace advocates, and a keynote address by White House National Security Adviser Gen. Jim Jones.
Indicating the changing mood on Capitol Hill, more than 150 members of Congress, including a number of Jewish lawmakers, are hosting a celebratory evening dinner, keynoted by former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.
"Welcome to a new era when it comes to advocacy on Israel and the Middle East," J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami told the crowd in his opening remarks.
In the weeks leading up to the conference, as its momentum and media attention grew both here and in Israel, it was hit by a flurry of attacks from right-wing groups accusing it of being anti-Israel.
It did not appear to dampen support for the event, as the participation indicates.
A group of Israeli notables including 11 Knesset members and several generals placed a full-page congratulatory ad in the Washington Post, the Israeli daily Haaretz, and local Jewish newspapers around the U.S. The ad welcomed J Street's efforts to "help Israel achieve sustainable peace with its neighbors" and called the organization "an important new voice in the pro-Israel community."
Earlier Israeli Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister, sent a letter of congratulations to J Street on the conference. The "discussion within the pro-Israel community of what best advances Israel's cause should be inclusive and broad enough to encompass a variety of views," Livni wrote.
The question of "What it means to be "pro-Israel" was taken up in one of today's conference sessions, in a debate between Matt Yglesias of the Center for American Progress and Jonathan Chait from The New Republic, moderated by J.J. Goldberg of The Forward.
Other sessions include rabbis discussing "What's Jewish About J Street?" and "Dancing on the Head of a Pin: The Role of Rabbis in the Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace Movement."
A panel on "Culture as a Tool for Change" featured short films presented by The Other Israel Film Festival.
J Street, named as a takeoff on Washington's K Street which is known for its lobbyist offices, makes a point of its support for Israel and argues that a peaceful two-state solution is in Israeli as well as U.S. interests.
It says, "J Street represents Americans, primarily but not exclusively Jewish, who support Israel and its desire for security as the Jewish homeland, as well as the right of the Palestinians to a sovereign state of their own - two states living side-by-side in peace and security. We believe ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in the best interests of Israel, the United States, the Palestinians, and the region as a whole."
The organization, formed in 2008, says, "We seek to change the direction of American policy in the Middle East and to broaden the public and policy debate in the U.S. about the Middle East. We support strong American leadership to end the Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli conflicts peacefully and diplomatically."
With the arrival of the Obama administration, it appears that the time for such a shift, and for the burgeoning "pro-Israel, pro-peace" movement, has arrived.
J Street and the grassroots peace advocacy group Brit Tzedek v'Shalom (Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace) have announced they are merging and will launch a nationwide grassroots organizing campaign among American Jews to back strong U.S. peace efforts.