This weekend will see an unusual and significant event in Washington DC when the five-year-old J Street peace organization holds its largest-yet annual conference.
J Street, which advocates for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has attracted an unprecedented lineup of speakers this year headed by Vice President Joe Biden.
Israel’s Justice Minister and chief peace negotiator Tzipi Livni headlines the first night of the conference, at which delegates will also hear from civil rights icon John Lewis, the latest member of Congress to accept the endorsement of the J Street PAC.
Israeli Knesset members from six parties, including former Likud minister Tzachi Hanegbi and a representative of the ultra-orthodox Shas party will address the conference. Opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich is just one of a dynamic list of emerging Israeli leaders, many of them women, while Palestinian civil society is also represented. Delegates will also hear from US special peace envoy Martin Indyk and many of the 70 members of Congress endorsed by J Street will make appearances.
Signaling J Street’s growing acceptance and clout, Israel’s outgoing ambassador to Washington Michael Oren has sent a friendly video message to the conference.
This is the first time a J Street conference has convened while Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are actually underway. This will undoubtedly inject extra energy into the gathering whose members are anxious to hear how the organization intends to respond to Secretary of State John Kerry’s challenge to American Jews last June to be part of a “great constituency for peace.” They will not be disappointed.
President Obama hammered home that point in his speech this week to the United NationsGeneral Assembly in which he said: “Friends of Israel, including the United States, must recognize that Israel’s security as a Jewish and democratic state depend on the realization of a Palestinian state. And we should say so clearly.”
J Street has a special role in educating American Jews about what a two-state solution really entails and mobilizing vocal and visceral support for the idea. That’s the reason J Street was established and its supporters know that this is their moment.
The conference will leave no-one in any doubt that J Street is one of the most dynamic advocacy organizations in the country and it continues its steady growth. Attendance will comfortably break the previous record of around 2,500. This time there will be around 900 students, compared to 650 at last year’s conference. There are over 100 speakers addressing more than 30 sessions. More than 800 participants have signed up to lobby their congressional representatives on Tuesday and over 200 such meetings are already set.
J Street has had its share of controversy since it was founded and has weathered many attacks. In its early days, the Israeli government tried to shun the organization or pretend that it did not exist.
That pretense has now completely collapsed and this conference will demonstrate that J Street is not only alive and well but that it is growing in strength and influence, in dynamism and in enthusiasm and that its members are ready to step forward and lift their voices in a resounding call for peace.