J Street, Chuck Schumer and political pagentry, Washington style

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

J Street opponents – right now the loudest guys on the Jewish block – are making much of the news that Sen. Chuck Schumer, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, both Democrats,  and Rep. Mike  Castle, a Republican,  won’t, after all, be on the “host committee” for the group’s upcoming national conference in Washington (see the Jewish Week story on J Street here).


Well, nobody at J Street is rejoicing, especially not about Schumer; getting the powerful Senate veteran and Jewish icon on board for a conference hosted by a dovish group that’s under incessant attack as a danger to Israel was a big achievement, and losing him is a blow.


But hardly a mortal one; Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) says he’s coming, and I haven’t heard many accusations lately that Gary is soft on Israel.


Pressure from hawkishly pro-Israel constituents was undoubtedly a factor, although there’s no evidence any major group orchestrated it.


But as J Street officials note, there’s always some coming and going in advance of major conferences. Groups strive for the most impressive, prestigious list of sponsors, hosts and participants as a way to attract delegates and press attention. Inevitably,  there’s some overreaching and confusion, with some listed because a staffer said, ‘yeah, sure’ without consulting with the boss, others because  of second thoughts by the invitees.


In the case of Gillibrand, it appeared to be a J Street mistake; she was listed as a host committee member before she gave her assent.


A sign J Street’s conference is on the ropes?  Nope; it happens all the time.


Officials of the group currently say 160 members of Congress are on the host committee; if even a third of that number actually attend the conference, it’ll be a pretty impressive achievement for a left-of-center group still in its infancy.


I’m not saying the conference will be a rousing success. And it seems to me the decision to hold a major national conference in Washington invited unflattering comparisons with AIPAC, whose annual policy conferences are second to none as displays of raw political might.  It’s going to be hard for J Street to offset the negative spin that comparison will inevitably generate after the delegates go home and we reporters and commentators start writing our stories.


But reading too much into Schumer, Gillibrand and Castle would be a mistake.


Meanwhile, no word yet on whether Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, who never responded to a J Street invitation to attend, will do so now in the wake of a published appeal by J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami.


“Mr. Ambassador, what J Street shares in common with you far outweighs that on which we disagree,” he wrote. “J Street – on behalf of the many Jewish Americans who share our views – urges you to join us as we discuss, debate and – in the best tradition of the Jewish people –argue over how best to ensure the health, safety and vibrancy of the Jewish people and of Israel for generations to come.”


Oh, and one more J Street item, and then I’ll shut up.


A persistent theme in emails on the subject this week: J Street should butt out of Israel’s business. American Jews have no business telling Israel what to do.


I’ll accept that as an honest point of view – if the emailers can tell me with a straight face they didn’t protest Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, or the way it ended the second Lebanon War, or its signing the Oslo Accords, or its willingness to deal with Yasser Arafat.


Left and right alike play it fast and loose with the “let Israel make its own decisions” argument.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.