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The sound of J Street clapping

Lacking substantive criticism, opponents resorted to mudslinging about the applause decibels at last week's conference

Some of us will remember a device called the “clapometer” used back in the 1950s and 1960s on American TV shows like “Queen for a Day” and British programs such as “Opportunity Knocks.”

The machine, which purported to measure the volume or intensity of applause that game show contestants received, had long ago joined the buggy whip and the quill pen in the annals of outmoded technologies – until last week’s J Street conference in Washington DC.

Suddenly, the clapometer, or the virtual clapometer, was back. Right-wing critics of J Street, and some reporters, unable to attack the impressive gathering of pro-peace, pro-Israel activists on any objective grounds, were reduced to measuring the applause the audience gave to various statements from the podium. From this, they extrapolated totally spurious conclusions about where the organization stands and what it believes.

Thus we learned from Times of Israel that Labor Leader Shelly Yachimovich was applauded more for her support for freedom to worship and civil marriage than for her call for a strong army and secure borders. Under the logic of “clapometer analysis,” the implication was that J Street supports gay marriage in Israel more than secure borders – which is patently absurd.

Regardless of the private opinions of its leadership, staff and members, J Street has never taken any position on gay marriage in Israel or anywhere else. It is not our mission or our issue. But secure borders for Israel is a core principle of the organization, reiterated in almost every statement it issues and firmly embedded in the heart of the new “2 Campaign” which was unveiled at the conference.

Critics fixated most on the applause that followed a statement by Fatah official Husam Zomlot who asked Israelis to acknowledge the “Nakba” and the Palestinian “right of return.”

To deduce from this that J Street supports the Palestinian “right of return” is ludicrous. In fact, the petition we are mobilizing support for explicitly states that the Palestinian refugee issue should be resolved “through resettlement in the future Palestine or third countries, compensation and a symbolic level of family reunification in Israel itself.”

The conference brought together over 100 speakers, representing a vast array of opinions, perspectives and life experiences. It was truly a feast for the intellect, a mind-expanding event. The aim was to expose participants to a full spectrum of viewpoints on critical issues to Israel, the wider Middle East and our own community through spirited, respectful and civilized dialogue.

Eight Knesset members from six different parties, including three party leaders representing both the coalition and opposition, generously shared their expertise and opinions. The audience listened with an open mind to all the speakers and applauded generously.

This is in contrast to some other conferences organized by American Jewish organizations in recent years where figures like President Barack Obama, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Michigan Sen. Carol Levin have been booed.

As Peter Beinart has persuasively argued, most recently in the New York Review of Books, American Jews need to be exposed to Palestinian narratives. Other organizations do not even try to do this – but J Street does. The applause given to Zomlot was in large part an acknowledgment that the Palestinians have a story to tell and we have an obligation to listen, if not to agree.

Beinart concluded his article by stating:

By seeing Palestinians—truly seeing them—we glimpse a faded, yellowing photograph of ourselves. We are reminded of the days when we were a stateless people, living at the mercy of others. And by recognizing the way statelessness threatens Palestinian dignity, we ensure that statehood doesn’t rob us of our own.

When J Street was founded five years ago, many on the right of the Israeli political spectrum and their allies in the American Jewish community felt threatened by the emergence of an organization that articulated a clear pro-peace, pro-Israel perspective.

They tried to demonize J Street. When that didn’t work, they tried to make it politically toxic so that US politicians would fear associating with the organization. That also failed. Then they tried to ignore J Street – but J Street didn’t go away.

Now, opponents of the two-state solution in Israel and the United States have to reckon with a new reality – a well-organized, vibrant, energetic organization backed by tens of thousands of activists committed to supporting the peace negotiations that speaks for the vast majority of American Jews.

In an interesting historical note, it’s worth remembering that the “clapometer” of the 1950s and 1960s never really worked. It did not actually measure anything. It was manually operated and reflected nothing more or less than the personal preferences of the operator.

Similarly, the clapometer critics of J Street. They can pontificate about the organization to their hearts content. They can measure applause lines and draw conclusions. They can tell us what makes them feel comfortable and what makes them feel uncomfortable. Meantime, we’ll be moving ahead to build Secretary of State John Kerry’s “great constituency for peace.”

About the Author
Alan Elsner, a former Reuters journalist and author, is Vice President for Communications at J Street, a pro-Israel, pro-peace advocacy group. He is the author of four books including two novels. Elsner is a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen who lives in Rockville Maryland. His posts at Reuters included Jerusalem correspondent, Chief Nordic Correspondent, State Dept. correspondent, chief U.S. political correspondent and U.S. national correspondent.