Rep. Betty McCollum raps Israeli ambassador for being no-show at J Street’s first national conference


J Street, the new kid on the American pro-Israel advocacy block, recently held its first national conference. The lobbying group, which characterizes itself as “pro-Israel and pro-peace,” has attained a heightened profile in the highly over-organized Jewish community, and attracted a measure of controversy, in just 18 months of existence.

Members of Congress, along with members of the Israeli Knesset, Jewish Mideast peace activists, and Obama administration officials – including U.S. National Security Advisor James L. Jones, who was a featured speaker – attended the Oct. 25-28 gathering in Washington, D.C.

Among the attendees from Minnesota, was Rep. Betty McCollum, 4th District DFL congresswoman. She also sent a letter to Michael B. Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, criticizing his decision not to attend the J Street parley.

In her Oct. 29 letter to Oren, McCollum referred to the Israeli embassy’s statement that certain J Street polices “may impair the interests of Israel.” She termed the statement “an interesting rationale for rejecting an invitation for discussion. Your government’s reluctance to engage in meaningful dialogue with progressive American Jews and non-Jewish supporters of Israel sends the wrong message to many Americans and to this Member of Congress.”

Rep. Betty McCollum: I support President Obama... and a two-state solution that will allow Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace and security.Rep. Betty McCollum: I support President Obama… and a two-state solution that will allow Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace and security.

Regarding the J Street conference, McCollum stated that she “was impressed and inspired at the passionate support attendees demonstrated for both Israel and the role the U.S. must play in working for security and peace for the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.”

In her letter to Oren, McCollum wrote: “If absolute agreement between American interests and Israeli interests is the requirement for dialogue then our bilateral relationship would have been silent for decades. For example, every American president since Lyndon Johnson has regarded Israel’s policy on settlements as counter to U.S. interests, yet we continue to talk and the U.S.-Israeli relationship remains strong. In other words, friends can disagree.”

McCollum added that, “as an American, a Christian, and a Member of Congress, I support J Street and the policies the organization and its supporters are working to advance. I support President Obama and the work of Senator [George] Mitchell [the president’s peace envoy] to bring an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I support a two-state solution that will allow Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace and security.”

The congresswoman also noted that as a member of the U.S. Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations she has supported “billions of dollars of foreign aid to Israel.”

State Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, attended the J Street conference for two days. “I think it’s a big mistake for the Israelis to ignore this,” he commented, in regard to Oren’s absence. Hornstein also said that representatives of more mainstream pro-Israel groups should take an active interest in J Street’s efforts.

“People at coming at this with a strong love for Israel,” said Hornstein, in reference to the rabbis and Jewish peace activists who populated the J Street conference. He said that he was impressed with the conference’s emphasis on promoting the negotiation of a two-state settlement – and quickly.

Hornstein said that some eminent Israelis – Ami Ayalon, a former head of Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency; and Haim Ramon, a former Knesset member and deputy prime minister from the Kadima Party – stressed the “urgency of working” toward a two-state solution.

“Time is really running out on the two-state solution,” said Hornstein, who added that there is more discussion of a unitary democratic state encompassing Israel and the Palestinian territories, which would mean the “end of Zionism.”

Hornstein also was heartened to see so many young people participating in the conference, and “Twittering and texting, and doing whatever they do.”

Neal Gosman, a St. Paul resident who was on the original board of directors of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, a Jewish Mideast peace advocacy group, also attended the J Street conference. J Street recently took over Brit Tzedek, which was a positive move, according to Gosman.

“Brit Tzedek had the grassroots and J Street had the fundraising ability,” Gosman said, and added that  J Street has begun to organize a network of college students.

Gosman said that he enjoyed some of the “meaty” break-out sessions, especially one that involved Israelis and Palestinians discussing peace prospects, and another with members of Congress who discussed the influence of campaign donations in swaying votes on Israel-related matters.

The Forward newspaper pointed out that becoming “a player on the national political scene… means consolidating [J Street’s] ability to raise funds for political candidates through its sister group, J Street PAC. In the 2008 election cycle, the PAC raised nearly $600,000, and now, with fundraising for the 2010 midterm elections already under way, J Street hopes to double that amount.”

The Forward’s Nathan Guttman wrote:

[J Street] has treaded carefully around the issue of “pro-Israel money” for political candidates, a term often used by harsh critics of the pro-Israel lobbying to attack what they see as a stranglehold of Jewish interests over America’s politicians.

But during the J Street conference, at a well-attended plenary session, it was U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, a California Democrat, who spelled out the issue in the clearest of terms. Refusing to toe the line of the pro-Israel lobby, Filner argued, means losing precious campaign donations.

“I started getting all those phone calls,” Filner said, describing his experience after refusing to support a 1994 resolution backed by pro-Israel activists. “On that vote I lost about $250,000. That kind of money is an intimidating factor.” He later told the Forward that the phone calls he received were from supporters of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

AIPAC is not a “PAC”; it does not raise money for political candidates or make endorsements. However, AIPAC is acknowledged as one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington. At the outset, some pundits sought to pit J Street against AIPAC, but the new group does not have anything near AIPAC’s influence in the halls of power. However, with the Obama administration calling the shots, J Street has a seat at the table, and Jewish communal officials will be closely assessing the group’s positions and moves.

And in the case of Israel, as Rep. McCollum counseled Ambassador Oren, it should “not ignore a large and growing American voice working to support the U.S.-Israeli relationship. That truly would impair the interests of Israel.” – Mordecai Specktor