Mideast lobby group stirs it up in Washington

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

MARCO WERMAN: President Obama came into office saying he wanted to give the floundering Middle East peace process a jolt. He's not made much progress on that front, but that's not discouraging to a relatively new lobbying group called J Street. It describes itself as pro-Israel, pro-peace, and it's holding its first big conference next week. And as The World's Matthew Bell reports, J Street's coming out party has already caused quite a stir.

MATTHEW BELL: The three-day J Street conference is titled "Driving Change, Securing Peace." I asked executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami to give me the short version of what that means.

JEREMY BEN-AMI: To make it really clear to Washington DC and the American Jewish community that there is a significant body of support among Jewish Americans for a serious American effort to end the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

BELL: J Street's only been around for about a year and a half, but it's generated a lot of buzz. MJ Rosenberg writes for Media Matters. He's a veteran liberal activist on Middle East issues and an avid supporter of J Street. Rosenberg says this organization's moment has come, in no small part, because it has an ally in President Obama.

MJ ROSENBERG: We feel he's on our side. We know he's on our side. We know that he supports our agenda and we will have his back.

BELL: President Obama's National Security Advisor James Jones will be keynote speaker at next week's conference. In some ways, J Street models itself as an alternative to the powerful, pro-Israel Washington-based group, AIPAC. MJ Rosenberg says groups like AIPAC have become too hawkish for many American Jews. He says liberals are troubled by things like Israel's occupation of the West Bank, the blockade of Gaza and the expansion of Jewish settlements.

ROSENBERG: So, what J Street offers, that it's both an alternative to AIPAC, and in a way, you can say something that's bigger than AIPAC, in that it's saying to people, you know, you can hate the occupation and still love Israel, and there's still a place for you.

BELL: Fans of J Street say what Israel needs from its Jewish friends in America is tough love. In Israel though, that approach comes off to some as naive. Isi Liebler lives in Jerusalem and writes a weekly column for the conservative Jerusalem Post.

ISI LIEBLER: It's also, what I would call, it's a Jewish word which you're aware of in America, a chutzpah of Jews living in America, and having the gall to say to us in Israel, "We know better than you what's good for you. We have to treat you the way parents who have drug addicts treat their children."

BELL: Even less charitable is some of the criticism of J Street that's been unleashed by the right-wing blogosphere. Leading up to its conference, J Street has been called anti-Israel, soft on terrorism and an outright fraud. There have been calls for members of Congress to stay away from the group's conference. Around a dozen lawmakers had their names removed from the list of honorary hosts, but about 150 others are still on that list. Perhaps most stinging was criticism from the Israeli embassy in Washington that some of J Street's policy positions are bad for Israel, and the Israeli ambassador has turned down an invitation to speak. Professor Yossi Shain, an Israeli expert on Jewish diaspora affairs, says the recent controversy, along with the hype surrounding J Street itself, is probably more light than heat.

YOSSI SHAIN: They want to say, "Here we are. We come. We are the new generation. We are liberal Americans who are going to change the discourse." Now this is nothing new on the horizon. I assume however, and that's my assumption, that these people are indeed concerned for the Jewish survival one way or another. I disagree with the notion that they want Israel's destruction. They may be, one can argue, misplaced in their ideas or not. But I don't think they are misplaced in their conviction that Israel should exist in safety and secure boundaries, like most Americans are and of course every administration.

BELL: J Street's executive director says the group is trying to do no less than change the dynamics of American politics on Middle East issues. And when it comes to Israel's security, Jeremy Ben-Ami says he's not naive.

BEN-AMI: You know, I lived in Israel for three years. I came within about a minute of being blown up myself in a terror attack at a market in Jerusalem. And so, you know, I understand the feeling, and I think that there is a side of this in which Americans need to recognize that this is America talking. And that's I think what gives us the legitimacy. There is a serious American interest in the end of this conflict.

BELL: Ben-Ami says he's not surprised the Israeli embassy has criticized J Street, but he thinks it's a mistake for Israel's ambassador to skip next week's conference, and miss an opportunity to engage with people who share the views of a large segment of the American Jewish community. For The World, I'm Matthew Bell.

WERMAN: You can hear more of Matthew's interview with Jeremy Ben-Ami The World dot org.