WASHINGTON — With the eyes of the world riveted on the Middle East, more than 2000 community activists, religious and lay leaders, experts in the field, and students are converging in Washington this week for a record-breaking conference, charting the next steps forward for the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement.
J Street’s second national conference reflects the dramatic growth of the organization in its first three years. The conference will be nearly 50 percent bigger than the first, making it the largest gathering of the progressive pro-Israel movement ever and the third largest gathering of Jewish Americans this year. Thirty organizations are participating in the conference (up from twenty in 2009), with over 500 students (up from 200 last time) and over 50 members of Congress attending.
The three-day conference kicks off Saturday evening, February 26th, at the Washington Convention Center. It will include keynote addresses by the Obama Administration’s top Middle East adviser Ambassador Dennis Ross, executive director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center Rabbi David Saperstein, and former deputy speaker of the Knesset Naomi Chazan, an icon of progressive politics in Israel. A full conference schedule is available here. Most conference sessions are open to press, but media must preregister.
“We last came together a year and a half ago, buoyed by the then-new Administration’s commitment to make vigorous American leadership to achieve a two-state resolution to the conflict a cornerstone of its foreign policy,” said J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami of the organization’s first conference in 2009, which drew more than 1500 attendees. “We return this week as an active, organized constituency dedicated to Israel’s future as a democracy and a Jewish homeland, to say this is the moment to press forward toward resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
“The United States faces a critical choice in the coming months – will it pursue the failed peace processing of the past and keep talking about talks that never materialize, or will it put a bold vision for two states on the table and stand squarely behind it?” said Ben-Ami. “Our movement—bigger, stronger and emboldened by a sense of real urgency—is coming together to advocate for substantive and sustained American action, before the window of opportunity closes.”
Last December, J Street put forth a new strategy calling on the Obama Administration to adopt a bolder, more assertive approach in its efforts to resolve the Middle East conflict, focused on delineating agreed-upon borders between the state of Israel and the state-to-be of Palestine, and on establishing security arrangements that would accompany a two-state deal. J Street has grown exponentially in the last three years, now claiming 170,000 supporters across the country, an annual budget of $7 million, and a 50-person staff. The reach of J Street’s national field program, launched just a year ago, and its ever-expanding campus arm, J Street U, will be represented in full force at the conference with the participation of 40 regional delegations from more than 30 states, and more than 500 students from over 100 universities nationwide.
On the final day of the conference, Tuesday, March 1st, attendees will hold more than 200 Capitol Hill meetings. “For years two-state advocates have been told by our elected leaders, ‘We like your ideas and appreciate your commitment, but who do you really represent?’” said Carinne Luck, J Street’s National Field Director. “This conference will put those questions to rest.”
In the spirit of the conference’s theme—“Giving Voice to Our Values”—J Street will honor three individuals on opening night: author Peter Beinart, Sheikh Jarrah activist Sara Benninga, and physician and founder of the Daughters for Life Foundation Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish. Kathleen Peratis, vice chair of the J Street Educational Fund, will also be honored for her lifetime commitment to human rights and pro-Israel activism at the conference’s Gala dinner, Monday, February 28th.
A diverse array of distinguished speakers from the United States, Israel, Middle East and international community, including members of Congress and five members of Knesset, will lead sessions focused on issues related to the conflict and its potential resolution. Topics include the recent democratic uprisings in the Middle East, engaging young adults in pro-Israel activism, workshops on political, community and synagogue organizing, reckoning with Iran, the role of the United States in the region, and the state of Israeli democracy.
“Where else can someone committed to doing their part to see Israel safeguarded as a democracy and a Jewish homeland have the opportunity for such a wide ranging and open discussion of these difficult and challenging issues?” asked Ben-Ami. “These are the very conversations we hope can take place productively and civilly all across the American Jewish community and which will demonstrate the strength and commitment of our community to the future of Israel and to a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.”