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J Street continues to establish itself as a political force that’s increasingly being listened to in Washington DC. In only three years, the newly formed progressive Jewish-American advocacy organization has amassed an impressive record of growth-and last night kicked off its second DC conference to a packed house at the Washington Convention Center.

Over 2000 participants has turned this annual event into the largest pro-Israel, pro-peace gathering ever, including 500 students from more than 100 Universities, 50 members of Congress, and 170,000 supporters nationwide.

The recent uprisings unfolding in the Middle East have brought particular attention to this year’s conference. J Street calls for governance to be based on human rights, dignity, democracy-all familiar notes-albeit strikingly elusive in many of the region’s nations, including Palestinian territories under Israeli control.

Last year I attended the inaugural conference and described the group as, “…an amalgamation of Jewish American progressive groups and voices – by far the largest in US history – into one effective political lobbying force with singular purpose; compelling American leadership into a more active and penetrating diplomatic role helping to peacefully resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street president, continued this line last night by laying out five operative tenets:

#1 We stand proudly with and for the people and the state of Israel.

#2 We believe that the future of Israel depends on achieving a two-state resolution to the conflict with the Palestinian people.

#3 Israel’s supporters have not only the right but the obligation to speak out when we think the policies or actions of the Israeli government are hurting Israel or harming the long-term interests of the Jewish people.

#4 We believe that vibrant but respectful debate over Israel benefits the American Jewish community.

#5 We must ground our work in the values on which we were raised.

All this talk around should we ‘debate’ or ‘dare to criticize Israel’, might seem a little out of place in 21st century America, but the fact remains, there have been many concerted efforts to shut down debate over US-Israel policies, or any criticism of the internal affairs of Israel-especially concerning its treatment of the Palestinian people in occupied territories of West Bank and Gaza.  

Jeremy Ben-Ami elaborates,

“Those who believe there is only one acceptable view on Israel – theirs – should not be allowed to impose constraints on what constitutes acceptable speech in the Jewish community. To the extent that the doors of the Jewish community are barred – be they synagogues, Hillels or Birthright trips – to those who question conventional wisdom on Israel, the Jewish establishment is putting the future of the community at risk. (…)

That’s why it makes no sense that for three years, the leadership of such institutions as AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League have almost uniformly refused to take the stage with me or with representatives of J Street.”

The millennial march of cultural progress establishing human rights, freedom, does not stop to satisfy the needs of a few engaged in organizational power struggles or political squabbles. Our social and political world is an ever-changing canvass that ebbs and flows, and indeed, with Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, we are witness to the indefatigable will of human dignity as an unstoppable force elevating global society. J Street works to amplify these democratic trends to strengthen Israel, not weaken her-and if anything’s clear by the last few weeks-the desire for freedom embraced by those denied it, is a juggernaut that no force or fear can turn away.

As J Street continues to grow and rise in influence in the halls of Congress, so will the very real chance of achieving a lasting peace settlement for the Israeli and Palestinian people. Ben-Ami concluded the opening plenary last night with,“This is our mission. This is our calling.  And it is the reason for the tremendous growth of our movement. I welcome you again to an exciting three days and I thank you for joining us in our work at such a critical time.”