Over 150 progressive Jews packed Penn Hillel last week to launch the Philadelphia chapter of J Street, the self-described “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace” group -- a counterweight to the influence of conservative American Jews on United States policy towards Israel.
“J Street is simply the organizational expression of a huge part of the Jewish community,” says Elliot Ratzman, a local J Street leader who teaches Jewish studies at Temple. “The right-wing voices in the Jewish community have been louder.”
J Street, which calls for the U.S. to push for a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians, has taken the inside-the-Beltway political establishment by storm since its founding in 2008. Hawkish and negotiation-allergic foreign policy conservatives led by the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) have dominated the conversation, supporting the Israeli government in everything from settlement building to its brutal 2009 war on Gaza--all of which left pro-peace Jews out in the cold.
And the founding of local chapters in Philadelphia and cities around the country is the next step in a movement that could remake Jewish politics in America.
Anthropology professor Janet Kestenberg-Amighi, who came to the event from West Chester, says J Street “captures the very large progressive Jewish community across the country that is disillusioned with AIPAC and its support for the Israeli right-wing.”
But there is pushback.
In Philly, conservative critics went so far as to say that Hillel should not have rented J Street the room for last week's event, arguing the group is not sufficiently pro-Israel. Rabbi Howard Alpert, Penn Hillel’s executive director, has come under withering criticism and declined to speak to PW.
“J Street’s association with our Hillel has tarnished its good name,” says Brian Finkle, a Penn Student wearing a sober suit and tie who acted as a spokesman for protesters outside the meeting.
Finkle and other protesters groused that J Street does not support attacking Iran and argued that a group cannot not be pro-Israel if it opposes policies of the Israeli government--period. When asked if he supported a two-state solution, Finkle said that he did not. Gaza and the West Bank are “unquestionably part of the historic land of Israel, they belong to the Jews,” he said. “Giving them up will only create more Hamas states.”
Despite the opposition of Finkle and his friends, Philadelphia is fertile ground for J Street. The city is the epicenter of Reconstruction Judaism, the smaller and most progressive of the religion’s four movements. And prominent Reconstruction figures loom large in J Street Philly, including Rabbi Rebecca Alpert, a professor at Temple and an outspoken queer feminist, and activist Rabbi Arthur Waskow. When Ratzman did shout-outs, it was clear that West Philly, Mount Airy and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College were in the house.
“For too long, we have had to make a false choice between being pro-Israel and pro-peace and justice,” Ratzman told the crowd.
But J Street is criticized by some on the left who say that Israel should be a multi-ethnic state rather than one that is specifically Jewish--it is, after all, 20 percent Palestinian and would be even more so if refugees expelled after the country’s 1948 founding were allowed to return, a measure required under international law. You could count the number of times the word “Palestinian” was mentioned from the lectern on one hand.
Jesse Bacon, an activist with the anti-occupation group Jewish Voices for Peace, was at the event, but said he is uncomfortable with the J Street’s lack of attention to Palestinian oppression. “I wish J Street every success,” he says. “But its one of the problems I see, emphasizing the Israeli experience. At what point do you need to take Palestinians into account?”