In just 16 months, J Street, described by its founders as the “political arm of the pro-Israel and pro-peace movement,” has made a name for itself in Washington, D.C.
The young organization has made a concerted effort to show it is operating with a different agenda than other major Israel lobbying groups that have been working Capitol Hill for decades. J Street has been largely supportive of President Barack Obama’s opposition to settlement growth in the West Bank and is vocal in its advocacy for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
These are positions that apparently register well with both a large portion of the American public as well as the current administration. J Street currently boasts a roaster of nearly 110,000 supporters and last month J Street executive director Jeremy Ben Ami was one of 16 Jewish leaders invited to the White House to meet with President Obama.
Now, J Street is looking beyond the nation’s capitol, hiring regional coordinators to strengthen supporter bases in other parts of the country. Their first stop: Seattle.
“Seattle is one of our key national hubs,” explained J Street political director Dan Kohl. “We have been very encouraged by the support shown in Seattle.”
J Street has selected Barbara Lahav as its Pacific Northwest regional coordinator. Lahav describes herself as having been “active in the pro-Israel, pro-peace community for many, many years.”
Lahav was an early supporter of J Street and has helped organize events to bring Ben Ami to Seattle on two separate occasions. She has also worked with the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle and as the program director for Herzl-Ner Tamid Conservative Congregation. Lahav is a founding member of the interfaith educational organization Find Common Ground and of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, on whose national board she now serves. This experience combined, according to Kohl, makes her a perfect fit for the job of regional coordinator.
“Barbara brings such exceptional knowledge and passion and connections in the Jewish community to this position,” Kohl said. “We couldn’t have asked for more of an ideal person.”
As the Pacific Northwest regional coordinator, Lahav will be responsible for organizing J Street-sponsored events in the Seattle area, broadening the organization’s base of local supporters, and acting as a local connection for existing supporters. She will also be working with the Washington and Oregon State Congressional delegations to make sure they know J Street’s position on issues related to Israel and the Middle East.
Despite its relatively small Jewish population in comparison to other major U.S. cities, Seattle has a strong history of supporting Israel advocacy organizations, both Kohl and Lahav said. Lahav cited the ongoing success of AIPAC’s Northwest chapter as well as the popularity of groups such as Brit Tzedek. She added that several of the main members of J Street’s national finance committee are from Seattle.
Where J Street differentiates itself from groups such as AIPAC is in its philosophy, Lahav said. While AIPAC’s mission is strictly pro-Israel without further qualification, J Street fills the niche of “pro-Israel, pro-peace,” she said, focusing on “constituent influence of Congressional leaders to support America as a pro-active broker in the Middle East.”
J Street differs from Brit Tzedek in that J Street is dedicated to lobbying while Brit Tzedek, and the similar organization Americans for Peace Now, focus on grassroots activism. A report this week from the JTA wire service said J Street and Brit Tzedek are discussing a formal alliance.
The local J Street chapter’s first event will be a visit from Colette Avital, a former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and Israeli Consul General. Avital is now a senior adviser to J Street in Israel. She will be in Seattle Sept. 15-16 as part of a multi-city West Coast tour.
Seattle is not the only city where J Street is looking to broaden its influence. According to Kohl, the organization plans to hire coordinators in Chicago and New York in the coming months as well.
J Street’s almost immediate popularity has been attributed in some cases to the rise of a younger generation of Israel supporters — Jews in their 20s and 30s who are more liberal in their position on Israel than their parents may have been and who feel that J Street represents them better than the old-guard Israel organizations. Lahav suggested, however, that J Street’s success has less to do with appealing to younger Jews and more to do with filling a political void.
“J Street is representing really anyone Jewish or non-Jewish who believes we need to negotiate a two-state settlement,” she said. “For too many years the public voice of support for Israel has been very much to the right of center. I believe liberal Jews were busy working in issues such as civil rights and environmental issues and ended up giving public voice for support for Israel to people who didn’t actually represent them.”
J Street, she said, is the opportunity for liberal Israel supporters to have a say, too.
According to Kohl, that lack of representation is precisely where J Street takes its name from. In the nation’s capitol, he explained, J street has been omitted from the lettered streets. Similarly, Kohl feels that prior to the formation of his organization, a sizable percentage of Americans interested in Israel were being omitted from the political process.
“We’re definitely filling a hole in D.C.,” he explained. “There wasn’t a political vehicle for the pro-Israel, pro-peace majority of Americans to make their voices heard. Now there is.”