J Street draws top names to S.F. national summit


Full coverage of the J Street Summit in San Francisco

It’s an eye-opening “get.”

Daniel Kurtzer

For its upcoming national summit in San Francisco, J Street has booked Salam Fayyad — the former Palestinian Authority prime minister — as an opening night speaker.

The Western-educated politician and economist will share the bimah at Congregation Emanu-El with Gabriela Shalev, former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, and Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel.

The title of their June 7 discussion is “Leading to Peace: An Inside View of Mideast Diplomacy,” and it’s free and open to the public.

Taking place at three San Francisco locations, the two-day summit is J Street’s first national-level event that will take place outside of the liberal Israel lobby’s home base of Washington, D.C.

After the opening night panel,  there will be a full day of programming on June 8, at a cost of $75 per person, $36 for students. Held at the JCC of San Francisco, the lineup will include breakfast, lunch, two plenary sessions and three choices from among 10 breakout sessions.

The plenary sessions are titled “What Next?” and “Beyond the Tent: What’s the American Jewish Community’s Responsibility Toward Israel’s Future?” Topics for the breakout sessions include the prospects for a two-state solution, women’s status in Israel, Jewish life in California, peacemaking in the Middle East and “What Are Israelis Thinking?”

Gabriela Shalev

Among the panelists and speakers will be peace activist Rabbi Amy Eilberg, Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Redwood Empire) and Rabbi Sharon Brous, the founding rabbi of Ikar, a progressive Jewish community in Los Angeles. Others on the list include leaders from agencies such as B’Tselem USA, Peace It Together and the International Civil Society Action Network.

The summit will wrap up with a gala dinner on June 8 at the Intercontinental Hotel, with Rep. Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo) scheduled as keynote speaker and Knesset member Merav Michaeli (Labor Party) listed as a special guest. Also, J Street’s annual Tzedek v’Shalom Award will be given to Stanford University’s Carol Hutner Winograd, a specialist in geriatric medicine and a longtime J Street board member.

“I think this is going to be an amazing array of topics,” said Gordon Gladstone, J Street’s northwest regional director. “Everything from how we talk about the Israeli-diaspora relationship to what’s going on now in negotiations.”

Though J Street has hosted Palestinian speakers in the past, none has the seniority of Fayyad, an economist by training who served five years as the PA prime minister until forced out of office last year by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. He is credited with having engineered economic reform in the Palestinian territories.

Said Gladstone of the Fayyad appearance: “This is going to be an amazing opportunity to hear directly from somebody who has served as the prime minister of the PA, and to learn what is their set of calculations.”

Gladstone is expecting a capacity crowd of 450 people for the opening night plenary, which will come a few weeks after the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations rejected J Street’s bid to become a member.

Salam Fayyad

That loss had a silver lining, according to Gladstone.

“The vote promoted many conversations about how the American Jewish community arranges and organizes itself,” he said. “It also brought to mind that there is this interesting opportunity right here in San Francisco.”

Formed in 2008 by Jeremy Ben-Ami, now the agency’s executive director, J Street bills itself as “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans.” It raises and distributes money to national political candidates who support its agenda. It also has a student-led arm, J Street U, which is on more than 70 campuses across the country.

Proponents maintain J Street is strongly pro-Israel, but the organization has come under attack over the years for taking stands seen by some as too accommodating of the Palestinian agenda and overly critical of Israel’s policies.

The upcoming two-day summit in San Francisco is billed as “J Street’s signature event of the year” and “our biggest event of the year.” However, it is not the same event as the agency’s annual three-day national conference, which drew 2,800 people last year and 2,500 the year before. J Street is not holding its national conference this year, but it will return in March 2015 in Washington, D.C.

Gladstone, a former Hillel executive who once lived on a kibbutz, is expecting to see a mix of attendees at the event in San Francisco — from longtime J Street supporters to some who may want to learn more about the organization.

Whatever their political persuasions, attendees will profit from the event, according to Gladstone. “It’s like an entire season of Commonwealth Club packed into a day,” he said.

J Street National Summit and Annual Gala, June 7-8, San Francisco. Opening plenary is free, various costs for other programs. Online registration closes Tuesday, June 3. www.jstreet.org


Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.