students march with a large "J Street U" banner
J Street U students march on the White House on February 25 2017, the eve of J Street’s annual conference. (Photo/JTA-J Street)

J Street, JCPA launch conferences grappling with Jewish advocacy under Trump

J Street, the liberal Middle East policy group, and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the public policy umbrella for Jewish community councils around the country, this weekend launched annual conferences in Washington that each focused on challenges to Jewish activism during the Trump administration.

J Street’s adversarial relationship to the new administration was explicit in its programming, while the JCPA was not so blunt, but agendas for both conferences, running Sunday through Tuesday, indicated a rough transition from the Obama administration, which was largely friendly to the aims of both groups.

Both conferences include sessions dedicated to advancing the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; President Donald Trump has said he is agnostic about the outcome, reversing 15 years of U.S. policy favoring two states as a final status arrangement.

The JCPA program focused on civil rights, particularly criminal justice reform. Panelists at sessions on Sunday morning spoke of their fears that the Trump administration would reverse Obama reforms, including greater oversight of community policing.

There are some really important fights ahead on foreign policy, on Israel, on the Iran deal, on Palestinians, on Israel at the United Nations.

Panels at both conferences spotlighted Islamophobia, or hostility to Muslims, while J Street also had panels on refugees and JCPA on immigration rights. Trump has come under fire for his attacks on Muslims during his campaign and for banning entry to refugees and to travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries once he became president.

JCPA ran two separate sessions in sequence on Sunday on advocacy under Trump, one with figures in and out of the Jewish community who are among Trump’s sharpest critics and the next with figures, representing the Emergency Committee for Israel and the Republican Jewish Coalition, who support his agenda.

In addition to an array of Jewish groups that come under the JCPA umbrella, there were guest speakers at the conference representing groups that also are aligned against aspects of the Trump agenda, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Immigration Law Center and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

J Street made no bones about its oppositional agenda, with one training session entitled “Fighting for Our Future: Harnessing our Power in the Age of Trump.” On Saturday night, in a pre-conference event, J Street U, the group’s university affiliate, marched on the White House, for, it said on its Twitter feed, “peace, democracy & an end to rising Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.”

Speakers at J Street include some of the Trump administration’s most outspoken critics, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who lost last year’s Democratic primaries to Hillary Clinton; Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., Clinton’s vice presidential pick; Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the minority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives and top Obama administration Middle East officials. Also appearing are Israeli opposition and government figures; and Saeb Erekat, the top Palestinian Authority negotiator.

Jeremy Ben Ami, the J Street president, said Trump’s policies necessitated a broader agenda for the group, which had until recently focused more on Middle East issues, advocating for the Obama administration’s peace policies and the Iran nuclear deal. That advocacy often makes the group the target of criticism by larger Jewish organizations, who object to its frequent criticism of Israeli government policies.

“There are some really important fights ahead on foreign policy, on Israel, on the Iran deal, on Palestinians, on Israel at the United Nations,” Ben-Ami said Sunday at a briefing for reporters. “But there are also issues we haven’t related to as J Street, which we will, like refugees, immigration and Islamophobia.”

ron-kampeas-2
Ron Kampeas

JTA D.C. bureau chief