Today’s J Street Chicago Luncheon
Chicago’s annual J Street Lunch was held today. Over 325 people packed the ballroom of one of Chicago’s oldest historically-Jewish institutions, The Standard Club, to support J Street. The political guests included Senator Durbin, about half of the Illinois Democratic Congressional delegation, and numerous state and local politicians.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the event was the content of the program (not to mention the quality of the food – which was excellent). Normally, luncheon speakers provide perfunctory praise for the host organization and stock language. But not so today.
Senator Dick Durbin led off. He is the Minority Whip and talked about the Iran Vote process. He described it as the most difficult vote he has every worked on. He described the tremendous personal effort the President put in – including individually calling 21 Congresspersons to answer their questions about the deal and to offer to get them any information or arrange for meetings with any experts they felt they needed to. The Senator then described what he felt was the pivotal meeting where several of the P5+1 ambassadors addressed on-the-fence Senators. At that meeting, the ambassadors told the Senators in no uncertain terms that the idea that there was a “better deal” to be had was nothing but a fantasy. The Senator went on to emphasize the important work J Street did in supporting the deal.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky followed and expressed how important J Street has been in opening up space in Congress for people to take positions they could never have before. She also mentioned the support that she has personally received from J Street. Jan was one of the first people to strongly come out to support the deal and took a lot of heat for it. She has been with J Street from the beginning and has become one of our staunchest supporters. Of course, I’m biased. She is my Congresswoman and a personal friend.
Jeremy Ben-Ami got up and as usual gave a measured, yet forceful, speech condemning Palestinian incitement – but then going on to talk about the necessity of putting the current violence in the context of the Occupation and the lack of progress in the peace process since PM Rabin was assassinated 20 years ago. Of course, he tied that into the importance of what J Street has been doing and what it needs to continue to do to fight for the two state solution despite the current situation.
Although it would be unheard of at events sponsored by most other organizations, the featured speaker, Jonathan Alter, didn’t necessarily agree with Ben-Ami’s framing of the situation. Alter emphasized the irresponsibility of the Palestinian leadership but didn’t bring up the context. And while he called the Iran deal an historic victory – he then went on to argue that clamping down on Iranian “bad actions” was the most important thing to do now. While J Street agrees with forceful enforcement of remaining restrictions – it feels that it is equally important to be cognizant not to derail the deal before it has a chance to even start.
To me, having Jonathan Alter express divergent opinions is an illustration of one of J Street’s greatest strengths: the principle that open, civil debate based on facts over emotion is part and parcel of our mission. J Streeters can handle listening to someone who doesn’t agree with them. As a matter of fact, it really encourages honing, strengthening and fine tuning J Street’s positions.
When the event finished, the positive buzz in the room was palpable. I spoke with several of the most long-standing and venerable leaders of the Chicago Jewish community who expressed how important it was that J Street is here, and that it is strong. They went on to specifically praise Jeremy for his leadership: informed, intelligent, steadfast and calm.
The take away is this: J Street’s work remains even more critical today than ever – even as the challenges are greater. J Street should take heart that, contrary to what many of its critics say, it has strong and growing support within the Jewish community.