Hilary Leila Krieger
The Jerusalem Post
February 25, 2011 - 1:00am

More than 50 members of Congress are expected to attend J Street’s second-annual conference here this weekend, with 200 offices receiving the progressive group’s lobbyists during its visit to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, according to the organization.

The number of federal lawmakers coming to the conference gala on Monday night are slightly more than the 44 who came last year, but well under the 148 lawmakers who served as a host committee at the last conference. This year J Street has no host committee.

“Our focus really is on bringing people to the conference. “We’re expecting to have over 50 members of Congress [attend] and we’ll see J Street’s and this movement’s growth at the conference and the gala itself,” J Street spokeswoman Amy Spitalnick said.

She dismissed any connection between the lack of a host committee and the controversy it generated last year, when several members of Congress rescinded their participation.

Originally 160 members had agreed to be on the host committee, but some prominent figures, including New York Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, dropped out after saying they hadn’t been aware of their inclusion on the list.

More recently, J Street lost the backing of another key politician, Rep. Gary Ackerman of New York, ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs’ Middle East subcommittee, after the group opposed last Friday’s US veto of a UN Security Council draft resolution condemning Israeli settlements, costing J Street Israeli support as well.

Spitalnick, however, credited the controversy over the host committee’s composition last year with helping boost the numbers at that conference, for which fewer than 1,000 people pre-registered but 1,500 ended up attending. She pointed to a similar effect in Boston last fall, where an event expected to garner 100 people to hear executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami speak mushroomed to 450 audience members after the synagogue hosting the event canceled it.

“I think it was that controversy that really excited and motivated people to really come out and attend,” she said.

California Reps. Lois Capps and Lynn Woolsey, North Carolina Rep. David Price, Tennessee Rep. Steve Cohen and Colorado Rep. Jared Polis, the latter two of whom are Jewish, will address the conference on Monday. The organization said it was not able to release a list of those attending the gala or hosting the Capital Hill meetings before the event itself.

This year, more than 2,000 activists, religious leaders and students will participate, according to J Street. The last group will increase from 200 last time to around 500 this weekend. And for the first time, 40 local chapters around the US will also be represented, following the launch of J Street’s grassroot effort last winter.

They will hear from top White House Middle East adviser Dennis Ross, several Kadima and Labor MKs and Palestinian officials. Among the latter will be PLO Ambassador to the US Maen Areikat and Mustafa Barghouti, secretary-general of the Palestinian National Initiative.

Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren and other embassy staff, however, will not be participating, for the second year in a row.

Following the J Street decision opposing the US veto of the UN Security Council resolution, Oren reached out to Ben-Ami to explain he would not be attending, according to embassy spokesman Jonathan Peled.

“They had a very good and candid conversation,” he said, noting the embassy had hosted J Street leadership during an equally candid meeting in the fall. “We will continue to maintain a dialogue with this organization in the future.”

“We feel that they’re missing an important opportunity to engage with 2,000-plus pro- Israel, pro-peace Americans,” Spitalnick said. “We’ve made every effort to engage with the embassy while acknowledging our differences of opinion, and it’s a shame that they’ve chosen not to participate.”


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017