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US Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace Lobby Holds Its First National Conference


US Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace Lobby Holds Its First National Conference
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For decades, AIPAC (The American Israel Public Affairs Committee) has been the pro-Israel lobby in the United States, bolstered by a massive membership -it says 100,000 - among America's six million Jews. But now there's a new player. J Street calls itself the pro-peace, pro-Israel lobby in Washington. Last week, the group held its first ever national convention, attracting prominent Jews from the U.S. and Israel. The conference in the nation's capital drew more than 1500 enthusiastic participants in what some are calling the beginning of a movement and a new way of advocating for the stalled Middle East peace process.

"We want the United States and the international community actively at the table. We want this conflict to end!" Jeremy Ben-Ami said.

Ben-Ami is Executive Director of J Street, addressing the group's first ever national conference. J Street says it's the new pro-Israel lobby in Washington. It supports an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a two-state solution.

It was formed 18 months ago. Since then, J Street has picked up broad support in the U.S. and in Israel, although not from Israel's government.

The group says its rapid ascent reflects a split in the American Jewish community with more and more American Jews favoring a Palestinian state and an end to Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank.

Israel's offensive in the Gaza Strip last January shocked many American Jews, the group says.

Others became disillusioned with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's perceived lack of interest in the peace process and his refusal to stop Jewish settlement.

Many say they have grown tired of the unconditional support of Israel by other pro-Israel organizations.

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"Every time I attempted to raise any questions, you were seen as an anti-Semite, anti-Israel, or a self-hating Jew," Susan Adelman says, "And I am none of those things."

Ben-Ami says he wants Israel to thrive as a Jewish state. He believes that is only possible through a peace agreement and the creation of an independent Palestinian state. He cautions time is running out. "Within a certain number of years, whether it is a decade or less, we don't know, there will be more non-Jews than Jews between the Jordan and the Mediterranean," he says, "At that point Israel loses the chance to be both a democracy and a Jewish home."

J Street's broad support reaches all the way to the White House.

President Barack Obama's National Security Advisor James Jones was keynote speaker at the conference. He said the administration is supportive of J Street. "If there were one problem that I would recommend to the president, that if he could do anything he wanted to solve just one problem, this would be it," Jones said.

Members of Congress as well as former Israeli generals and members of Knesset, Israel's parliament, also attended.

Colette Avital, a former Israeli ambassador, says most American Jews support the peace process. "Up to 79 percent of American Jews consistently have supported peace policies. Certainly they are supportive of the Obama Initiative to push the peace process foreword," she said.

J Street has it's detractors. AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, declined our request for an interview. AIPAC has long been the pro-Israel lobby in the U.S., bolstered by support from Israel's government.

AIPAC and other conservative Jewish organizations view J Street as out of step with the interests of Israel.

On the last day of the conference, participants lobbied more than 100 members of Congress. They told lawmakers that the U.S. should press forward with the peace process and a two-state solution.

Elliot Paul Rothman is from Boston. He met with several representatives, including one from Pennsylvania. "He recognized that he needs a lot of information to keep him up-to-date about what is happening in Israel which is not his field, but basically he has already been a supporter of J Street," he said.

J Street proclaimed its first national convention a success and plans to keep the momentum going. But its staying power is unsure.