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mind the gap

J Street postpones annual conference, leaving vacuum for Israel advocacy groups in 2024

Democratic politicians used to make AIPAC and J Street conferences a campaign stop

Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, speaking at the J Street National Conference.

Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, speaking at the J Street National Conference.

In previous presidential election years, large gatherings focused on Israel were a reliable campaign stop for major candidates. 

That won’t be the case for Democrats this year. 

The progressive Israel advocacy organization J Street announced last week that it is postponing its planned April convention to 2025, citing “the state of the ongoing conflict” between Israel and Hamas. The move comes after the American Israel Public Affairs Committee scrapped its annual policy conference in 2021, first citing pandemic risks and then sticking with the move after the group made a major policy shift toward fundraising and away from grassroots advocacy. 

In the past, these Washington conferences served as a way for political candidates and elected officials to connect with potential voters and donors, and to articulate their positions on key foreign policy issues. They also allowed powerful officials to build bridges and repair ties in moments of conflict — such as in 2015, when  National Security Advisor Susan Rice attended the AIPAC gathering just days after sharply criticizing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech on the Iran nuclear deal before a joint session Congress, which was hailed by AIPAC.

“I do really feel a loss, and I know I’m not alone in this,” said former White House communications director Ann Lewis, who spoke regularly at AIPAC’s policy conference, which in its final years hosted more than 15,000 people. “The range of panels — it was like a great buffet … you could hear from people who until then had just been faces or names, but now you got to see them for real, and hear them take questions. That’s a loss, because there’s no alternative, really.” J Street’s annual conference was much smaller, with roughly 3,000 people. 

Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump spoke at the AIPAC conference in 2016, and in 2020, then-candidate Joe Biden sent a video. J Street’s fall 2019 conference featured speeches or videos from a host of Democratic primary candidates, including Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Pete Buttigieg. 

AIPAC’s gathering was always bipartisan, while J Street hosted only Democrats. Meanwhile, several of the leading Republican presidential candidates gave major speeches on Israel last July at the Washington conference of Christians United for Israel, an annual conservative event that didn’t draw Democratic officials. 

Halie Soifer, CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, sees an opportunity for her group, a campaign organization that works to elect Democrats. The move toward virtual events might also explain the shift away from multimillion dollar conferences.

“Nothing beats the connection you feel when you’re in the same room as other people. That said, you can reach so many more people virtually,” said Soifer. “JDCA will have multiple opportunities this year, both virtual and in person, for Democrats to give remarks and to make their policies clear.” 

An October conference hosted by the group’s Republican counterpart, the Republican Jewish Coalition, drew top Republican candidates, including former President Donald Trump. (Democrats, of course, do not have a primary contest this year.) JDCA’s events are typically much smaller.

Many politicians at the national and state levels have had to address Middle East policy and discuss their views on Israel more frequently than normal, following the Oct. 7 terror attacks and the ensuing Israel-Hamas war. But statements and tweets delivered in the wake of a war are different from longer policy addresses delivered to a crowd.

“There are bigger-picture issues that don’t come up when people are specifically focused on the war that do come up in these conferences,” said Amanda Berman, executive director of the progressive pro-Israel group Zioness. “Often the public statements that we hear recently are less about the broader context — of Israel, Zionism, Jewish identity, American support for Israel, why it is a national security interest of the United States and why Israel matters so much.”

Both AIPAC and J Street will instead host leadership gatherings this spring for top donors and activists. Last year, more than 1,000 people attended a leadership meeting hosted by AIPAC in Washington.

“We thought that it would be more useful, especially at this moment, to bring together a smaller group of leaders to really dive deeper into what’s happening,” said Alan Solomont, the past J Street board chair. “I think the focus this year, or this moment, should be more on really analyzing the situation, trying to understand, What are the options, both for us as an organization and for our government, and for that matter, for the Israeli government? And to do a deeper dive into what we think are the right policies to advocate and strategies to pursue.”

Marshall Wittmann, an AIPAC spokesperson, said that “political engagement” is “a top priority for our activists.” The group is poised to spend heavily in the 2024 election. Prior to 2022, AIPAC was focused on lobbying, which was a key element of its annual conference. But the group is now honing in on 2024 electoral politics, and raising money to support pro-Israel candidates. 

AIPAC has faced pushback from some progressive activists for its targeting of far-left candidates like Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), and has been criticized for endorsing dozens of Republicans who voted to overturn the 2020 election results.

J Street, meanwhile, has grappled with a handful of its endorsees who have turned sharply left, embracing positions beyond those accepted by the group. Freshman Rep. Delia Ramirez (D-IL), whom J Street endorsed in 2022, is set to take part in an event with the anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace this week.

“J Street doesn’t monitor the schedules of our endorsees to ensure they only appear publicly with people we agree with. We base endorsements not on the schedules our endorsees keep but on their positions on vital issues such as whether or not they voted to overturn the results of the 2020 election,” a J Street spokesperson told JI.

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