For the presidential candidates, there was one "must'' stop this month — the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Republican Sen. John McCain was the first to speak, talking up his recent visit to Jerusalem with Senate colleague Joe Lieberman and urging an increase in military aid for Israel. Next came Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, who recalled learning about the Holocaust from a Jewish camp counselor. Obama was followed by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who noted that she represents "one of the largest Jewish constituencies in the world.''
The reason for their appearances was simple — the Jewish vote is especially strong in key states like New York and Florida. And as every member of Congress knows, there is no more powerful pro-Israel lobby than AIPAC.
Too powerful, some say.
Critics have long charged that AIPAC's political clout and support of hawkish U.S. and Israeli policies have impeded efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East. So a new organization has emerged as a potential counterweight — J Street.
"The thing most misunderstood in the political arena is that there isn't only one view when it comes to Israel in the American Jewish community,'' says Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street's executive director.
J Street gets its name from the fact that there is no "J Street'' in Washington, reflecting the premise that liberal, dovish views are largely absent from discussions of Mideast policy. Billing itself as the political arm of the pro-peace movement, J Street vows to "advocate forcefully'' in support of diplomatic solutions over military ones and dialogue over confrontation.
In its first two months, J Street has drawn "tremendous response,'' Ben-Ami says, with 30,000 supporters signing up online. Its advisory council includes rabbis, CEOs and several Nobel laureates. It already has raised $1.1-million toward its operating costs of $1.5-million.
The organization is careful to avoid attacking AIPAC by name. However, in a full-page ad in the New York Times last week, J Street chastised "established'' pro-Israel organizations for their "deafening silence'' on Israel's new cease-fire with Hamas and the resumption of peace talks with Syria.
"These efforts may or may not succeed,'' the ad says. "But they are designed to enhance Israel's security, the region's stability and to bring peace closer. And they deserve our support.''
AIPAC has had no official comment on J Street. But an AIPAC spokesperson directed me to a recent article in the New Republic that paints J Street as a left-wing organization out of touch with mainstream views.
"It's true that American Jews are overwhelmingly liberal on most issues,'' the article says. "The problem for J Street is that Israel simply isn't one of those issues.''
As the New Republic points out, a poll by the American Jewish Committee found that 55 percent of American Jews think Israel and its Arab neighbors will never be able to live in peace, and that 82 percent think the Arabs' goal is not the return of occupied territories but the destruction of Israel.
But the same poll also shows American Jews tend to be dovish and are troubled by current U.S. foreign policy. Two-thirds, for example, think the United States should not have invaded Iraq — a move that strengthened Iran and thus undermined Israel's security.
J Street, which has a political action committee, will stay out of the presidential race but plans to do "really serious" fundraising for about a dozen congressional candidates, Ben-Ami says. AIPAC doesn't contribute to campaigns, though many of its 100,000 members donate to pro-Israel PACs that have given $1.85-million so far to 2008 federal candidates.
"AIPAC has done a lot of very important things to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship,'' Ben-Ami says. "What J Street was started to do was fill a vacuum, and that vacuum is that nobody has been a strong political voice for assertive American diplomacy in the Middle East to resolve conflict.''
Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at email@example.com.