Audiences at the annual J Street conference in Washington on Monday were shocked when one of the event’s honorees, Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy of Israel in Washington, DC, Barukh Bina, stood at the podium and issued a respectful yet scathing criticism of the advocacy group’s policies. As he took the podium at the event's gala dinner, Binah received rapturous applause, according to the tweets of several conference-goers. However, as the tone and content of Binah's speech became more apparent, the crowd was stunned into silence.
The presence of a high-level diplomat at this year’s conference, entitled “Making History,” marks a significant shift in attitudes toward the organization. J Street, an advocacy organization that describes itself as “pro-Israel and pro-peace,” is known for its adversarial position toward Israel's traditional lobby in the U.S., AIPAC, which was largely vilified at this week's J Street conference. Last year’s conference was not attended by any Israeli diplomats, and two years ago only a junior embassy representative attended. This year, however, following speculations and consultations, the embassy decided to send Binah to the event, and he took advantage of his captive audience to deliver a harsh yet measured rebuke to the organization which official Israel sees as a less than constructive force.
“I come to you today not only as the second highest ranking Israeli diplomat in the U.S., but as a brother (and I have an extensive American family). We share your democratic values. But unlike your secure existence between these happy shores, an ocean apart from the bad guys, our borders are curved and dusty, and made of missiles and mayhem,” Binah said.
Addressing the prevalent view among American Jews who call themselves "Progressive Zionists" – a group that J Street purports to champion – that Israel's current government is steering Israel away from its democratic character, Binah told the gathering, "Nobody is perfect, and, as a seventh generation Israeli born I know full well what needs to be fixed in my own society. I salute those individuals and organizations working for grass-roots improvements within Israel, and I personally attempt these corrections every four years when I cast my vote. Sometimes I have it my way, and sometimes I do not. It is called democracy.
"We share your democratic values ... as we continue to face intolerable threats, we sometimes have to make decisions of life and death. We welcome the opinions of our brethren in the Diaspora, especially on issues of Jewish identity and pluralism, but at the end of the day, it is we, the Israelis, who must bear the ultimate burden and may have to pay the ultimate price. And we, dear friends and family, have no margins of error, none whatsoever.
"I understand that you, my friends, are all about future and hope. So are we, the young and most energetic country that we are. But while our view is towards the future, we dare not forget our past. History must not shackle us, but its lessons must guide us," Binah said.
Taking aim at various voices within the American Jewish community, as well as a growing theme among some American pundits, who think that the current Israeli government is abusing the memory of the Holocaust to point to the threat from Iran, Binah said, "And please, do not tell me that it is no longer relevant, because it is. (It is alive and scorching just like the trail left by an Israeli Air Force F-16, flown over Poland's valleys of death by the granddaughter of the commanders of a ghetto revolt. It is alive in ink on paper as long as a 12-year-old, an eighth generation Israeli born, dedicates her bat mitzvah book to 'members of my family whom I never met,' though nobody coached her in this direction."
Binah went on to issue a thinly veiled dig at the group, saying, “We need you to stand with us. It is as simple as that, and someone ought to say it. Internal activism is a central part of democratic society, but pressures on the elected government of Israel can present us with a problem, when we need you the most. Friends, I urge you to stand by our side as Americans, as members of your community, as Jews. For the sake of our forefathers and our future, we must keep our brotherhood strong."
Further admonishing J Street's focus on highlighting Israel's settlement enterprise, Binah said, "You may be critical of settlements, but if you choose to show the most extreme, it behooves you to present the greater mass of moderates as well. If you show them [politicians J Street brings to Israel] negative aspects of checkpoints, please show as well the catastrophe and grief of terror victims. If you show them Israel’s failings, show them also our triumphs such as the aliyah of the Jewish community of Ethiopia. I urge you to strive for balance, so that these lawmakers may become friends of Israel who might be critical, and not critics of Israel who are not friends."
As the audience sat in near-silence, Twitter users who were live-tweeting the event immediately began detailing the mood in the conference hall. “Awkward! Israeli #2 Ambassador Barukh Binah is slamming #JStreet at its annual gala,” Twitter user @MeatyButcher wrote. @EmilyCadei added, “#Israel deputy chief of mission addresses/scolds #JStreet gala, NOT well received, heard some hisses.”
Other Twitter users, as well as audience members, were amused that Binah chose to use a Harry Potter reference while imploring J Street to remember the absolute gravity of Israel’s situation. “It is not a game of political Quidditch that we play here; it is a heavy-duty selection of choices that we must make. A Hamas government is not a harbinger of peace and neither is an Iranian-backed Hezbollah regime,” Binah said.
Magical broom-sport reference or not, Binah’s point was clear: Israel’s security situation is not something to take lightly, and not to be turned into a game between rival Democratic and Republican parties, something he hopes that J Street, for all its good intentions, will keep in mind as it lobbies Congress.
CBS News Correspondent Dan Raviv, who was also live-tweeting from the conference, wrote, “Then at #JStreet conference an #Israeli diplomat (Binah) finally showed up and spoke. Pointed out disagreements, pleaded for unity. New!”
Other speakers at the event included Israeli novelist Amos Oz, who slammed lobby group AIPAC in his remarks, author and settlement-boycott supporter Peter Beinart, and Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel
Perhaps the most highly anticipated speech was that given by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Olmert earned applause for his remarks that "Israel does have a peace partner in Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas," but less enthusiasm for his calls for military action against Iran.
“All you need to know about @JStreet is that Barghouti received a rapturous response from the audience, Ehud Olmert a tepid response,” Twitter user @rebutantiIsrael wrote. Omar Barghouti, author of “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights,” spoke at last year’s conference.
Putting conflicting opinions, and Binah’s reception aside, Twitter user @natsecHeather chose to tweet an important point made by the former prime minister: “Jstreet can disagree with Israeli embassy rep. It’s all in the family. Important thing is that Israeli govt sent him,” she tweeted.