A designer hotel with beautiful ladies is to be my abode for the next few days. The refrigerator, or what looks like one, offers warm champagne and warm coke. "We like it hot," the smiling lady at the reception tells me. It has four stars my hotel, but the staff here wear their noses so high that I wonder how come it doesn't have five stars. But DC has its own rhythm; nothing here is simple.
Managers whisper their secrets in my ear: "There are guidelines," they say, "enforced by the government." The guidelines make it impossible for politicians to have their events in five-star hotels: How would it look to have politicians splurge people's money in posh hotels at times when budgets are drastically cut? So some great hotels here are doing their best to be four stars, not five stars.
They tell me other interesting secrets of DC: "Senators," they say, "like to have events, but no silverware. If we use silverware, the senators cannot charge the event to their campaign accounts; but if people eat with their fingers that's okay. It's the law. Law," they say, "is law."
In DC, it is important to know the law and keep up with the news. Hottest news topic today is Libya. I sit at Adour in the St. Regis -- with silverware -- and order crab salad and foie gras: Delicious. I open my iPad and see on Al-Jazeera that Colonel Muammar Qadafi is a Jew. I feel great: a Jew in a city of high law and excellent food. Time go to mingle with other Jews.
Welcome to the J Street Conference at the Washington Convention Center, where "more than 2,000 registered in advance," according to a smiling lady welcoming the press.
"What do you have more of here, Jews or Arabs?" I ask the smiling face.
"That is racial profiling," her smile evaporates.
"Isn't J Street 'Jew Street'?" I ask.
"That is your interpretation."
"I'm so sorry. Could you please explain what the 'J' stands for?"
"It is the letter that's missing in the Washington street names."
"Is it the only one missing?"
"There is no Y Street, no Z Street. J is just the start from the top."
Why choose to call your organization for a street, existing or not? But "J," we must admit, sounds less like a "racial profiling" than any spelled-out "Jew," "Jewish," or "Judaism."
Welcome to J Street, the street of the Js.
Standing at podium, the first J of the evening, Ms. Lerner says that "Love thy neighbor and compassion brought me to J Street." She is very excited, and says she wants us to be excited too. So, she introduces "the most influential rabbi" in America, Rabbi David Saperstein. Must be a five-star rabbi.
He stands minutely in the middle of a huge stage, almost lost from view; but two giant screens, on either side of him, magnify him many times over and add stamina and strength to his otherwise small figure. Reality at Washington Convention Center may not important; but giant screens are. The rabbi talks. He talks about democracy and tolerance spreading over the globe. He talks about God, then talks about the poor, from which he gets to the Oslo Accords, from which he gets to the need to restore the stature of Israel among the nations.
He reads his speech from multiple pages through which he keeps flipping, although it is hard to tell if he lost a page or is mistakenly reading some of them twice. The "2,000 attendees" are sitting around the many tables here, which make the event look like a wedding, but there is no food here, only speeches.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, the President of J Street, also speaks. He says he is very happy that "over 2,000 people are joining us over the next three days," adding that "our movement today numbers over 170,000 supporters." Why, then, did only 2,000 show up? Recent events in the Middle East, he goes on to say, have confirmed to him that it is time to have a homeland for Palestinians. I am not sure if what he says is right or wrong, but it looks really cool on the giant screens. Then he adds: "We have invited those with whom we disagree from the left and the right to engage with us in a free, open and spirited discussion." I look around for the right-wingers, some settlers perhaps, but do not see them. Instead, a parade of "J Street U" shows up on stage, young folks representing Jewish students from various universities in the world. Very prestigious universities. And many. Names include American U. in Cairo. I never knew that young American Jews, or Js, go to study in Cairo. Obviously they do. No wonder Qadafi is a Jew.
But there is not much time to ponder Qadafi and other Jews in Cairo: an actual student goes to podium to speak. He wears a yarmulke, says he was born in Israel, and talks about how bad he felt during the Gaza War that so many Palestinians died. Perhaps he is right: maybe he would have felt better if more Jews had died. The audience applauds. At the press area, journalists applaud as well. Two hundred members of the media, I am told, registered. They must love Js.
Racial profiling or not, you need a magnifying glass to find Arabs here. Maybe they all went to A Street. But I do spot Muhammad, a well-clad man who tells me that he is from Ramallah, that he is a student, and that it takes him six hours every day to ride from Ramallah to Tel Aviv University.
"Six hours? Every day?"
"Yes, every day."
"When was the last time you were there?"
"Took you six hours?"
"Well, I was there and it took me less than ten minutes to cross from Ramallah to Jerusalem."
"Impossible! You were part of a delegation?"
"Part of a bus…"
"When was that?"
"Tell me, Muhammad. How did you get here?"
"Where was the plane that brought you here, Muhammad? In Ramallah?"
"I come from Bir Zeit U."
"Did the plane fly you from Ramallah to DC?"
"Nebraska, not Ramallah?"
Muhammad looks at me. He laughs. "Truthfully," he says to me, "I have more respect for the settler who spits in my face and tells me the truth than all the people here who say they are peace lovers and know nothing about me and my culture. These people here, they just need a cause. That's all."
Muhammad and I leave J Street; he has a big smile on his face as he walks out.
As I wander about in J Street on the second day, a former Israeli minister rises to speak in classic Israeli English, which at times sounds like Hebrew. He says that Israel must negotiate with everybody: Syria, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the alphabet. He knows everything. I guess this is why he is no longer a minister: He does not want to be, he says. He will be one again, he says, but only when he wants to be. The Js believe him. They clap.
A lady by the name of Mona then follows the minister onto the stage and talks about her people. She defends them. Like a rock, she sits there at table and speaks on their behalf. She is the exception here: She has pride in her people, admiration for her nation, and she carries much love for her culture. Not only that, she defends, like a lioness, everyone who is like her. She offers no excuses for what her people have done, either today or yesterday. And she demands no change.
What is she doing here?
Take away the Gaza blockade, she shouts. The J's applaud.
Mona, it turns out, is an Arab. Arabs are no Js. Arabs are proud. They spell out their As: Arab!
Now we have a Plenary Session with "Six Members of the Israeli Knesset," according to program; but there are only five. It is hard to understand what they trying to exactly say: they consult in Hebrew among themselves and then go on to say something else, so I go to have a chat with them after their talk.
"Who paid you to come here, the Israeli Knesset or J Street?" I ask.
"J Street," comes the reply, and it is J Street that puts them in nice hotels, they add.
What is on their mind?
"I like that girl," MK Yoel Hasson of the Israeli Kadima party tells me, pointing at Yael, an Israeli lady sitting nearby, "but she says no."
I ask him for his comments about J Street's recent recommendation that the Obama administration should not veto a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel, a move that earned J Street quite a few enemies in the Jewish world. He is against it, he says: "I told them."
"Did you? When?"
Hasson, smart man that he is, explains that he did so in private.
"Why not in public?"
"I was not asked," he says.
I leave the MKs alone and go to Theater J, as recommended in the J Street guidebook. Tonight there is a staged-reading of a play by an Israeli playwright. It takes over two hours and can be summed up in one sentence: Jews are cold-blooded murderers while Palestinians are romantic sweethearts. Written by a Jew, directed by a Jew, produced by Jews. An older man in the audience tells me: "The Germans admitted what they did and asked forgiveness, but not the Jews." Yes, if you didn't figure it out by now: The J in Theater J stands for Jews. Like J Street. Special kind of Jews: The un-spelled-out Jews.
The Obama Administration seems to like J Streeters: the administration sent Dennis Ross, the veteran US mediator in the Mideast, to give a speech. This is a major victory for J Street: Official Recognition.
Reading from prepared statements and speaking in a monotone, Dennis Ross talks about the various uprisings in the Middle East, and basically repeats whatever CNN and Fox and every other news media have already broadcast and printed weeks before. "We work intensively with our partners and our allies" in the area, he says, and then adds words about Obama's "unshakeable support" for Israel's security. The Js are seemingly disappointed. Their major victory suddenly rings defeat. This is not what they had bargained for. The man did not bash the Jews. He was not harsh. He did not say, for example, that the Germans were better than the Jews. That would have been nice, wouldn't it?
J Streeters, I say to myself after spending a couple of days with them, are not self-hating Jews. A more accurate depiction would be: Self-denying Js: they would like to deny that they even are Jews. The self-denying are a grade below the self-haters. Self-haters still have a "Jew" connection. The Self-deniers have long moved away from this. To them, the "Jew" is another person, an entity that has nothing to do with them. The closest relation with which they can view themselves as Jews is that of the Darwinists to monkeys. Once upon a time when the white man was a monkey, the J was a Jew. The hate for the "Jew" here pounds deep.
How did they get this way? Hard to tell. You have rabbis here such as Rabbis for Human Rights, who in their hometowns barely get three Jews to attend their services, yet fly all over the world to criticize "Jews." The people here embrace every Arab they can find, but the Arabs -- like Muhammad --- mock them. At least the Arabs, like Mona, stand up for their people.
The Js are the children and grandchildren of those who have been expelled and slaughtered by the nations of the world for thousands of years; people who have been told ever and again that they were ugly and inhuman; people who have been denied the right to have a land of their own; people who have been described by the spiritual leaders of the world as incapable of grasping justice; people who have been called Children of the Devil by one religion and Pigs by another. The Js do not want this stigma anymore -- not for them, not for their children. The Jews, they say in their hearts, are not us: We are not monkeys anymore.
As the Conference of the Js is about to close, the organizers here have a gala dinner. I am invited to look, but not to dine. J Street, you see, has an interesting policy: Only Five star journalists are invited to dine with them. Bernd Debusmann of Reuters, for example, is invited to dine as well. Mr. Debusmann had just published an article entitled, "Who's the superpower, America or Israel?" in which he claimed that, "American presidents tend to bow to Israeli wishes." Yes, the Js obviously love journalists who spread the news that the handful of Jews who somehow survived the Holocaust malignantly control the world. Be an anti-Semite and J Street will feed you. You will even get cold champagne.
I leave J Street and go back to my designer hotel. Warm champagne never tasted better.