03/28/2012 12:14 pm ET Updated Mar 28, 2012

Pro-Israel J Street Group Faces Growing Pains At Annual Convention

WASHINGTON -- By the time former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the crowd at J Street's annual gathering Monday night that he had "a little secret" to share about Israelis -- that they often disagree with one another, even within the same family -- the old saw had taken on new meaning.

Over the previous three days of J Street's annual conference, which ended Tuesday, the line about friendly disagreements had become something of a defining refrain -- part mission statement, part defensive rationale.

A little less than four years old, J Street was founded with the purpose of creating amicable discord in the house of Israel, or more specifically, of pro-Israeli Jews.

Dissatisfied with the monolithic, and increasingly conservative messaging of the better-funded and more-established American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), J Street sought to make space for alternative viewpoints on Israel. Where AIPAC has tended to emphasize the threat, to Israel, of terrorism and a nuclear Iran, J Street has focused on the danger of the status quo and the failure of the Palestinian peace process.

This year's annual convention, with the slogan "Making History," was designed to be its largest and most glamorous yet: In addition to a former prime minister and two attaches from the Obama administration, J Street would be greeted with in-person remarks from a sitting Israeli government official, for the first time ever.

But when Barukh Binah, the deputy chief of mission at the Israeli embassy, rose to address the gala dinner earlier Monday night, he brought his fighting words.

"Unlike your cozy existence between two shores, our borders are curved and dusty and made of missiles and mayhem," Binah warned, as the several hundred people in attendance shifted uncomfortably in their seats. "It is the Israelis who have to bear the ultimate burdens and might have to bear the ultimate price, so we need you to stand with us."

Dismissing J Street's policy proscriptions and panel discussions as mere "Quidditch games," he added, "Internal activism is a central part of democratic society, but pressures on the elected government of Israel can present us with a problem."

"Disrespectful," muttered one diner, as he tucked into his fish dinner once the speech was over. "Classless," said another. J Street's official Twitter live-feed of the event made no mention of Binah's appearance.

Olmert, whose own wife and children have been known to speak out disapprovingly of his political views, was left to play peacemaker, calling the Binah's remarks "all in the family."

"The fact that the government decided to send him -- that is the important thing," Olmert said.

If nothing else, J Street's four-day convention confirmed that the group still has that insurgent feel to it.

Holding the gathering in the same hall where AIPAC had its own convention, just three weeks earlier, only added to this conclusion, and made for an easy measure of AIPAC's considerably greater influence and breadth.

With 13,000 people at its convention, AIPAC consumed the entire massive conference hall. J Street, with a comparatively slight 2,500 attendees, had to split the convention center with three other events, including the Photoshop World Conference & Expo.

And while AIPAC had speeches from the sitting Israeli president and prime minister, as well as President Barack Obama, J Street settled for Antony Blinken, Vice President Biden's national security adviser, and presidential aide Valerie Jarrett, whose biggest applause lines came when she mentioned a women's right to choose and health care.

Still, off in the smaller panel sessions and side room discussions held throughout the conference, there were hints of J Street's inroads.

At one cathartic panel on Monday, several members of Congress -- all Democrats -- described the group with the breathlessness of a religious revival.

"J Street is like an organization I've been looking for for 25 years," said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas).

"We have a huge stake in not letting Israel and the Middle East become a political wedge issue," added Rep. David Price (D-N.C.). "I think the alternative voice that J Street has empowered -- speaking up for a point of view that often has not been received as the dominant point of view in this debate -- I think that's extremely valuable."

In this, and just about everything that took place through the weekend, Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street's energetic executive director, took heart.

"We're the third largest gathering of Jewish Americans in the country this year -- the fact that we're able to do that in under four years is just incredible I'd say," Ben-Ami told The Huffington Post. "We have nothing to apologize for."

He'd love to have Republicans join the group, he said, and he'd loved to have the president address them: "At one point he will come. Maybe this president, or maybe another one, but we're sure it will happen eventually."

As for the controversy swirling around the Israeli attache's remarks Monday night? Ben-Ami aimed to lower the temperature: "We're pleased that the government and the embassy finally decided to acknowledge the reality that the discussion between us is one that needs to take place."

"There aren't many organizations that in under four years have been able to change the conversation in the way that we have," he went on brightly. "We haven't had the impact on U.S. policy in quite the way we'd want yet, but there's no question that at least the conversation has shifted."