Hundreds of people converged at the University of Pennsylvania's Hillel building last week for competing events that offered alternative visions of Israel and U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Though there were few fireworks, neither camp succeeded in attracting many students and, for the most part, both appeared to be preaching their respective messages to the converted.
For the dovish J Street, the Feb. 4 event was an opportunity for Jeremy Ben-Ami, the group's founder and executive director, to speak directly to both the curious and the critical.
But most of the 200 people appeared to be supporters of the group that bills itself as "pro-Israel, pro-peace" and has vowed to mobilize the grass-roots and use its lobbying status to push for aggressive U.S. involvement in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Z Street — a locally based, hawkish group that organized its own event at the last minute to compete with J Street — drew nearly 100 people to hear activist Mitchell G. Bard, who has written extensively on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
In the two years since its establishment, many in the Jewish community have questioned J Street's pro-Israel bona fides. Ben-Ami sought to put forward a more moderate face on the organization, while acknowledging that many of its stances are difficult to categorize because it "lives for the nuance."
A case in point is its position on the United Nations' Goldstone report, which accused both Israel and Hamas of committing war crimes during Operation Cast Lead, the Israel Defense Force's incursion into Gaza beginning in December 2008.
Ben-Ami said that J Street advocates a "middle ground" on Goldstone.
"I don't think it's as simple as you condemn or oppose the report," said the former official in the Clinton White House.
"If there were flaws in the report, let's deal with the flaws in the report. If there were war crimes, let's deal with war crimes," Ben-Ami said in his Philadelphia speech, which was also Webcast to 20 cities around the country.
The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, which represents a broad swath of groups, roundly condemned the report, arguing that it paid no heed to years of rocket attacks from Gaza nor to Israel's right to defend its citizens.
Israel, after much internal debate, has presented to the United Nations a rebuttal to the report, detailing its own military investigation into the war and a commitment to carry out "credible independent investigations."
Ben-Ami has pushed for an independent state commission to investigate alleged wrongdoing.
J Street's position, according to a group spokeswoman, is that Israel's latest statement is on the right track, but the group is waiting to see if the country actually follows through with its words.
At the same time, Ben-Ami said that America should use its U.N. Security Council veto power to keep charges against the Israelis from reaching the International Criminal Court.
Hillel wound up taking some heat for renting space to J Street.
Some students, incensed over the decision, handed out anti- J Street flyers as people walked into the building.
Penn senior Brian Finkel of the student group Zionist Freedom Alliance said: "We take a very firm position that J Street is in no way pro-Israel."
The night before, Finkel had actually brought in someone from the Zionist Organization of America to speak about J Street's platform.
Nevertheless, Penn students Ariel Fisher and Danny Cohen, who both plan to make aliyah after graduating, said that they were happy to see an organization using its political muscle to push for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement and energize students on campus.
Cohen charged that some of J Street's detractors had resorted to intentional distortions to "try and exclude a voice of moderation."
Although J Street is generally seen as allied with the Obama White House, Ben-Ami chided the president for not doing enough to bring about a final peace accord.
"We're looking for results, because time is running out," said Ben-Ami, adding that in his view, Israel's survival as a democracy depends on a long-term peace agreement.
Taking written questions, including from critics, he was asked how Israel can negotiate with the Palestinian Authority when its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, is in a weakened political state.
"The thing that we can do to bolster Abbas is to make a deal," he replied. "The end of the conflict and the creation of a Palestinian state would be a pretty good buck for his popularity rating."
Bard, executive director of the nonprofit American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, said before his own talk that Abbas has not demonstrated much willingness — or taken any concrete steps — toward peacemaking.
He also said that the Israelis have lived without peace for more than 60 years, and took issue with the notion that Israel won't continue to prosper if an agreement isn't reached.
"Israel has been a thriving democracy now for 62 years. It will remain so whether the Arab states and Palestinians decide to accept it and make peace or not," said Bard.
Following his talk, a J Street critic questioned why Ben-Ami repeatedly referred to Israel as the national homeland for the Jewish people, rather than the Jewish state.
"I don't use the word Jewish to define a state," Ben-Ami said in an interview. "A state is a civil institution that has a body of laws that govern how people live. The principle of the separation of religion and state is one of the most powerful concepts in democracy."
Roz Rothstein, the founder of StandWithUs, an Israel-advocacy group, got into a heated exchange with Ben-Ami following his talk.
While she affirmed J Street's right to express its views, she chastised Ben-Ami for suggesting that he knew better than Israeli intelligence what was best for Israel and for pushing Israel to make peace with a non-existent partner.
"Clearly missing from the presentation tonight was any reference to terrorism, incitement or the Hamas charter," stated Rothstein. "I am confused as to why J Street would ignore the present 'elephant-in-the-room' dangers."