J Street: A New Approach on Israel?

J Street
By Andrea Dessi

Almost four years have passed since J Street’s founding as a non-profit corporation and a registered lobbying organisation in Washington, DC. Calling itself “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans”, J Street has positioned itself as an alternative to the more traditional, right-leaning, Jewish lobbying organisations and is today slowly emerging as a new force within America’s Jewish community. 

Boasting the support of 170,000 Americans, the group has recently concluded its second annual conference where about 2,000 participants, including 500 college students, gathered to debate and formulate a call on the US administration to actively increase its efforts aimed at achieving a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

“J Street aims to redefine and expand the very concept of what it means to be pro-Israel”, reads a note on J Street’s website. “No longer should this ‘pro-’ require an ‘anti-’. In the 21st century, we have reached a moment in history where supporting a Palestinian state is the only way to ensure Israel’s survival as a democracy and a national home for the Jewish people. Being pro-peace is, indeed, being pro-Israel”.

Predictably J Street’s appearance on the scene has attracted both scepticism and outright condemnation from many of the more established Jewish lobbying organizations in the US. The group has been repeatedly attacked from the right in both America and Israel and its conference was shunned by the Israeli embassy which refused to dispatch any of its representatives to address the gathering. Five Israeli Knesset Members (MKs) belonging to Labour and Israel’s centre-right Kadima party did attend the conference and official letters were sent by Israel’s President, Shimon Peres, and Tzipi Livni, Kadima leader and head of Israel’s opposition.

Subsequently, on  23 March, J Street’s activities were the subject of a heated debate in the Israeli Knesset when the Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs held a session aimed at investigating whether the group is sufficiently "committed" to Israel. In a strong rebuttal of the Knesset’s decision to hold the debate, J Street’s founder and president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, released a statement calling the decision “unprecedented in the history of Israel” and “one more regrettable step by a small but growing group of anti-democratic forces in Israeli politics to limit debate and to intimidate those with whom they disagree”. Following the hearing, MK Danny Danon, Likud chairman of the Knesset committee, released a statement saying he would soon present a resolution describing J Street as “pro-Palestinian”, asking its leadership to “purge from its ranks” anti-Zionist elements and calling on the Israeli government to boycott its activities.

Much of the controversy surrounding J Street is traceable to the organisation’s  decision last month to lobby the US government to not veto a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s continued settlement construction in the Palestinian territories. This decision quickly placed J Street in the crosshairs of many of the more conservative Jewish lobby groups which claimed that the organisation’s decision to oppose a US veto was proof that their  pro-Israel credentials are doubtful. Moreover, this event builds on a previous controversy in which J Street’s president, after repeatedly denying the claims, was forced to admit that his organisation had received a substantial donation (US$750,000) from Jewish philanthropist and notorious critic of Israeli policies, George Soros. These revelations, combined with claims that J Street helped South African judge, Richard Goldstone, book meetings on Capitol Hill following the publication of a UN backed report harshly critical of both Hamas and Israel for their actions during Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, have made J Street into something of an outcast among the more traditional backers of Israel. Many of J Street’s critics are in fact quick to cite that the group’s distance from Israel and limited exposure to the realities on the ground in Israel/Palestine have translated into short-sighted and even “naive” policy decisions by the organisation’s  leadership. 

Israeli Ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, expressed his discomfort towards the group by stating that while J Street members “claim they’re pro-Israel, they are calling for Israel to be condemned in the Security Council ... so they can call themselves what they like”. Jeremy Ben-Ami replied in a Haaretz interview, saying that while J Street does disagree with the government of Israel on numerous policy issues, “to meet only with the people that you agree with is not the way you conduct diplomacy and not the way the Ambassador of the State of Israel should relate to the US Jewish community”. While addressing J Street’s annual conference Ben-Ami went further and also publicly criticized some of America’s more established Jewish lobby organisations, chief among them the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). “It makes no sense that for three years, the leadership of such institutions as AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, and the Anti-Defamation League have almost uniformly refused to take the stage with me or with representatives of J Street” he said. 

The J Street group is subdivided into three legally independent but ideologically affiliated bodies. J Street itself, founded in April 2008, is a registered lobby organisation  that uses “online organising, advocacy, and education to achieve its goals on Capitol Hill and with the Executive Branch” in the White House. J StreetPAC, an alternative to the rightist dominated AIPAC which has made a name for itself by unconditionally supporting successive Israeli governments while promoting smear campaigns against critics of Israel’s policies in the Palestinian territories, is a political action committee “established to endorse and raise money” for political candidates supportive of J Street’s vision. According to its website, J StreetPAC raised US$578,000 for the 41 candidates it endorsed in the run up to the 2008 US Congressional Elections. 33 out of these 41 candidates won their races, with three working in the US Senate and the remainder in the US House of Representatives. Finally, the third organisation affiliated with J Street is that which relates to its work at a grassroots level with American youth.  The J Street Education Fund and related branches J Street Local and J Street U, which are today active on many US campuses and are credited with attracting over 500 college students to J Street’s annual conference, aims “to educate targeted communities about the need for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, raise the visibility of a mainstream pro-Israel, pro-peace presence within the American Jewish community, and promote open, dynamic and spirited conversation about how to best advance the interests and future of a democratic, Jewish Israel”. This emphasis on creating an open space for debate is perhaps J Street’s most welcomed contribution to what was otherwise a somewhat sterile, zero-sum, discussion within America’s Jewish community that predominantly concentrated on Israel’s security needs while ignoring the wider implications of Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.     

Ultimately, while J Street “unequivocally supports the existence of the State of Israel” it also wishes to make clear “to politicians and policymakers alike that no one group can claim a monopoly on what it means to be pro-Israel in America”. It is precisely this more liberal approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and US-Israeli relations, one that supplies an alternative to the Jewish lobby’s rigid and unquestioning support for Israel “right or wrong”, that is succeeding in attracting the attention of America’s Jewish community. Support for J Street is in fact especially significant among younger generations of American Jews who are struggling to identify with many Israeli policies they feel run counter to their liberal American beliefs. “A big-tent, centrist approach that staunchly defends both Israelis’ and Palestinians’ rights to thrive was absent from the scene before J Street arrived”, writes Jesse Singal in the Boston Globe, adding that this approach “is a natural fit for the relatively liberal American Jewish community”. Responding to mounting criticism of J Street in Israel, Jesse Rothman and Logan Bayroff, two prominent leaders of J Street U, recently published an opinion article in The Jerusalem Post in which they expressed their view that it was time to forge “a new” relationship between Israel and America’s Jewish community. “Judaism is a religion of openness, discussion and dissent”, continued the authors, “on almost all political and social issues, Jews hold a wide range of opinions and engage in vigorous debate. Yet when it comes to Israel, for too long all have been encouraged to subscribe to one vision and to ignore anything that might contradict it. This relationship more closely resembles that of a fan club than a loving family. What Israel really needs from American Jews is not admirers, but brothers and sisters”. 

 

7 April 2011

 

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