Street Cred?

28th May 2008

Who does the new Israel lobby really represent?

Consider the plight of the American Jewish peacenik. With Hamas in control of Gaza, Ehud Olmert under investigation, and the West Bank government of Mahmoud Abbas shaky as ever, a negotiated deal between Israelis and Palestinians doesn’t exactly appear imminent. Meanwhile, closer to home, the likely Democratic nominee, Barack Obama, has said he won’t negotiate with Hamas. Under these grim circumstances, what’s a Peace Now type to do?

Enter J Street, a new lobbying group and political action committee that says it will represent the interests of liberal American Jews. The organization derives its name from the fact that Washington’s road system, in which horizontal streets are named after letters of the alphabet, contains no J Street–the grid goes directly from I to K. Just as there is no J Street on the city’s map, the group’s founders maintain that the perspectives of liberal Jews are not adequately represented among Washington’s pro-Israel lobbyists. “It is time for the broad, sensible mainstream of pro-Israel American Jews and their allies to challenge those on the extreme right who claim to speak for all American Jews in the national debate about Israel and the Middle East–and who, through the use of fear and intimidation, have cut off reasonable debate on the topic,” declared J Street founder and former Clinton administration official Jeremy Ben-Ami in a recent piece for The Forward. The group, according to its website, favors “diplomatic solutions over military ones, including in Iran; multilateral over unilateral approaches to conflict resolution; and dialogue over confrontation with a wide range of countries and actors when conflicts do arise.” Perhaps most controversially, its founder favors negotiating with Hamas. “Should there be attempts to engage Hamas and to find dialogue with them? Yes, ” Ben-Ami said last month. One of the other brains behind the group, Daniel Levy, a British-born Israeli citizen and former adviser to Knesset member Yossi Beilin of the left-wing Meretz Party, has been a vociferous advocate of negotiating with the terrorist group.

The genesis of J Street lies in the allegedly right-wing agenda of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)–king of pro-Israel lobbies with 100,000 members and an annual operating budget of $60 million. “I’m not with AIPAC; I do not support AIPAC,” prominent New York lawyer and J Street Advisory Council member Victor Kovner said in a press conference call last month. (Other members of the council include Robert Malley, a former Clinton administration peace negotiator who has defended Yasser Arafat’s rejection of Clinton’s 2000 Camp David peace proposal; founder Eli Pariser; and journalist Eric Alterman.)

J Street’s founders are right about one thing: AIPAC is hardly a perfect organization. There are obvious downsides to its reluctance to criticize Israeli settlement construction–a policy at odds with a long-term solution to the conflict–and its relationship with members of the Christian right is sometimes too close for comfort. Indeed, if J Street were merely an organization that took a posture similar to AIPACs on most issues–supporting U.S. military aid to Israel, lobbying for energy and security cooperation between the two countries, backing legislation that isolates rogue regimes like Iran and Syria–but criticized the settlements and scorned alliances of convenience with the likes of Rick Santorum and John Hagee, then it would probably gain a good deal of support from American Jews. J Street, however, has far bigger ambitions–ambitions that, unfortunately for the group, are built on a set of extremely dubious claims.


The movers and shakers behind the organization allege that American Jews, whose political orientation is overwhelmingly liberal, are not accurately represented by AIPAC and other long-established pro-Israel groups. (Full disclosure: Earlier this year, I traveled to Israel on an AIPAC-sponsored trip for journalists.) Some J Street supporters point to a 2007 survey conducted by the American Jewish Committee (AJC), which found that 58 percent of American Jews identify as Democrats (only 15 percent classify themselves as Republicans) and that Jews overwhelmingly trust Democrats on the Iraq war, terrorism, and the economy. “Within the U.S. Jewish community, there’s [a gap between] the hawkish views expressed by leaders and ‘pro-Israel’ activists and the more dovish opinions of much of the community,” Gershom Gorenberg, one of the group’s intellectual mavens, recently wrote on The American Prospect‘s website. But the real gap, it turns out, is between the miniscule group of writers and activists involved with J Street and the majority of American Jews. It’s true that American Jews are overwhelmingly liberal on most issues; the problem for J Street is that Israel simply isn’t one of those issues. According to the same AJC survey cited by J Street supporters, nearly three-quarters of American Jews do not believe that Israel can “achieve peace with a Hamas-led, Palestinian government,” as J Street’s founder advocates. What’s more, 55 percent believe that negotiations between Olmert and Abbas “cannot lead to peace in the foreseeable future.” And a whopping 82 percent agree with the following statement: “The goal of the Arabs is not the return of occupied territories but rather the destruction of Israel.” None of this should be particularly surprising. After all, holding liberal views on issues like taxes and gay marriage–or even issues like the Iraq war and terrorism–is not mutually exclusive with favoring a tough line on Hamas.

A perusal of J Street’s list of supporters further undermines its pretensions to mainstream credibility. One of the most prominent Israelis involved with the group is Avrum Burg, former speaker of the Knesset. A member of a distinguished Israeli political family, he set off a political scandal last year when, in an interview with Ha’aretz, he claimed that “to define the State of Israel as a Jewish state is the key to its end”; he has also compared contemporary Israel to pre-Nazi Germany. Naomi Chazan is a former Knesset member from the left-wing Meretz Party, which has just five seats (out of 120) in the Knesset. Henry Siegman, a former Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has compared Israel to apartheid South Africa, accused Israeli leaders of having the U.S. government “in their pockets,” and claimed (absurdly) that the 2000 intifada “was not planned by Arafat, but a spontaneous eruption of Palestinian anger.”

Moreover, J Street’s depiction of the pro-Israel establishment–read, AIPAC– as wildly hawkish is more than a bit of a stretch. I called Steve Grossman, AIPAC’s president from 1992 to 1996, to ask him what he thought of this line of attack. After stepping down from his AIPAC post, Grossman became national chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and he later served as chairman of Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. Unsurprisingly, the notion that AIPAC is a right-wing organization strikes him as ridiculous. “There are lots of people who are involved with AIPAC, including me, who have always believed that the two-state solution is essential and the deep involvement of the United States to find a solution, however intractable the problems may be, is absolutely axiomatic,” he says. He points to AIPAC’s early support for the negotiations that led to the 1993 Oslo accords–staunchly opposed by hawks in both Israel and the United States–as but one example where aipac angered many of its conservative supporters. “There were people in AIPAC who felt Oslo was a bad idea, but I’m still proud of the fact that the first American Jewish organization to support Rabin and Peres and the Oslo accords was AIPAC,” he told me.

Given that AIPAC and other similar groups already speak for most American Jews, and given that J Street’s founders are well outside the mainstream of Jewish public opinion, it’s far from clear what, exactly, the new organization can realistically hope to accomplish. Of course, if J Street someday surpasses AIPAC in membership and manages to convince the majority of pro-Israel voters in the United States that negotiations with Hamas are a smart idea, then it will rightly be able to accuse other groups of misrepresenting American Jews. But that is about as likely as crossing J Street on a journey from I to K.

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