September 17, 2009
Give J a Chance
The people trying to discredit J Street, the new left-leaning pro-Israel lobbying group, are using many of the same tactics Barack Obama’s opponents used to try to derail his presidential campaign. I have one question for them: How’d that work out?
J Street got a big boost this week as the subject of a top story in The New York Times Sunday Magazine, the country’s largest Jewish weekly. J Street’s founding director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, landed his full-on portrait inside the magazine.
Two days before, he appeared, in three dimensions, in my office for our first-ever meeting. Ben-Ami has impeccable Zionist yichus — his grandparents were among the first settlers of what would become Tel Aviv, and his father, Yitzhak Ben-Ami, was an activist for the militant pre-state Irgun movement. But Ben-Ami himself, a deputy domestic-policy adviser during Bill Clinton’s first term, is as youthful and wonky as a well-written “West Wing” character. So it helps his and J Street’s street cred that he’s making the rounds with Colette Avital, a longtime, no-nonsense Israeli pol with the right accent, who once served as her country’s consul general in New York.
J Street sees itself as a corrective to what it considers the monolithic, right-leaning voice of AIPAC. In his conversation with me, Ben-Ami was careful to praise AIPAC as an effective lobbying group on Israel’s behalf. But too often, he said, it has marched in lockstep with intransigent Israeli governments, or actually undermined good-faith efforts to move forward the Arab-Israeli peace process.
So Ben-Ami founded J Street in 2008, sensing that there exists a mass of Americans, both Jews and non-Jews, who support Israel but oppose its occupation of the West Bank, and who believe the U.S. government could and should do more to facilitate peace between Israel and its enemies.
“The majority of Israelis believe this,” Avital said, quoting a series of polls commissioned by J Street and others. “Some American Jews want to be more holy than the pope.”
Although dwarfed by AIPAC’s $70 million annual budget and massive membership role, J Street has clearly managed to stand out. Within a year, its budget has doubled, to $3 million, and its lobbying staff has doubled to six. Last June, the White House invited Ben-Ami — along with leaders of long-establish Jewish organizations, including AIPAC — for a talk with President Barack Obama. In addition, Ben-Ami — who has a reputation for being smart and strategic — has begun acquiring like-minded organizations to create a single progressive pro-Zionist voice in the United States. To that end, J Street took over the grass-roots organization Brit Tzedek v’Shalom last month. And at an L.A. breakfast just prior to our meeting, he and Avital met with 90 Angelenos from a welter of left-leaning Jewish groups. If J Street can sidestep the worst of the Jewish organization turf wars, which have given us as many defense organizations as there are Starbucks, imagine the impact.
And that impact is clearly frightening more hard-line groups. Every day my e-mail inbox fills with more dire warnings about J Street.
I have received at least a dozen forwarded e-mails of Caroline Glick’s Jerusalem Post column denouncing J Street’s “full-throated support for all of the Obama administration’s anti-Israel policies.” New e-mails arrived this week alleging Palestinian contributors to J Street; describing how J Street cooks its polls, undermines Israeli security by being “soft” on Iran and has secret sources of anti-Israel funding.
I’ve looked into all these claims, and, to be generous, all of them are at least debatable, if not just fallacious. If they sound familiar it’s because they repeat the same hackneyed memes that similar groups used to try to stop Obama: he’s anti-Israel, a foreign agent, a secret Muslim and soft on Iran.
In our discussion, however, Ben-Ami was not blind to Obama’s missteps. He made clear he thinks Obama’s Cairo speech wrongly dated the birth of Israel to the Holocaust, and that Obama placed too much emphasis on Israel’s settlement freeze without placing an equivalent demand on the Arabs. And while Obama may have thought he was speaking to Jews by visiting Buchenwald, what the president really needs to do, Ben-Ami and Avital said, is visit Israel and speak directly to Israelis.
In the meantime, Ben-Ami has deftly lined up for J Street all the elements that worked for Obama: He has compiled an e-mail list of more than 100,000 names, formed a network of young grass-roots activists and a broad, if not deep, donor group. Now the organization is launching J Street U, a series of campus-based events to give pro-Israel, left-leaning students the intellectual tools to defend Israel on campuses and move the J Street agenda forward.
There are two ways the right- and center-leaning Jewish community can approach J Street: it can attack this new initiative and try to crush it, or it can embrace it and hope it thrives. The latter choice is wiser. The most effective answer to the liberal loonies like the ones who put forth the anti-Tel Aviv petition at last week’s Toronto Film Festival is an educated, pro-Israel left. Shoving Bush-era slogans down the throats of the Obama generation is not the best way to reach them.
But the responsibility cuts both ways. For J Street to be most effective, it can’t paint AIPAC in the same cartoonish colors that the anti-Israel crowd does. The two groups could even join forces when possible. But at a time when Israel finds itself increasingly attacked and isolated by the left, Israel needs J Street.
I realize writing about lobbyists and lefties makes for a less-than-inspiring High Holy Days column — but the message beneath it all is this: We are one People with one homeland. Let 5770 be a year that brings both closer to peace.