August 16, 2009
The Misrepresentation of J Street
There has been a surge of liberal to leftist organizations who claim to be pro-Israel, but who actually boast agendas that undercut the legitimacy of the Jewish State. The most well-known of these is J Street, because of its visibility in the press, which has vastly overstated its significance as a gauge of Jewish opinion. J Street claims to advocate equally for both the Arab and Israeli positions. But in reality, it espouses an aesthetic that belittles genuine expressions of Jewish political self-determination while legitimizing the revisionist and unhistorical Arab narrative.
Moreover, J Street is not above deception, as for example when it was exposed for misrepresenting poll data in claiming that the majority of Israelis favor negotiations with Hamas, when in fact objective polls showed precisely the opposite. Its motives are suspect and critics believe that its claim to represent a legitimate pro-Israel point of view is showmanship worthy of P.T. Barnum.
At a glance, J Street seems to be a study in contradictions. Its members claim that they support Israel, but they rigorously advance the Arab historical myth. Some of them view Israel as racist for affirmatively asserting her Jewish character, but fail to level the same criticism at the 22 Arab-Muslim states of the Middle East in which Jews either have no substantive rights or are not permitted to reside. They pontificate that Israel must recognize the dubious historical rights of the Palestinians, but do not insist with equal vigor on an Arab obligation to acknowledge Jewish historical claims. Moreover, they routinely equate Arab aggression and terror as morally equivalent to Israel's legitimate acts of self-defense.
And yet, these seemingly conflicting positions really present no contradictions at all. Rather, they are perfectly consistent with the usual treatment of Israel by the political left. The difference between J Street and other left-leaning groups is that it attempts to camouflage its inclinations under layers of general declarations of love and support for the State of Israel, although not for the political expressions of its government. J Street's critics do not believe that this position is truly pro-Israel, however, and an analysis of its executives and advisors gives weight to their criticism.
One of the spiritual mentors of J Street, although not its financial sponsor, is George Soros, who is not known as a friend to Israel. Soros reportedly opted not to fund the group because his identification with liberal causes, and one assumes his positions on Israel, would have been imputed to J Street. Nevertheless, a review of its website indicates that J Street is no less liberal than Soros, and has a typical leftist slant with respect to military or governmental actions taken by Israel. The bias is often expressed as patronizing criticism of Israel for taking actions that, while perhaps understandable (e.g., the action in Gaza), are not deemed to be in Israel's "long-term interests." Of course, the determination of Israel's long-term interests appears to be based on the naïve presumption that more concessions and impossible restraint will garner Arab respect and acceptance, despite the deadly results of past concessions -- from the Intifada that followed the Oslo folly to the inevitable war following the unilateral disengagement from Gaza.
Founder and spokesman Jeremy Ben-Ami routinely proclaims J Street's support for the Jewish State, but these public affirmations are diluted by the organization's stated positions and the clear presence of radical leftists or anti-Israel ideologues on its Advisory Council. This Advisory Council includes individuals who belong to and represent other organizations that have documented biases against Israel. Many of these organizational co-travelers go out of their way to fault Israel for legitimate acts of self-defense, and often express the simplistic yet politicized view that Israel has the obligation to demure to opponents who have historically rejected her existence on religious, political and cultural grounds. Thus, J Street proclaims among its advisors a number of individuals whose "pro-Israel" credentials are suspect in light of the organizations they represent.
Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami has experience in both politics and government. Among other things, he served as Howard Dean's policy director during his presidential campaign and worked for President Bill Clinton from 1992-1996, serving for two years as the President's Deputy Domestic Advisor. He is also on the board of Americans for Peace Now. Although not on J Street's Advisory Council, he serves as its Executive Director and spokesman, and his views can be gleaned from his many public statements. In an on-line Q & A interview with Haaretz, Mr. Ben-Ami said a few things that should give even neutral observers pause. When asked whether he supported negotiating with Hamas, for example, he had this to say:
Hamas as a significant political force in that society isn't going away. I found it very compelling that we were talking to a Lebanese government that included Hezbollah representation. Why wouldn't we do the same with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas and is willing to engaged in negotiations and abide by the results? Don't forget 69% of Israelis support the Israeli government talking to Hamas. (Emphasis added.)
As has been reported, however, the poll results upon which J Street relies are misleading or inaccurate. As reported by CAMERA and others, objective polls actually show that a significant majority of Israelis reject negotiations with Hamas, whose charter still calls for the eradication of the State of Israel.
Moreover, a poll recently published by the Israeli Institute of Democracy shows that 43% of Israelis oppose any evacuation of the so-called settlements, while 35% support the evacuation of only isolated settlements and the annexation of the four large settlement blocks. Perhaps most significantly, only 22% of Israelis favor a total evacuation of the West Bank settlements.
Regarding the war in Gaza, Mr. Ben-Ami had this to say:
We had reservations about the Israeli response in Gaza because we felt that, while military action was justifiable and understandable, the action as carried out was not in Israel's long-term interest.Certainly a nation under military attack has every right to respond militarily, but we felt that the overwhelming military force used and the consequent devastation that it caused did not advance Israel's interests. Hatred in Gaza was only deepened and anger in the broader Arab community heightened. Meanwhile, Israel's standing in the broader international community sunk even further. In return, none of the stated objectives of the operation were achieved as rocket fire wasn't stopped and Hamas remained in charge.
Left out of this analysis is any indication of what J Street believes Israel could have done differently that would have been consistent with her "long-term interests," aside from unilateral capitulation, or any indication of what those long-term interests actually were.
Arab Peace Initiative
And when asked J Street's position on the so-called Arab peace initiative, Mr. Ben-Ami had this to say:
Yes, we support the idea behind the Arab Peace Initiative -- which is that resolution of the conflict needs to be regional and comprehensive. It should be possible for Israel to make peace not simply with its neighbors but with all 22 Arab nations and the broader Muslim world.
The proposal is itself not a "peace plan" or a resolution of the conflict. It is an offer that lays out the basis for ultimate resolution to the conflict - which still leaves a lot to be negotiated.
Omitted from this colloquy was any discussion of the nature of this so-called "peace initiative," which as proffered by the Saudis calls for Israel to retreat to indefensible borders, cede all of the Golan, and recognize the Arab "right of return," while receiving nothing but the promise of normalization after these unilateral concessions. Interestingly, this promise does not guarantee recognition and will include no acknowledgment that Israel is a Jewish nation or the historic Jewish homeland. Insistence on the Arab "right of return" is consistent with this rejection, insofar as its purpose is to use a flood of Arab immigration to dilute the Jewish majority.
Mr. Ben-Ami apparently believes that being pro-Israel does not require one to agree with any and all actions of the Israeli government and military, and frankly he is correct in this assessment. There are many legitimate areas upon which supporters of Israel can disagree with the Israeli government and with each other. However, there is a world of difference between objective criticism of Israel's actions and the acceptance of positions that are antithetical to her continued viability and the safety of her people. Further, any endorsement of the Saudi plan -- particularly without critically assessing its actual intent, recognizing that it requires only Israel to make concessions, and conceding that formal recognition by the Arab nations is not guaranteed and will include no acknowledgment of her Jewish character -- cannot be construed as "pro-Israel."
The J Street website describes its Advisory Council as including "over 160 prominent former public officials, policy experts, community and academic leaders." Two interesting names that immediately jump off the page are Marcia Freedman, the founder of Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, and Steve Masters, the President of that organization. If one can assume that their identification with Brit Tzedek provides insight into their views on Israel, then a review of the organization's goals and actions would seem to be a legitimate barometer of those views.
Among other things, Brit Tzedek has collaborated with anti-Zionist groups, such as Jewish Voice for Peace, the Bay Area Women in Black, and the International Solidarity Movement, in and around San Francisco. Brit Tzedek refuses to identify itself as pro-Zionist and is reported to have criticized the singing of Hatikvah at a rally in support of the Annapolis Conference. It also lobbied against the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Bill in 2006, and reportedly accused the IDF of committing war crimes by using white phosphorous during the war in Gaza (even though Israel was found by the International Red Cross, which is usually highly critical of Israel, not to have committed war crimes by the use of phosphorus).
It is difficult to see how such actions by Brit Tzedek can be construed as "pro-Israel." Rather, they appear to run counter to Israel's interests and would seem, in the absence of any repudiation, to reflect the views of the organization's representatives. Consequently, it is curious that J Street could include representatives of Brit Tzedek on its Advisory Council without undercutting its supposedly pro-Israel credentials.
Another member of the Advisory Council is Ricken Patel, the co-founder and Executive Director of Avaaz.org., which describes itself as a "new global web movement with a simple democratic mission: to close the gap between the world we have, and the world most people everywhere want." A review of the mission statement shows that the organization is devoted to left-wing causes across the globe. Avaaz claims to support a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict, promotes the Palestinian national myth, and fails to identify Arab rejectionism as a core obstacle to peace. How Avaaz truly regards Israel can be inferred by reviewing the statement it posted during the war in Gaza. The posting states, in relevant part, as follows:
The people of Gaza are being squeezed to death. This week's blackouts have finally reached the attention of the world -- and the international community could help end the blockade. Our obligation is clear. This isn't about Israel vs Palestine or Hamas vs Fatah: this is about 1.5 million human beings locked up in the biggest prison on earth.... The humanitarian crisis of sealed-off Gaza is only getting worse, and a rain of missiles is falling.
Of course, Avaaz posted no such proclamations condemning Hamas for precipitating the war by its daily missile and terror attacks against Israeli civilians in the years following the disengagement from Gaza. Nor did it release any denunciations of Hamas for using Arab civilians as shields, or for locating artillery and other weaponry in homes, schools and hospitals. Again, it is difficult to see how J Street consolidates its position as a supposed advocate for Israel by including on its Advisory Council the Executive Director of an organization with such an apparently slanted view of the Middle East.
The Advisory Council also includes Peter Edelman and Norman Rosenberg, who are, respectively, the Board Chair and former CEO of the New Israel Fund. This organization is known for its support of radical groups that have attacked Jewish towns in Judea and Samaria, and for funding Arab groups, such as Adala, Mossawa, and the Arab Human Rights Association, which are committed to the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state. In particular, Adala is uncompromising in its demand for the unlimited Arab "right of return," the purpose of which is to destroy Israel demographically.
A true Israel advocacy organization should marginalize groups such as the New Israel Fund, and by extension the radical associations they sponsor. Yet, J Street actually legitimizes the New Israel Fund and lends it an air of credibility by including its executives and representatives on the Advisory Council. J Street's endorsement by inclusion extends to other ultra-liberal Jewish groups who claim to speak for Jewish values, but whose understanding seems to be informed more by a secular left-leaning perspective or perversion of those values.
For example, the J Street Advisory Council also includes Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, a member of "Rabbis for Human Rights." Rabbi Firestone's orientation with respect to Israel can be inferred from her effort in organizing the "Jewish Fast for Gaza." A description of the fast appears at the website www.fastforgaza.net, and states in relevant part the following:
The Jewish Fast for Gaza is an ad hoc group of rabbis, Jews, and people of conscience who have committed to undertake a monthly daytime fast in support of the following goals:
1. To call for a lifting of the blockade that prevents the entry of civilian goods and services into Gaza;
2. To provide humanitarian and developmental aid to the people of Gaza;
3. To call upon Israel, the US, and the international community to engage in negotiations without pre-conditions with all relevant Palestinian parties - including Hamas - in order to end the blockade;
4. To encourage the American government to vigorously engage both Israelis and Palestinians toward a just and peaceful settlement of the conflict.
Rabbi Firestone rationalizes the fast with citations to Jewish sources. For example, she cites the Mishnah (Avot 1:18), for the maxim stating: "On three things the world stands: on justice, on truth and on peace," to justify the use of moral equivalence. Concerning this verse she states:
From this we learn that justice, truth and peace are interdependent and irrevocably intertwined. Thus we cannot separate our call for justice in Gaza from the painful truth of this conflict and the ongoing tragedy of war in this tortured region. We condemn Hamas' deliberate targeting of Israeli civilians. Out of the same ethical commitments we also condemn the use of much greater violence by the Israeli government, causing many more deaths of Palestinian civilians. Since the end of Israel's recent military campaign, the severe humanitarian crisis in Gaza has grown all the more dire.
Like many liberal or left-wing critics of Israel, she also seems to employ the logic of moral equivalence to place the actions of Hamas and Israel on a level ethical playing field. With respect to the ascendancy of Hamas in Gaza she says:
Since Hamas' electoral victory in January 2006, Israel has subjected the Gaza Strip to an increasingly intolerable blockade that restricts Gaza's ability to import food, fuel and other essential materials, and to export finished products. As a result, the Gazan economy has completely collapsed. Most of Gaza's industrial plants have been forced to close, further contributing to already high levels of unemployment and poverty and rising levels of childhood malnutrition. (www.fastforgaza.net)
There is no need to parse the foregoing statements for intent or deeper meaning. The words plainly speak for themselves. The only question is how the views expressed or fairly implied by these words can be reconciled with J Street's claims of pro-Israel advocacy.
Perhaps most telling for J Street's supposed pro-Israel credentials is the inclusion of Robert Malley on its Advisory Council. There is simply no way to construe Malley as pro-Israel or even politically neutral. The son of anti-Israel ideologue Simon Malley, the younger Malley apparently did not fall far from the tree. As a writer, he has produced articles misrepresenting fact and history regarding Israel, including a New York Times op-ed entitled, "Fictions about the Failure of Camp David," in which he blamed Israel exclusively for the failure of Clinton's attempt to coerce a deal at Camp David. Malley expunged or minimized Arafat's responsibility for the Camp David fiasco and the preplanned intifada that followed. He co-wrote this article with frequent collaborator and former Arafat advisor Hussein Agha, and his revisionist account contrasts sharply with the recollections of Dennis Ross and Bill Clinton.
Moreover, Malley is associated with the International Crisis Group funded by George Soros, and was alleged to have served as Barack Obama's special envoy to the Middle East, although both Malley and the President denied that he served in any official capacity. Nevertheless, he reportedly met with representatives of the Syrian and Egyptian governments and allegedly with members of Hamas (although that too was denied) despite Hamas' inclusion on the U.S. terror watch list. He is also well known as an apologist for Hamas and Hezbollah, with whom he advocates dialogue despite their continued pledges to eradicate Israel; and has been criticized for actively seeking to weaken America's relationship with Israel.
Given Malley's apparent animus toward Israel, and his espousal of revisionist views, it is difficult to reconcile his inclusion on the Advisory Council with J Street's claimed affinity for Israel. Although Mr. Ben-Ami is certainly correct in his belief that support for Israel does not require agreement with all actions of the Israeli government, pro-Israel advocacy cannot be reconciled with the public words and deeds of individuals like Robert Malley.
The foregoing represents only a few of the 160 members of J Street's Advisory Council; and to be fair, many of J Street's constituents probably truly consider themselves to be pro-Israel. However, the inclusion on the Advisory Council of individuals representing organizations with often extreme views provides a sobering counterbalance to J Street's pretension to speak for Israel's "long-term interests." The danger is that J Street's claimed support for Israel will be taken at face value by those with limited knowledge of world history in general and Jewish history in particular, as well as those with minimal Jewish self-awareness. And by claiming that it represents a mainstream Jewish view, despite what objective polls might actually suggest, J Street will continue to be used by the Obama administration to justify its efforts to undercut Israel. A review of J Street's supporters, mentors and advisors, however, provides a more realistic measure of the organization's attitudes regarding Israel, which are not objective and which, according to recent polls, do not represent the majority view.
Of related interest: J Street's Arab and Muslim donors revealed