The Stealth Legitimacy of J Street
Did you know that J Street -- which is a political lobbying organization (please, let's acknowledge it already) -- is launching a new national election-year initiative? The people at J Street have plans to train the organization's supporters to lobby for the candidates they support and to ensure the defeat of candidates supported by "right-wing Republican" Jews in this year's presidential election. Perhaps that doesn't surprise you, but what if you learned that some of those political training sessions were taking place in your local synagogues (Chicago and San Francisco), or Jewish community centers (Nashville and Minneapolis), or even your local Federation building (Philadelphia)?
A recent e-mail from Carinne Luck, J Street's vice president for campaigns, announced the launch of a new J Street initiative, "Future of Pro-Israel." Luck describes this purely political election-year initiative as J Street's effort to set a new course in "national and communal politics." Luck labels it a direct response to donations by two Jewish millionaires to two political organizations of Republican candidates for U.S. president. J Street makes no effort to conceal where donations to counter Republican support are supposed to go, but let's spell it out: if you oppose people supporting Republican candidates, including the man who is the presumptive Republican nominee, where does one suppose your financial support is going to go? Here's a hint: it's going to an eight-letter word starting with D, and it isn't Dinosaur.
This is a free country, and if J Street reveals itself honestly as a purely political advocate for Democratic candidates, then it has a right to donate to whomever it wants. But J Street is succeeding in having it both ways, by doing pure politics but cloaking itself with the hecksher of the official Jewish community -- its buildings, its patina of charity and good works -- in order to advance its purely partisan political goal.
When you click on the link to find J Street's new initiative in your community, you learn several things: (1) the effort is solely part of J Street's lobbying, advocacy and campaign arms, not the arm that is bound by the same rules that bind Federations, JCCs, and synagogues; (2) J Street calls itself the "political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans"; (3) several of the descriptions make it clear that this is an intensive lobbying campaign to support political candidates who share J Street's vision; and (4) some of the places where these intensely political lobbying-training efforts are being held are in our Jewish communal homes, which are limited by federal law and community consensus from engaging in lobbying or political campaigning.
For example, J Street Philadelphia is holding its Political Initiative launch at the Philadelphia Federation building, although the event is sponsored only by its political entities -- those that are permitted to engage in lobbying and campaigning -- and not the tax-exempt arm. Not only that, but even on its Facebook page, J Street Philadelphia labels itself only a political organization.
In most other cities, the J Street lobbying launch is being held in private homes, which makes sense. But while it appears that only Philadelphia is allowing its Federation building to be used to launch this lobbying effort, there are some cities in which the Jewish Community Centers and some synagogues have allowed these lobbying campaigns to take place. The nearly identical language used to describe most of the local efforts focuses on action to be taken during this "election season" and includes training for being "on the front lines of voter engagement in this important election year."
Should Jewish Federations or Jewish Community Centers or synagogues host one-sided political events or lobbying efforts? Of course not. Those entities need to remain neutral so that all Jews feel welcome in their communal centers. And from a financial standpoint, those Jewish communal entities must also avoid any semblance of political favor, because the only way such entities are created, exist, and grow is through funding from donors, in exchange for which the donors can deduct the value of the donations when reporting their income for tax purposes. And that is why, usually, religious institutions are loath to allow anything that smells political, particularly when it comes to election season, within their gates. Even the appearance of supporting a particular politician or lobbying effort can create serious problems.
So why are some Jewish organizations allowing their facilities to be used for J Street's unabashedly political initiative? The answer in Philadelphia probably reflects the thought process that took place in other Jewish communities, which was twofold: (1) they assumed the event was not political, and (2) Jewish institutions strive to be inclusive. Why did Philadelphia think the event was not going to be political? Because the decision-makers there, at least initially, did not see the original announcement of J Street's Political Initiative, and because many think of J Street as a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization -- the same as are Federations, JCRCs, and the other alphabet soup of Jewish organizations.
You see, by originally presenting itself as simply another Jewish organization, but with a decidedly leftist orientation, the J Street national and local affiliates were able to participate in Jewish communal life as if they were just another nonprofit, pro-Israel, Jewish organization. But J Street* is now an overtly political entity, working for political candidates who support its causes and working to create candidates who will champion those causes. It is a lobbying effort that came in the front door of our communities wearing its nonprofit, tax-exempt status but which is now operating within our gates in its political, lobbying, campaign incarnation. And that feint leaves our Jewish entities' tax status, and certainly their nonpartisan stance, vulnerable -- while J Street, which gave subtle but sufficient indications of what it is really doing, has little to hide.
Can you imagine any synagogue, JCC, or Federation allowing, say, the Republican Jewish Committee to launch a lobbying effort in their buildings? Or a Tea Party planning event? Of course not. So if not them, then why this J Street Political Initiative? Because it succeeded in achieving stealth legitimacy, to our peril.
Lori Lowenthal Marcus is the president of Z STREET and the executive committee chair of the National Conference on Jewish Affairs.
* The J Street Education Fund is a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization for education and outreach, but that arm of J Street is not involved in this new initiative.