The Perils of J Street

In 1955, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations was founded to serve as the collective voice of organized Jewry in the United States.  It included diverse segments of views within the Jewish community.  Its mission is to advance the interests of the American Jewish community, to provide a forum for discussing and establishing policy on vital national and international issues, and to sustain broad-based support for the State of Israel.  On April 30, 2014, the Conference confronted the highly controversial question of whether limits should be put on who is allowed to become a member when J Street applied for admission into the metaphorical tent covering the organizations.

Since its inception in 2008, J Street, co-founded by Jeremy Ben-Ami, who is highly experienced and skilled in public relations, has been very successful in gaining access to and presenting its point of view in Jewish and other public forums.  It was a legitimate issue for the Conference to discuss whether J Street should be allowed inside the tent.  By a vote of 22 against, 17 in favor, and 3 abstentions, a vote that was related to both ideological and tactical issues, J Street was denied entry.  Though J Street’s organizational rhetoric proclaims that it is “Pro-Israeli, Pro-Peace,” the Conference decided that the actions and policies of J Street are not in accordance with the rhetoric.

Everyone can agree that American Jews, like the rest of the world, have the right to be critical of specific Israeli activities with which they disagree.  However, in the case of J Street, one must ask two crucial questions.  The first is whether that criticism is proper if it relentlessly blames only Israel for various actions or non-actions, and does not take into consideration the actions of others.  The second is whether Israel is being judged by a standard not applied to any other country or political group.  The positions of J Street have to be assessed on this basis.

J Street’s position on a number of crucial issues affecting Israel has not been revealed, and there is what appears to be a studied ambiguity in regard to others, but those positions that have been made public have not simply been controversial, but also biased against Israel.  Among them were J Street’s continued support for the Goldstone Report critical of Israel, a document that was initially accepted and then subsequently discredited by analysts, and J Street's constrained support for the Israeli airstrikes that took place in December 2008 to counter the hundreds of rockets coming from terrorists in the Gaza Strip.  J Street’s comment was that “escalating the conflict will prove counterproductive.”

J Street seemed to agree with a letter signed by a number of members of Congress that Israel end “the blockade of Gaza.”  It hesitated in supporting, and even opposed, increased sanctions on Iran’s nuclear weapons development.  It approved the call that the U.S. should not veto a U.N. Security Council Resolution condemning Israeli settlements.  It also displayed a lack of transparency, at least for a time, about its sources of funding.

To deal with these issues, a valuable commentary examining and debating the reality of J Street has appeared in a new film, The J Street Challenge, produced by a group, Americans for Peace and Tolerance, led by Ilya Feoktistov and Charles Jacobs.  The film presents comments on J Street by a number of distinguished scholars and journalists, including Ruth Wisse, Alan Dershowitz, Richard Landes, Daniel Gordis, Caroline Glick, and Bret Stephens.  Regrettably, Ben-Ami refused to be interviewed for the film – ironic, since he was so anxious to be heard inside the tent of the Conference of Presidents.

The film is highly critical of the opinions of and the presentations by J Street regarding Israel.  Those presentations focus, virtually single-mindedly, on the need for peace in the dispute between Israel and its neighbors with the seductive message alluding to Jewish values, Tikkun Olam, of saving lives that has attracted so many, especially young, people.

But the essential simple message of J Street is that peace will occur and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be ended if a Palestinian state is established, and the only way to accomplish this is for Israel to make territorial and other concessions – actions which so far it has refused to take.  This argument entails that it is only Israel that is responsible for continuation of the conflict.  Therefore, pressure to make one-sided concessions must be put on Israel by the self-adulatory J Street, leading minor organizations such as the U.S. Administration, Congress, and the Jewish community, and its centers, synagogues, and college campus organizations, to join in.  

The clips shown of J Street’s speeches and presentations reinforce the film’s analysis that J Street blames Israel for the lack of peace, ignores the refusal of Palestinian and other Arab leaders to accept Israel’s existence and to enter into the negotiation process, and makes no mention of the animosity and hatred the Arab world has ignited against Israel.

The scholars in the film argue that J Street has ignored the historical context of the present-day conflict as well as the reality that the Palestinians and almost all the Arab states have rejected every plan for negotiations.  J Street pays little or no attention to the continuing physical peril under which Israeli civilians live, and the threat against the very existence of the state.  By pursuing its one-sided advocacy, J Street has divided the Jewish community and weakened support for Israel.  J Street has succeeded in making many in the younger generation of Jews feel embarrassed about supporting Israel.  They want peace more than they support Israel.

For J Street, the American presidential administration must pressure Israel for the good of Israel.  With J Street’s monopoly of wisdom, in its utterances there is little praise of Israel for its extraordinary achievements, but rather the assertion that Israel, especially because of the settlements built since 1967, is the obstacle to peace.  Hostilities would end if Israel changed its ways.  J Street holds that the Palestinian leadership is a serious negotiating partner that can be trusted.

Everybody wants peace, but realities protrude beyond this desirable goal.  On this point, Ruth Wisse in the film makes a penetrating remark.  There is no Israeli-Palestinian conflict; there is only an Arab war against Israel.  J Street takes advantage of the desire for peace to falsify the real political picture.  The film presents a number of statements made by Ben-Ami in previous speeches.  The rhetoric is always the same, characterized by arrogant posturing that J Street has a monopoly of wisdom and truth and is on the right side of history.  The aura is of moral righteous, what Richard Landes calls “moral narcissism,” that Ben-Ami feels good in possessing but that Israelis do not have.  Ben-Ami is not known for medical skills, but he and his associates know that Israel must heal itself.

The arrogance stems from the self-definition that J Street is a heroic group daring to issue criticism of Israeli personnel and activities when others fear to do so.  But its fundamental mistake is that far from being the lone group in the world crying wolf, J Street is merely echoing the mainstream media and organizations that are constant critics of Israel.  The statements of Ben-Ami repeat those to be read or heard every day in the New York Times, MSNBC, the U.N. General Assembly and other units of the U.N., the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, the BBC, the Independent, the Guardian, the World Council of Churches, Oxfam International, Amnesty International, and the bigoted armchair revolutionaries on so many university campuses.  The true courageous people and groups are those who defy this mainstream chorus of critical voices who see Israel as the one country to be incessantly condemned as being responsible for violation of human rights of innocent people and the cause of almost, if not all, the problems of the world.

Should the real character of an organization be understood by observing the policies of individuals and groups with which it associates or from which it obtains funding?  J Street has been linked with left-wing groups, some supporting BDS.  Information about the funding of J Street has been less than candid.  In particular, it took some time before Ben-Ami went public and accepted “responsibility personally for being less than clear” about the support provided to J Street by billionaire George Soros.

It is not clear exactly how much Soros individually, members of his family and associates, the Soros Fund Charitable Foundation, and the Open Society Foundation Network have given J Street.  Some reports show that Soros has given $750,000 in some years.  Probably about $500,000 a year now goes to J Street from Soros, who, of course, directly or indirectly, donates considerable amounts of money to left-wing groups.  In any case, J Street has accepted financial support from a number of sources known to be hostile to Israel.

A baffling contribution – an unexplained amount, about $811,000 – comes from someone called Consolacion Esdicul, an individual hitherto unknown as interested in Middle Eastern affairs, who lives in Hong Kong.  Esdicul appears to be associated with William Benter, a businessman and gambler who has contributed to Media Matters and, organizations known for their one-sided criticism of Israel.

J Street misunderstands the whole nature of the problem by narrowly defining it as a dispute over land and borders, instead of one based on ethnic and religious differences.  President Abbas, and all Palestinian leaders, have declared they will never accept Israel as a Jewish state.  The co-founder of J Street, Daniel Levy, appears to agree, though he claims to have been misquoted.  He is cited on October 5, 2010 as having said that “I have no reason – there’s no reason a Palestinian should think there was justice in the creation of Israel.”

In that belief, Levy agrees with the 22 Arab countries and 400 million people in the Arab League, and with the Islamic Republic of Iran, almost all of whom are unwilling to acknowledge the existence and legitimacy of a sovereign State of Israel.  Does J Street seriously consider that there is a Palestinian partner who can be trusted to take part in negotiations for a genuine two-state solution in which Israel would be safe?  Saving lives and healing the world is one of the great Jewish values; committing suicide is not.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.