Israel's Knesset Debate and J Street's Agenda
In an unusual hearing last Wednesday, Israeli lawmakers of the Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs committee gathered to discuss whether or not J Street, a Jewish advocacy group that calls itself "pro-Israel, pro-peace," should be declared anti-Israel.
During the hearing, Knesset members expressed opposing views. While Kadima MK Otniel Schneller told J Street representatives, "You are not Zionists and you do not look out for Israel's interests," Kadima MK Nahman Shai said, "...even though I do not necessarily agree with the group's opinions, I do accept the fact that they have the right to represent their position." Others, such as Labor MK Daniel Ben Simon, advocated on J Street's behalf, saying he is "proud to support them."
American Jewish organizations and analysts also disagree on the matter. While Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League's national director, said "I would hope that the Israeli Knesset had better things to do," according to Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, "It's fine for Israel to determine who is behind this organization, who is funding it, for people to know."
A committee vote on the subject is expected to be called in a week or two, a move J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami said could undermine the group's efforts. "We're fighting a very, very difficult battle to be able to have the space at the table in the American Jewish community," he said. "And if the government of Israel, through the Knesset, has some kind of a resolution that says, 'No, J Street is not pro-Israel,' the doors will be shut."
Lost in this semantic debate over how to label the organization as either pro or anti-Israel is a focus on J Street's actions. The organization is known for taking a critical stance against Israel and pressuring Washington to do the same. J Street has opposed building in Jewish areas of East Jerusalem, spoke out against Israel's Operation Cast Lead , and refused to condemn the famously-biased Goldstone Report following the operation, which American Jewish groups largely unified against.
In January, the group called on the U.S. government to not veto the UN Security Council resolution condemning continued West Bank settlement construction, an action that prompted U.S. Congressman Gary Ackerman (D-NY) to break ties with the group and call their campaign "the befuddled choice of an organization so open-minded about what constitutes support for Israel that its brains have fallen out."
Indeed, a look at its record of actions reveals positions more aligned with the so-called moderate Palestinian Authority rather than mainstream Israeli political positions. For example, this month J Street urged U.S. House members not to vote on a Congressional letter calling on the Palestinian Authority to root out incitement against Jews and Israel, put forward by Representatives Steve Rothman (D-NJ) and Steve Austria (R-OH). The statement J Street released about the vote reads more like a full-throated defense of Palestinian Authority positions rather than support for Israel. The list of other questionable viewpoints espoused by J Street goes on and on.
One may debate whether or not J Street is pro-Israel, but that is merely a battle over semantics. Actions will always speak louder than words. And in practice, whether it was initially opposing stronger sanctions against Iran or voting to condemn Israel in the UN, J Street has a knack for voting and supporting the causes of Israel's antagonists in the international community.
Matthew RJ Brodsky is the director of policy and Samara Greenberg is a research associate at the Jewish Policy Center in Washington, D.C.