Who speaks for America’s Jews? J Street lobby group works to loosen big beasts’ grip on Congress
Boost for J Street as Obama adviser attends conference, but Israeli ambassador will be staying away
Members of Congress signed up by the score when they were invited to this weekend’s “pro-Israel” conference. But then the faxes and emails started to roll in, denouncing the organisers as “Jewish Stalinists”, the “surrender lobby” and terrorist sympathisers.
Some members of Congress scuttled for cover, admitting they had little idea what the organisation behind the conference – an upstart Washington lobby group called J Street, which wants to turn US policy on Israel on its head – stands for.
But Washington is learning fast. J Street – the name plays on the first letter of Jew, and that many of the big Washington lobbying firms are on the city’s K Street – was launched at the beginning of last year as a “pro-Israel and pro-peace” group, to general ridicule from the big beasts of the Israel lobby, which have kept a grip on Congress for decades.
They predicted that J Street and those who launched it – Jeremy Ben-Ami, a former domestic policy adviser to President Bill Clinton, and Daniel Levy, a former adviser to Israeli cabinet ministers and one of the authors of the Geneva peace initiative – would be swiftly marginalised as a niche group backed by obscure peaceniks with little influence.
But the organisation opens its first national conference in Washington tomorrow with a stamp of legitimacy from a White House that is clearly sympathetic to its view. General James Jones, Barack Obama’s national security adviser and one of his point men on Israel, is to make a keynote speech. About 140 members of Congress have pledged their support, even after others backed away, and former Israeli cabinet ministers and generals will be in attendance.
But perhaps the best measure of its impact is the fury that has greeted the organisation’s rise.
The Israeli ambassador has refused to attend the conference, while the traditional pro-Israel lobby has accused J Street of being “obsequious to terrorists and hostile to Israel” and a “disreputable pseudo-pro-Israel organisation”.
“They’re going hysterical,” said Levy. “They said no one would want to hear what we have to say: that American Jews are fed up with being told we’re for bombing Iraq and bombing Iran and we’re against the hard concessions necessary for peace in Israel. Now they’re trying to discredit us.”
On the face of it, J Street stands for what the rest of the pro-Israel lobby stands for: peace, a two-state solution and a secure Israel. The very wide divide is over how to get there.
At the heart of the battle is who speaks for America’s Jews and what it means to be pro-Israel.
For decades, groups from the Zionist Organisation of America to the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) have claimed to be the voice of the largest Jewish community outside Israel advocating unflinching support for the government in Jerusalem.
But in recent years, Aipac, the ZOA and other groups have drawn closer to the hard right in America, particularly the neocons and Christian evangelical organisations, as the conflict in Israel is framed largely in the context of terrorism while hardline governments pay little more than lip service to peace and a Palestinian state.
Levy says J Street was born out of a belief that many American Jews are now alienated from those who claim to speak in their name.
“A community that is very, very liberal, votes 78% Obama, overall a community that prides itself in the role it played historically in the US in advancing civil rights, was suddenly being identified with the most illiberal reactionary regressive policies advocated by groups that claimed to be doing this in the name of American Jewry and the name of Israel, making alliances with these dreadful people on the far-right of American politics,” said Levy.
“What we had a hunch about, and was proven when J Street was launched, is that there is this very large constituency of Jewish Americans who do care about Israel and who are cool identifying themselves as pro-Israel. But their pro-Israelness is about the need for Israel to be at peace with its neighbours to gain security, not by being an ongoing expansionist presence. In fact, that endangers Israel.”
J Street swiftly found followers – it claims 110,000 now – and funders. The organisation hoped to raise $50,000 (£31,000) for campaign contributions to sympathetic candidates in last year’s congressional elections. In fact it brought in $600,000 in individual donations, which it directed to 41 candidates. Thirty-three of them won, although J Street is quick to acknowledge that its support was not decisive.
The organisation has brought in much more to fund its lobbying work, much of it five- and six-figure sums from Jewish philanthropists, although it has also been criticised for taking money from Muslims and Arabs.
For years Aipac successfully defined “pro-Israel” to Washington politicians as meaning unflinching support for whatever government sat in Jerusalem, and whatever its policies. The lobby group saw its core role as keeping the military aid flowing and ensuring that Washington did not force Israel’s hand in ending the conflict with the Palestinians.
Aipac took the position that it was all very well for the US to offer the framework for negotiation and to mediate where necessary, but that the final agreement could only be reached by the two sides on the ground.
So when Obama laid down a marker to the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, demanding a freeze on settlement construction, Aipac rounded up 70 members of the Senate to urge him to back off.
J Street has alarmed the Israeli government and its supporters in Washington by taking a very different tack. The group argues that if the two sides cannot reach a deal then the US should cajole Israel and the Palestinians towards an agreement, even if that means pressing the Jewish state to give up more than it wants.
Some J Street activists believe that is what Obama wants to do and they want to help him by building a constituency for action among sympathetic Jews across America.
That’s a tall order, made all the more difficult by the resistance of vested interests targeted especially at discouraging members of Congress from dealings with J Street.
A barrage of attacks has been launched in recent weeks in conservative magazines, on influential blogs and by well-funded organisations across America.
One that has gained the widest attention has been led by Lenny Ben David, a former Israeli diplomat who for 25 years served on Aipac’s staff, where his job was to dig out information to discredit Israel’s critics.
In the Jerusalem Post, Ben David derided J Street as Obama’s “toy Jews”.
He has been digging into Ben-Ami’s background in a PR firm that also dealt with Arab governments, and looking into some of J Street’s funders, whom he describes as “Palestinians, Arab-Americans, and Iranian-Americans” – and therefore inherently anti-Israeli. Ben David has said that accepting donations from individuals with links to the Arab world or human rights organisations critical of Israel shows it to be against the Jewish state.
Stand With US, a group set up to counter growing disillusionment with Israel among young Jews in the universities, distributed letters to members of Congress planning to attend the conference saying “J Street frequently endorses anti-Israel, anti-Jewish narratives” such as criticising the assault on Gaza. It also accused the organisation of demonising Jewish settlers in the occupied territories and said that some of J Street’s funders had ties to Arab governments or Iran.
Some members of Congress, aware of the power of groups such as Aipac to mobilise against them, have had second thoughts and backed away.
Ben-Ami hit back in an email to supporters last week. “They’re working the phones, calling the offices of every one of the 150-plus members of Congress … to frighten them away from associating with J Street. The most infuriating part is that their thuggish smear tactics are having an impact – already five members of Congress have pulled off of our host committee,” he wrote.
By the end of this week the number of withdrawals was closer to 15 and it is likely to rise further. Most are Republicans but some Democrats have backed away too, including New York’s two Senate members, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.
Senator John Kerry, the former presidential candidate and chair of the foreign affairs committee, has also pulled out of a major speech, although his office denies it is under pressure and says he will do his best to attend the conference at some point.
J Street was forced to pull a poetry session from its cultural programme amid uproar on rightwing blogs over the poet Josh Healey, who likened Guantánamo to Auschwitz and compared Israeli actions in Gaza to those of the Nazis.
Aipac officially denies that it has any role in the assault on J Street, but those at the forefront are close allies of the lobby group, from the conservative Weekly Standard magazine (once dubbed the “neocon bible”) to the Zionist Organisation of America.
“If you look at this it’s hard not to see this as a concerted, co-ordinated campaign,” said Levy. “We know that’s how the right wing works. There’s a nexus of funders, there’s a nexus of people who sit on each other’s boards. They’re all very close to Aipac.”
The frenzy of denunciations almost certainly played a role in discouraging the Israeli ambassador, Michael Oren, from accepting an invitation to address the J Street conference, on the grounds that certain of the group’s policies “could impair Israel’s interests”.
Oren, who recently gave up American citizenship in order to become the Israeli envoy, is sophisticated and well attuned to the American Jewish community and so it is thought likely that he would have seen the advantage in engaging with J Street. But the pressure for him to refuse the invitation was fierce and the decision was made easier by J Street’s public stand with Obama against Netanyahu on the end to settlement construction.
At times J Street has misjudged the situation and drawn fire from its friends, most notably when it was seen as failing to distinguish between Israel’s motives and those of Hamas in its criticism of the assault on Gaza this year.
That drew the wrath of one of America’s most prominent liberal Jews, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, who called J Street “morally deficient, profoundly out of touch with Jewish sentiment and also appallingly naive”.
Levy says the pressure won’t work. “There are people in Israel who understand they’ve got a significant problem. Israel is alienating Jewish communities around the world,” he said. “They risk losing young people, saying that Israel is not part of who I am.
“We’re trying to say we can still embrace Israel, have a constructive critical dialogue to try and advance our vision of what Israel needs to be. And I think there are Israelis who are strategically far sighted enough to understand that if you alienate J Street you’re setting Israel up for a huge problem.”
Much of the legislation that emerges from the US Congress is heavily influenced by lobby groups wielding huge budgets for campaign contributions and advertising that can be turned for or against a legislator. But money is not all that matters.Possibly the most influential lobby group consists of retirees and their organisation, the American Association of Retired People, which has 30 million members who are more likely to vote than most Americans. Its voice has recently been heard on healthcare reform.
Religious groupings, particularly Christian evangelicals around the anti-abortion movement, hold considerable sway over politicians from some parts of America, as does the National Rifle Association, which works to limit gun control legislation by playing on fears that any new limitation on the right to carry weapons is a first step to a ban on all guns.
The NRA is particularly powerful in the south, where few political candidates dare to upset it.
Oil companies, trade unions, the aviation industry, drug manufacturers and the insurance industry all use money to considerable effect on Capitol Hill and in the White House.
On foreign affairs, there is no more powerful an organisation than the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), which has locked most of Congress into unquestioning support for the Israeli government with few members willing to incur the wrath of a lobby that has proven able to destroy political careers.
Other groups have seen their influence wane in recent years, notably the anti-Castro Cubans in Florida.
I hope they are better then American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
They certainly cannot be trusted. J Street is a threat to AIPAC. They must be or there wouldn’t be such a fuss. J Street demonized already.
Typical Zionist propaganda will be hard at work. They destroy anything good.
AIPAC should have been put out of business years ago.
They also do not speak for the Majority of the Jewish community.
They speak only for Zionist Israel.
FRANKLIN, LAWRENCE ANTHONY, an intelligence analyst in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, International Security Affairs, Iran desk, held a Top Secret clearance with access to sensitive compartmented information.
The FBI filed criminal charges against Franklin May 3 2005, accusing him of passing, from 2002 to 2004, classified military information about Iran and Iraq to two pro-Israel lobbyists, Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman, and to an Israeli diplomat.
Rosen and Weissman were senior staff members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel lobbying organization. Their own prosecution in the same case was novel in that neither held security clearances that required them to protect U.S. classified information.
Franklin pleaded guilty in October 2005 to three felony counts in exchange for his cooperation and the government’s willingness to drop three other charges. He was sentenced in January 2006 to 12 years and seven months in prison and a $10,000 fine.
This relatively lenient sentence reflected the judge’s impression that Franklin had been driven by a desire to help, not damage, the US. Franklin was not to begin his sentence until after legal proceedings against Rosen and Weissman were completed, at which time his sentence might be reduced.
Meanwhile, Franklin remained free on bail.
On May 1 2009 prosecutors announced that they were abandoning the charges against Rosen and Weissman and then, on June 12 2009, Franklin’s sentence was reduced to probation, with 10 months of home confinement.
BBCnews.com January 20 2006, “Pentagon Man Jailed Over Spying”
New York Times December 1 2006, “Former Military Analyst Gets Prison Term for Passing Information”
Federation of American June 23 2008, “Court Narrows Scope of Appeal in AIPAC Case”
Washington Post May 1 2009, “Charges to be Dropped Against Two Former AIPAC Lobbyists”
Washington Post June 12 2009, “Sentence Reduced in Pentagon Case”
There is an old saying if there is one there are more.
This just tells us how far they go to get information.
I don’t think the AIPAC Lobbyists should get off the hook. They are as guilty of spying on the US, as the one who gave the information to them. They are equally guilty.
No one from AIPAC has ever helped the US, they help only Zionist Israel.
AIPAC have destroyed much of what use to be good about America.
Good Luck J Street you will need it.
CBS 60 Minutes Exposing Israeli Apartheid
On Sunday, January 25, CBS 60 Minutes aired an amazing segment exposing Israel’s apartheid against Palestinians. The piece is by Senior CBS Foreign Correspondent Bob Simon, who is Jewish living outside Tel-Aviv and produced by Robert G, Anderson