J Street, the Moderate Antidote to AIPAC, Weathers Another Cheap Attack from the Jewish Right Wing

I recently heard a Jewish congressman explain how the U.S. Congress deals with Israel. Few non-Jewish legislators pay much attention to Israel, he said. When an issue relating to Israel comes up, they turn to their Jewish colleagues for advice. Until recent years, Jewish lawmakers merely parroted the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) line. Now they’re likely to say, "Well, AIPAC says this, but J Street says that. You decide."

This shift in the political climate has the Jewish right -- people who support Israel’s policies, right or wrong -- running scared. The more they see their power slipping away, the fiercer they lash out. They’ve saved their strongest attacks for J Street because it’s the most prominent “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group in the U.S.

From its inception two and a half years ago, J Street was well aware it was bucking a powerful climate of intimidation created by fear-mongers on the right -- those who were determined to prevent any deviation from their supposedly “pro-Israel” script. Since the Six Day War of 1967, the slightest suggestion of a legitimate difference of opinion has provoked torrents of verbal fire and brimstone poured down on the offender’s head. (I’ve seen letters to the editor calling me an “anti-semite” and a “self-hating Jew” more times than I care to remember.)

For most of the years since ‘67, fear of the right-wing attack machine evoked a deafening silence from uncounted numbers of American Jews of good conscience. They knew that Israel’s policies violated norms of Jewish ethics as well as international law and common sense. Yet they knew the consequences of speaking out.

I’ve heard rabbis tell me they believed Israel was in the wrong, but they couldn’t say so publicly lest they tear their congregations apart (and, they didn’t need to add, risk their livelihoods). The McCarthyite regime did its job all too well.

In the past few years, though, that tragic lock-down by the thought police has begun to ease significantly; some would say dramatically. Opinions that were once strictly taboo in the Jewish public arena can now be heard in open discussion, even in some synagogues. Old Jewish peace groups have expanded and new ones have sprung up. None have grown as fast as J Street, which now claims over 160,000 supporters and 34 local groups across the country, with half a dozen or more new ones in the works.

Now, with the Obama administration pushing Israel ever-so-gently to make compromises, the right-wingers are more desperate than ever to push back by quashing free debate. “Rather than argue the merits of continuing settlement expansion, entrenching occupation on the West Bank, or a ‘one-state future’ [all of which J Street opposes], we can understand why right-wing pro-Israel media and activists would prefer to stay in the gutter … trying to shift the conversation,” J Street explains.

It would be more accurate to say that the conservatives are mounting their attack from the gutter because J Street and other groups are trying to shift the conversation, with considerable success. It’s not just a matter of opening up debate on specific policy issues. More importantly, J Street says, it’s challenging the right’s power to define the terms of the discourse. It aims to "redefine and expand the very concept of being pro-Israel. No longer will this pro- require an anti-." Now being pro-Israel will mean “respect for ‘the other,’ a tolerance for dissent.” That approach shatters the very foundation of the old-fashioned way of being “pro-Israel,” with its narrow-minded focus on searching for and destroying some enemy.

That’s why J Street has become such a prime target of right-wingers. Their latest and most powerful attack was a double-barreled salvo from DC’s most conservative newspaper, the Washington Times.

One recent Times article charged that J Street had hidden financial support it received from philanthropist George Soros. Another charged that J Street facilitated meetings between members of Congress and judge Richard Goldstone, author of a UN report on human rights abuses committed by both Israeli forces and Hamas during the 2008 Israeli attack on Gaza.

These attacks are sober reminders that, despite the growth of J Street, there’s still a powerful McCarthyite machine at work day and night trying to suppress any dissent from the right-wing “pro-Israel” line.

The details of the story are complicated. (If you want them all, Ron Kampeas of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency provides useful summaries

here and here.) The gist is this: Soros and his family have provided about 7 percent of J Street’s money since its founding (though they didn’t give any financial backing until the group was well on its feet). But J Street did not make that funding public until now. J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami has apologized for not revealing the Soros money earlier, though he’d said all along that J Street would welcome Soros money.

As for Goldstone, J Street staffers made two or three calls to help him get appointments on Capitol Hill. Ben-Ami has not apologized for anything in that connection. But statements he gave to the Times might strike some readers as a bit equivocal: "J Street did not host, arrange or facilitate any visit to Washington, D.C., by Goldstone,” but J Street staff “reached out to a handful of congressional staff to inquire whether members would be interested in seeing Judge Goldstone.

For the Washington Times this is the stuff of juicy scandal because it considers both Soros and Goldstone “enemies of Israel,” while J Street proclaims itself pro-Israel. Gotcha! the right-wingers scream.

J Street responded to the scandal-mongering the way any smart organization would: Don’t get down in the mud and wrestle over the details of who said what to whom and when and why. Instead, offer a quick explanation of the facts, a quick apology if it seems useful, and then announce that you’ve got much more important issues to attend to, so you’re putting all your energies into the work you are doing.

J Street does indeed have much more important issues to attend to. This flap comes just when U.S.-sponsored negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders -- a central focus of J Street’s efforts -- are at a critical point. J Street is the strongest, most prominent group urging American Jews to press for Israeli compromise (which many of us call merely Israeli obedience to international law) on the West Bank settlements, so that the negotiations can proceed.

Still, the controversy raises a question that deserves close scrutiny. It’s not whether J Street did anything wrong, much less “anti-Israel” as the critics charge. As far as the Soros contributions, it’s common practice for a 503(c)4 nonprofit like J Street to keep its donors anonymous. It’s totally up to the donors to decide whether or not to disclose the gifts. Though nonprofits must report the names of donors to the IRS, the law forbids the IRS from making those names public. “Somehow,” a J Street staffer told me, that law was broken and J Street donor names, including Soros, were posted on public Web sites. (They’ve now been taken down.) How that happened and who was responsible are tantalizing questions.

The more important question is why anyone should need to apologize for simply doing what all nonprofits do. “How many of the organizations that the critics support reveal their donors?” J Street asks, knowing that the answer is “Very few, if any.” And why, when Ben-Ami was asked long ago if Soros was contributing, did he deny it outright, rather than merely saying, “We don’t reveal our donors.” That one, says Kampeas, “has some establishment Jewish leaders scratching their heads.”

As far as the Goldstone meetings on Capitol Hill, there’s nothing to hide there either. The top-ranking Congressman that Goldstone met was Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a pretty loyal supporter of the right-wing, AIPAC-led “Israel lobby.” But a Berman aide

told Kampeas that Berman did not see the meeting as being set up by J Street. And the Congressman “was happy” to meet with Goldstone, even though "there were things that greatly disturbed Mr. Berman" about the Goldstone report: “He wanted to address the issues. He doesn't have a policy of only meeting with people he agrees with -- he meets with people across the spectrum," as virtually all members of Congress do.

Again, with such a positive spin from a top Democrat whose pro-Israel credentials go unquestioned on the right, why would J Street do such verbal gymnastics to avoid directly admitting its involvement?

There’s really no need for head-scratching. The answer to all these questions should be obvious to anyone who has lived inside the American Jewish community:

The fear-mongers still control many of the biggest Jewish organizations and have the most access to media and levers of political power. So they wield influence far out of proportion to their numbers. The vehemence of their attack on J Street over minor issues is powerful evidence of how much has changed in the last few years. But J Street’s cautious, highly calculated response is evidence of how much has not changed.

There’s a long way to go before we have totally free and civil discussion about Israel in the Jewish community. The issue remains a minefield -- which is why J Street moves so carefully, sometimes tortuously, with every step it takes. The group is trying to make itself the representative of the reasonable middle. It makes a plausible claim that most U.S. Jews already agree with its positions on the key issues: stop expanding West Bank settlements and support Obama’s efforts to pressure Israel and broker a two-state solution.

The challenge remains to reach out to mainstream Jews and make them feel that criticism of the current Israeli government policies is not just sensible (which it obviously is) but acceptable and respectable; that it’s safe to speak their minds and equally safe to support J Street. Pursuing that goal, J Street has tried to avoid all controversy, keep itself as clean as a hound’s tooth, and thus give the right the smallest possible target for attack.

Some say that the effort has now backfired, leaving J Street open to charges of being secretive and thus suspect. But suppose J Street had openly announced the Soros contributions or its small role in getting Goldstone those meetings with legislators. The storm of controversy such revelations would have unleashed would have made the current criticism look like a sunshower.

In the eyes of the right-wingers, Jeremy Ben-Ami and J Street are damned if they do reveal everything and damned if they don’t. The only way they can avoid controversy is to fold their organization and let the Jewish community go back to the old days, when the right spoke out loudly and everyone else cowered silently in fear. But J Street shows no glimmer of a sign that they’ll consider quitting.

In fact, the story seems to be having a happy ending: “Doors on Capitol Hill and in the administration remain open” to J Street, the Jewish Daily Forward

reports, quoting a variety of beltway insiders, including “a longtime congressional staff member” who “stressed that no damage has been seen.”

That news may disappoint some progressives who are dismayed that the most powerful Jewish peace group in the U.S. is also in many ways the most moderate. I’ve even heard a few progressives cheer the recent attack on J Street, hoping that a weaker center will leave more room to strengthen the left.

These progressives may well be correct on the issues. But politically, it’s always a dangerous and foolish game for the left to root for the right against the center. Progressives should understand that as the moderate liberals grow stronger, they move the political center to the left. Even if that shift is only slight, it works to the benefit of progressives. Groups that were once considered lunatic fringe, outside the bounds of reasonable discourse, suddenly find themselves on the political spectrum -- at a far end, but still part of the mainstream conversation.

In the effort to bring a just peace to the Middle East we need all the allies we can get. We may sometimes regret particular positions our allies take, or the ways they deal with criticism from the opposition. But we should recognize that we’re all doing the best we can as we tread -- some more cautiously than others -- across the political minefield.

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