The Washington Jewish Week featured J Street, the self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby in page one articles twice in April, published J Street opinion columns once that month and again in the May 16 edition, and several letters, pro as well as con, along the way.
The generally positive April 11 feature was leavened by Prof. Gil Troy of the Shalom Hartman Institute, who noted that “J Street sometimes forgets the balance between criticism of Israel and affirming its legitimacy.” That issue also carried a letter to the editor by Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founding president of The Israel Project, who rebuked a former TIP staffer now at J Street for misquoting her and citing outdated studies rather than urging Palestinian leaders to pursue peace.
Unfortunately, there is much more that suggests J Street’s self-portrait deserves closer scrutiny.
Rabbi Daniel Gordis, winner of the 2009 National Jewish Book Award for Saving Israel: How the Jewish State Can Win a War That May Never End, challenged the group in 2011. He recalled that J Street lobbied Congress against a resolution condemning Palestinian incitement; that the organization immediately called for a ceasefire in December, 2008 when Israeli forces attacked the Gaza Strip to counter years of rocket fire; and that J Street had invited representatives from the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions movement to one of its annual conferences.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, past president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told J Street its implied equivalence of Palestinian terrorism and Israeli self-defense during the December 2008 – January 2009 “Operation Cast Lead” was “morally deficient, profoundly out of touch with Jewish sentiment and also appallingly naïve.”
J Street started under a self-induced cloud: For several years it denied that its founding funder was billionaire George Soros.
Why the falsehood? Perhaps because Soros is on record blaming Israel as a key factor in the Arab world’s problems. Perhaps because he has been critical of the success of AIPAC, the largest, most influential pro-Israel lobby. Maybe because Soros, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, has said he feels distant from the idea of Jewish peoplehood.
J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami defended former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) from charges of being anti-Israel when he was nominated as secretary of defense. WJW reported that Ben Ami feared Hagel would be smeared for his remark, “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people” in Congress.
But Hagel’s “Jewish lobby” comment was hardly his most disturbing. With Palestinian terrorists blowing up Israeli buses at the height of the second intifada, Hagel declared in 2002 that “Israel must take steps to show its commitment to peace.”
He opposed not only military action against Iran’s presumed nuclear weapons program but also unilateral American economic sanctions. In 2000, he was one of only four senators not to sign a letter to President Clinton affirming U.S. solidarity with Israel in the face of Palestinian aggression.
In a 2011 Washington Post Op-Ed, Ben-Ami urged Israel “to proactively take bold, even risky, steps to establish a state of Palestine based on the pre-1967 lines with land swaps.” Ben-Ami’s recommendation, as this writer argued in reply, was as if Israel hadn’t done just that in 2000, 2001 and 2008, as if Palestinian leaders didn’t reject each proposal, the first two times with violence.
In 2009, J Street defended Theater J—based in the District of Columbia’s Jewish Community Center—for its staged reading of Caryl Churchill’s “Seven Jewish Children.” James Kirchick, then assistant editor at The New Republic, wrote “there is something perverse and masochistic about a self-described ‘pro-Israel’ group going out of its way to lend support to the airing of luridly anti-Semitic propaganda. … ‘Seven Jewish Children’ draws a direct line from Nazi Germany’s mass-murder of European Jewry to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, an old trope in the quiver of rabid Israel-haters.”
While arguing for itself to be included in the “big tent” of pro-Israel activism, J Street in 2010 worked for the exclusion of Christians United for Israel. David Brog, the group’s executive director, asserted in a Washington Jewish Week Op-Ed that “J Street has made a series of false claims about CUFI policy and Christian theology” and “gone so far as to pressure public figures [including, unsuccessfully, then Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.)] not to speak to our members.”
In 2010, Elie Weisel placed full-page advertisements in major newspapers criticizing President Obama’s opposition to housing construction for Jews in eastern Jerusalem. J Street countered with ads attacking Weisel.
In 2011, after the slaughter of five members of a Jewish family in a West Bank settlement, four dozen members of Congress sent a letter to President Obama condemning the Palestinian culture of hatred that “damages prospects” for peace and “encourages terrorism.” J Street lobbied against the letter.
That year Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), learning of J Street’s call for the Obama administration not to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution that would blame only Israel for the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, said “America really does need a smart, credible, politically active organization that is as aggressively pro-peace as it is pro-Israel. Unfortunately, J Street ain’t it.”
The pro-Israel tent is big. But, J Street’s glittering generalities aside, it’s not made of Silly Putty.
Eric Rozenman is Washington director of CAMERA.
(The version of this column that appeared in the May 23 edition of the Washington Jewish Week did not include, due to space limitations, the paragraphs on “Seven Jewish Children” and Christians United for Israel.)