Responding to the J Street challenge

Click photo to download. Caption: Participants of the 2013 J Street national conference in Washington, DC. Credit: J Street Facebook page.

By Ben Cohen/JNS.org

Ever since its founding in 2008, J Street, the liberal Jewish advocacy group, has expended a great deal of time and energy trying to convince American Jews that it is a credible and more ethical alternative to traditional pro-Israel organizations like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

J Street believes, not unreasonably, that there is a constituency for its work among those American Jews who are generally supportive of Israel but queasy over certain of its policies, most obviously creating and sustaining Jewish communities in the West Bank. Nor is this an unprecedented insight: from the 1970s onwards, there were organizations like Breira (“Alternative”) and New Jewish Agenda that aimed to give voice to the same disquiet.

J Street, however, is much savvier than either of those earlier incarnations. Unlike its ideological predecessors, there are no rumors circulating of its imminent demise. For the foreseeable future, then, J Street will remain a part of American Jewry’s political landscape. 

This reality is implicitly acknowledged in “The J Street Challenge,” a critical documentary film about the organization that has just been released by Americans for Peace and Tolerance, a Boston-based group run by the well-known anti-slavery activist Charles Jacobs. And it is a reality that, Jacobs and his colleagues (including executive producer and director Avi Goldwasser) insist, needs to be grappled with through honest debate and discussion.

The key question raised by the film is what it means to be “pro-Israel” not on a personal level, but within the context of the political lobbying and advocacy that swirls around American policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (or, as Harvard Professor Ruth Wisse more accurately terms it in her interview in the film, “the Arab conflict with Israel”). And when you examine J Street’s record, it becomes very hard to dispute Professor Alan Dershowitz’s assertion that the organization—despite its much-vaunted tagline—is “neither pro-Israel nor pro-peace.”

To begin with, there are J Street’s funders. As the film documents, ferocious critics of Israel like the hedge-fund billionaire George Soros and Genevieve Lynch, a board member of the pro-Iranian regime National Iranian-American Council, have donated significant sums to the organization. And although it says it is opposed to the anti-Semitic Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, J Street maintains close ties with those who advocate collaboration with the BDS movement in targeting West Bank settlements, like the writer Peter Beinart and the corporate lawyer Kathleen Peratis. This milieu is hardly conducive to J Street’s “pro-Israel” self-image.

Then there are J Street’s statements. As Dershowitz points out, you “rarely” hear J Street praising Israel. A far more familiar refrain consists of slamming Benjamin Netanyahu’s government as an obstacle to peace, or opposing tougher sanctions on the Iranian regime—positions that don’t raise an eyebrow when articulated by anti-Israel groups, but which sound rather discordant coming from a group that claims to support Israel.

In that regard, much of the J Street documentary studies why the organization’s analysis of Israel’s situation is wrong. Its emphasis on Israel’s land policies in the West Bank, its tin ear when it comes to Palestinian and Arab incitement, its embrace of a strategy that would result in the U.S. pushing Israel to make decisions contrary to its basic security interests—these moral and strategic errors are all familiar to anyone who has followed the debate about J Street’s contribution.

More enlightening is the film’s examination of why J Street exercises such an attraction to a particular kind of American Jew. Many of the interviewees argue persuasively that affiliation with J Street is more of a lifestyle choice than a political statement, in that it allows liberal Jews to equate their identity with their fealty to the “progressive” values they see Israel as betraying.

But is that how the J Streeters themselves view it? Since no J Street representative appears in the film, it’s hard to say for sure. According to the end credits, Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s executive director, “declined” to be interviewed, which left the producers with no option but to use existing footage of Ben-Ami speaking to other audiences. J Street told me that Ben-Ami was not interviewed because he was not available at the time the producers suggested. Either way, the absence of a direct interview with Ben-Ami, in which he answers the points raised by J Street’s critics, slightly blunts the film’s impact.

Ben Cohen

The most heartening aspect of the film consists of young, pro-Israel activists eloquently expressing why they distrust J Street. Through their words, the viewer gets an insight into the courage and intelligence required to defend Israel on campus these days. Indeed, one of them, Samantha Mandeles, who currently works as campus coordinator for media watchdog Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), is so impressive that I found myself wondering whether she’ll apply for the post-Abe Foxman national director’s job at the Anti-Defamation League—she certainly deserves serious consideration. In any case, seeing and hearing the next generation of genuinely pro-Israel Jewish leaders is reason enough to give “The J Street Challenge” an hour of your time.

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.

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Posted on February 16, 2014 and filed under Israel, Opinion, U.S..