J Street’s action regarding the funding it received from controversial billionaire George Soros is inexcusable. After years of claiming that he had not raised so much as a dime from Soros, J Street’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, had to ‘fess up — only after the Washington Times, not exactly a friendly newspaper, pointed out that the fledgling lobbying organization had, in fact, received nearly three-quarters of a million dollars from Soros and his children since 2008.
Ben-Ami’s justification for this deception is his claim that Soros did not provide actual startup funds for the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group, but only opened his wallet afterward.
“I accept responsibility personally for being less than clear about Mr. Soros’s support once he did become a donor,” Ben-Ami said in a statement. Well, that’s nice to know. But it would have been a whole lot better for J Street’s worthy goal of being the fresh, aggressive David to the establishment’s Goliath if it had adhered from the start to the standards of transparency and truthfulness we ought to expect of all Jewish organizations.
This disquieting revelation raises another question: Why did J Street feel the need to hide its ties to Soros in the first place?
The standard answer, from Soros himself, is that he understood how toxic his name had become in some circles, and he didn’t want to sully J Street’s birth with the distraction of association. That, too, is nice to know. But it makes us wonder whether J Street has the courage of its own convictions.
As our Nathan Guttman points out, Soros is a complicated character, and painting him with the broad, accusatory brush of being an enemy of his own people is unfair. Sure, he threw money at such activist efforts as MoveOn.org and pledged to do all he could to defeat George W. Bush — not, we might add, a bad idea — but he’s also supported mainstream Jewish candidates for Congress. His efforts to promote democracy in an Eastern Europe shattered by the fall of Communism were nothing less than noble, and certainly should resonate with Jews who long suffered under oppressive Soviet occupation. (See below.)
He is a survivor of the Holocaust, having fled his native Hungary when it was controlled by the Nazis. That ought to give him some street cred in the Jewish world.
But Soros has aggravated the Jewish establishment by funneling most of his considerable charitable giving to causes outside the tribe, and by brash statements that can be easily, though unfairly, misconstrued. Example: He recently gave $100 million to Human Rights Watch, an organization some Jews love to hate, while bestowing a fraction of that, a mere $1 million, on World ORT, which went to an education program working with former child soldiers in Liberia.
Okay, but as the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman told the Forward: “It’s his money, and he is entitled to do whatever he wants with it.”
So, too, is he entitled to his opinions. In a now infamous 2007 essay, he wrote: “I am not a Zionist, nor am I am a practicing Jew,” and then added immediately, “I have a great deal of sympathy for my fellow Jews and a deep concern for the survival of Israel.” Expressing sympathy and concern may not be the same as donating millions to a university in Israel, or a soup kitchen in Brooklyn, but neither is it cause for excommunication.
Meanwhile, his other oft-maligned statement — in which critics accuse him of blaming Israel and Jews for anti-Semitism — hardly seems so incendiary when read in context: “Anti-Semitism predates the birth of Israel. Neither Israel’s policies nor the critics of those policies should be held responsible for anti-Semitism,” he wrote in 2003. “At the same time, I do believe that attitudes toward Israel are influenced by Israel’s policies, and attitudes toward the Jewish community are influenced by the pro-Israel lobby’s success in suppressing divergent views.”
Yes, it’s true: The Israeli government’s behavior influences what people think of Israel. We are, all of us, person and political figure alike, judged by what we do. And, yes, it’s true: What’s known as the “pro-Israel lobby” has had some success in suppressing divergent views. That’s the whole reason for J Street, an organization that (until now, anyhow) even the Israeli Ambassador to the United States speaks to regularly.
Any public figure or nonprofit organization that has raised money does not agree with every view of every donor. One need not embrace all of George Soros’s beliefs — we don’t — to recognize that he is a person of accomplishment and conviction. If his money is tainted, don’t accept it. But if it’s accepted, then don’t be ashamed.