What J Street Can Learn From The Tea Party

Right Angles

By Noam Neusner

Published September 29, 2010, issue of October 08, 2010.
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In the space of a few days, J Street became much lonelier, abandoned by many of its admirers in the press, as it fended off criticism that its funding sources are mysterious, nefarious and downright dangerous.

But the lobbying group that calls itself “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans” is not alone. After all, there is another grassroots organization in this country whose funding sources are questioned. It, too, came into being to protest the policy direction — even the moral direction — of the political party most of its members call home.

Like J Street, it has attracted a fair number of kooks and blowhards, some of whom give the entire organization a bad name. Both have set themselves against the powerful and the entrenched. Both have relied heavily on Internet buzz and public relations stunts to make their case.

Who is cut from the same revolutionary cloth? Why, the Tea Party, of course.

But while J Street now can call the Tea Partiers landsmen, they can hardly call the Tea Partiers their equals. That’s because as insurgents, the Tea Partiers are an unqualified success while J Street is not. George Soros and Consolacion Esdicul, two newly revealed funders of the peacenik organization, haven’t gotten their considerable money’s worth.

Love them or not, the Tea Partiers are triumphant. In virtually every political primary where they backed someone, their candidate won, or bloodied the wet noodle opponent.

More than anything else, the Tea Partiers made the cause of fiscal conservatism — generally less government spending, lower taxes and lower deficits, in that order — a nearly universal principle

this election season, across the political spectrum. Virtually all Republican candidates and more than a handful of Democrats are campaigning on their promise to spend less in Washington and thereby return less pork to their own districts. It’s a stunning shift in recent political history.

Six years ago, Senator Arlen Specter campaigned successfully against then-Rep. Pat Toomey in the Republican primary, warning Pennsylvanians they would lose lots of D.C.-directed goodies if Toomey won. In this election, Specter didn’t even stay in the party to defend his seat, and Toomey, with Tea Party support, is the Republican nominee. That is a stunning success for a group of people who had not organized a lemonade stand two years ago.

Now, consider J Street. Whether you find their policy positions appealing or odious, you must acknowledge their imprint. They created out of the ashes of several moribund organizations a quick-acting and professional structure to persuade American policymakers to goad Israel to stay at the negotiating table with its neighbors, and make concessions while there.

J Street gives voice to the significant share of American Jews who believe Israel’s peace efforts have been lackadaisical and its security efforts heavy-handed. Its annual convention is the Woodstock of the Jewish left. It has done remarkable work drawing attention to itself as an alternative voice on Israel issues. Yet the group has had little impact on American politics. While President Jeremy Ben-Ami said he wants the organization to be President Obama’s “blocking back” on Israel policy, nearly all congressmen and senators have preferred to stick behind the AIPAC phalanx.

And here’s the critical distinction with the Tea Partiers: Those who have stuck with AIPAC haven’t paid a price. Consider the case of Rep. Jane Harman of southern California, a darling of AIPAC and hawkish Democrats. Harman was opposed in a bitter Democratic primary by Marcy Winograd, a leftist peace activist who would seem to be a prototypical J Street candidate: On the peace process and Israel’s need to make concessions, she was holier than the pope. But J Street stayed out of the primary battle, which Harman won (and I am glad she did).

The Tea Party would have played that election differently, strongly backing its equivalent of Winograd. They did that in the Delaware Republican Senate primary, and upstart Christine O’Donnell beat establishment favorite Rep. Michael Castle. In election after election, they have routinely chosen the extreme over the safe, the purist over the pragmatist — consequences be damned.

That difference is not tactical. It is central. If J Street is to have a lasting impact on American foreign policy, it must be willing to set aside all other considerations, including the risk that by putting up a more peace-focused candidate, it will put up a less electable one.

In short, J Street must be willing to lose every election, every vote in the House and Senate, every conceivable measure of short-term political power, to actually achieve a lasting change in America’s stance toward Israel. Otherwise, it’s an organization defined by mere gradients of difference with the status quo. On that basis, J Street financial backer George Soros has to be disappointed, while the Tea Partiers show how it’s done.

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