Three Years Old, J Street Still Struggles For Acceptance

By Nathan Guttman

Published February 02, 2011, issue of February 11, 2011.
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Several recent setbacks for J Street are refocusing attention on the dovish Israel lobby’s ongoing struggle to gain acceptance both in Washington and within the broader Jewish community.

J Street’s opposition to an American veto of a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity cost it the support of a key member of Congress and strained its ties with Israeli officials in Washington. Meanwhile, the group’s collegiate arm was rebuffed in its attempt to sponsor its own group to go on Birthright Israel, a popular program that funds trips to Israel for young Jews.

As J Street approaches two significant milestones — the third anniversary of its launch and its second national conference — the group is still spending time and energy defending itself from critics who say that it isn’t sufficiently pro-Israel.

J Street’s leaders say that despite having to fight for their group’s legitimacy, they have had success in opening up the political discourse about Israel on Capitol Hill and elsewhere.

“It is a very subtle but very clear change,” said Hadar Susskind, J Street’s vice president of policy and strategy. “We’ve changed the dynamic on the Hill.”

J Street’s most recent high-profile interaction with Congress, however, was its angry exchange with Rep. Gary Ackerman, a leading Jewish legislator.

The blow-up followed J Street’s January 20 statement announcing its position on the proposed U.N. Security Council resolution. “While we hope never to see the state of Israel publicly taken to task by the United Nations, we cannot support a U.S. veto of a Resolution that closely tracks long-standing American policy and that appropriately condemns Israeli settlement policy,” J Street said. The statement urged Israel to stop settlement expansion to head off U.N. condemnation, but said that if the resolution made it to a vote, the Obama administration should work to improve its language rather than vetoing it.

Ackerman expressed outrage over J Street’s stance in a January 25 press release, accusing the group of being “so open-minded about what constitutes support for Israel that its brains have fallen out.”

The New York Democrat, who in the previous Congress chaired the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, had been endorsed in the last election cycle by J Street’s sister-organization, J StreetPAC. Ackerman’s acceptance of the endorsement was seen as a feather in J Street’s cap.

But Ackerman made clear in his press release that he is disassociating himself from J Street. “America really does need a smart, credible, politically active organization that is as aggressively pro-peace as it is pro-Israel,” he said. “Unfortunately, J-Street ain’t it.”

J Street responded with a statement arguing that Ackerman did not understand the group’s position. Then, on January 28, J Street sent out an e-mail blast with the subject line “Gary Ackerman attacks you — and J Street.” It said the congressman “lacks the courage of his convictions” and urged J Street supporters to sign onto a letter to Ackerman to express their “outrage and disappointment.”

Two days later, however, J Street publicly apologized for the e-mail’s tone in a blog post. “It was important for us to recognize that we probably went too far with our choice of language,” Ben-Ami told the Forward.

Asked in a February 1 interview with the Forward whether he still views J Street as pro-Israel, Ackerman responded: “They have done many things that are pro-Israel, but asking to refrain from vetoing a condemnation of Israel is not a pro-Israel action.” He expressed hope that J Street would reconsider its position on the issue.

“The Jewish street is very wide,” Ackerman said. “It’s a highway, and everyone has his own approach, but you don’t need someone who is going the wrong way on the highway.”

Ben-Ami insisted that losing Ackerman’s support is not a significant setback on Capitol Hill. “We have a fair number of Jewish supporters,” said Ben-Ami, pointing to Reps. Barney Frank, Jan Schakowsky, Jared Polis and Bob Filner, all of whom had been endorsed by J StreetPAC. “There is a diversity of views about Israel, that is exactly the point we are making,” Ben-Ami said.

Capitol Hill, however, is not the only front where J Street has found itself in a battle. In late January, J Street U, the group’s student arm, announced it was sponsoring a first-ever Birthright Israel tour to Israel. J Street says the trip was approved by Birthright and later canceled.

“Despite their initial approval for a trip that would provide such an experience, Birthright’s leadership has now decided that it is inappropriate for J Street U to organize a trip because we are politically oriented,” J Street U said in a January 31 statement.

But Birthright insists it had never authorized the trip in the first place. “We did not rescind its approval as no approval was given in the first place,” Birthright said in a statement.

J Street expressed its frustration at being banned from sponsoring Birthright trips, while the American Israel Public Affairs Committee is allowed to conduct its Capital to Capital tours as part of Birthright.

Birthright explained in a statement that AIPAC’s tours do not have any political tilt and are similar to a “political science class.” It went on to describe AIPAC as “a mainstream Israel advocacy group,” while alluding to J Street as having “a clear and stated political orientation and agenda.”

In the past, Birthright had been more open to funding trips to Israel that were organized by groups that took a diversity of political positions. According to a Birthright spokesman, the right-wing Zionist Organization of America led several trips in 2006 and 2007, and the left-wing Union of Progressive Zionists, which later became part of J Street’s student arm, led a Birthright trip in 2008. However, in 2009 Birthright changed its policy and decided not to approve trips organized by political groups.

J Street has also faced a setback in its efforts to cultivate relations with Israel’s embassy in Washington. Last year, when J Street held its inaugural conference, Israel’s ambassador to America, Michael Oren, refused to attend, drawing criticism from some Jewish liberals. Since then, relations have improved and a dialogue between the Israeli embassy and J Street has been taking place quietly.

But J Street’s stance on the U.N. resolution has revived tensions. Asked in a January 31 interview with The Daily Caller if he considers J Street pro-Israel, Oren replied: “They claim they’re pro-Israel. They are calling for Israel to be condemned in the Security Council for the settlements and they are condemning some of our best friends on the Hill. So they can call themselves what they like.”

Oren was invited to speak at this year’s J Street conference, scheduled to take place in Washington from February 26 through March 1, but according to Ben-Ami he has yet to respond. A spokesman for the Israeli embassy did not return calls seeking comment.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com


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