Is J Street a Threat? Not to Most Israelis

By Nathan Jeffay

Published March 23, 2011, issue of April 01, 2011.
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In the three years since its founding, the dovish lobby J Street has become a household name across Jewish America. But ask Israelis about it, and they are more likely to think you are asking for directions to some thoroughfare they haven’t heard of.

In polling commissioned by the Forward, only 14% of Jewish Israelis said they had heard of J Street. The remaining 86% had not.

The results call into question the stated rationale of politicians who initiated and supported a March 23 Knesset hearing to probe J Street’s activities and ideology. They claimed that public concern necessitated the hearing — especially since January, when the American group urged President Obama not to veto a United Nations resolution condemning Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

“Most of the people think like me about J Street,” said Kadima lawmaker Otniel Schneller, who first raised the idea of a Knesset hearing on the group in the hope of proving his belief that it is “not pro-Israel.”

Claims that there is public dismay about J Street are common among Israeli political figures from Schneller, a proponent of the two-state solution, rightward. Moshe Feiglin, founder and chairman of the Likud party’s ultra-hawkish Jewish Leadership faction, told the Forward: “The majority of the people in Israel feel they [J Street] harm Israel, and therefore their representatives in Israeli politics have the right to explore these feelings through political means.” Schneller told the Forward that being pro-Israel can only mean defending the policy and conduct of the elected government, whatever one’s personal opinions.

But the poll casts doubt on politicians’ claims of public anger at groups such as J Street, which publicly dissent from Israeli policies while claiming to be pro-Israel. The poll, conducted by Smith Consulting and Research Inc., a respected Israeli pollster, found that when asked what they expected of American Jewish organizations in support of Israel, only 19% of Israeli Jewish respondents called for unconditional support of Israeli policies.

Far more popular were two positions widely held by J Street’s supporters. Forty percent said that American Jewish organizations should defend Israel’s right to exist, but not necessarily Israeli government policy. And 27% said American Jews should promote what they consider best for Israel, regardless of whether or not it concurs with government policy.

The Forward-commissioned poll involved 400 telephone interviews with a representative sample of Jewish Israelis aged 18-plus. It was conducted March 21, two days before the Knesset’s J Street hearing. The margin of error was 5%.

The hearing itself, held by the Knesset’s Immigration, Absorption and Public Diplomacy Committee, divided along partisan lines. Likud lawmaker Danny Danon denounced J Street as “the Neturei Karta of the extreme left,” referring to the militantly anti-Zionist, ultra-Orthodox sect. Yoel Hasson, a Kadima lawmaker who attended J Street’s recent Washington conference, argued that the group is, indeed, ‘‘pro-Israel,” but that its members just ”think differently.” J-Street Chair David Gilo, who flew in for the meeting, said: ”We are Zionists and we do care about Israel.”

Schneller and Feiglin defended the hearing as a legitimate function for the Knesset in a representative democracy. But the Israeli left branded the move an affront to open debate. Dovish activists with an American background were particularly angered. Hillel Schenker, a well-known American-born peace campaigner, assailed the hearing shortly before it took place as “essentially a witch-hunt very reminiscent of the McCarthy communist trials of organizations that departed from official policy.”

The Knesset probe came on the heels of various unsuccessful Knesset attempts to hold comprehensive investigations into the activities and funding of Israel-based left-wing groups. Schenker, co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, vice president of Democrats Abroad-Israel and a founder of Peace Now, said that the hearing on J Street, an American group with no Israeli presence, was even more worrying because J Street falls wholly outside Israel’s sovereignty.

The hearings come, too, as the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that Israeli Military Intelligence is collecting information on left-wing organizations abroad that the army sees as aiming to delegitimize Israel.

In a March 11 statement, J Street’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, called the hearings “one more regrettable step by a small but growing group of anti-democratic forces in Israeli politics to limit debate and to intimidate those with whom they disagree.”

Bar-Ilan University political scientist Jonathan Rynhold, an expert on Diaspora Jewry and Israeli-American relations, said that the Forward’s poll results confirm his thesis that there is a major gulf between Israel’s politicians and the public when it comes to J Street.

Politicians from the center and right tend to fear that J Street weakens pro-Israel lobbying in the United States by loosening the definition of the term pro-Israel, Rynhold said. But much of the public appears to take the view that with so much political division in Israel, American Jews cannot be expected to stand unified behind every government’s specific policies.

The disconnect between Israeli politicians and their public applies not only to J Street, but also to American Jewry in general, Rynhold suggested. “American Jews are a smaller part of the Israeli public’s consciousness than many people realize — and than American Jews would like to think,” he said.

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com


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