In November, J Street found itself rejected again. The recent decision by the Jewish Student Union at the University of California, Berkeley was but the latest in a handful of incidents in which the self-described pro-Israel, pro-peace organization has been frozen out of local Jewish institutions in such places as Tennessee and Boston.
Depending on whom you ask, these instances point either to a wholesale rejection of J Street — and of those who identify with its position — by the Jewish communal world, or they are a series of small setbacks for an organization making gradual headway among Jews nationwide.
“It is going to be a series of skirmishes and battles and fights in cities all over the country,” J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami said. “But the main tide is running in the direction of greater openness and a broader definition of what it means to be pro-Israel.”
Roz Rothstein, national director of StandWithUs, a more hawkish pro-Israel advocacy group, disagreed. “I think that J Street has to take account of what its priorities are in order to gain greater acceptance,” she said. “I don’t hear them putting pressure on the Palestinian Authority or Hamas. They only blame Israel for the lack of peace.”
J Street has been a touchstone of controversy in the American Jewish community since its founding in 2008, when it declared its intention to offer dovish Jews an avenue for critical support of Israel. Other dovish groups, focused mostly on education and outreach, often take similar positions. But unlike, say, Americans for Peace Now, J Street is an unabashed lobbying organization. It seeks to influence Congress and the administration to pressure Israel, no less than the Palestinians, toward concessions to achieve a two-state solution to the regional conflict. J Street also maintains a separate political action committee to raise money for congressional candidates reflecting its views. That has raised the hackles of StandWithUs and other more hawkish pro-Israel groups. They say the job of a pro-Israel group is to support Israeli policies.
In fact, J Street’s profile is not uniformly dovish; the organization has staked out leftist positions on certain issues, such as calling on the Obama administration not to veto a resolution in the United Nations Security Council condemning settlements. But J Street also staunchly opposes the campaign to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel, known popularly as BDS. On some issues, it has tacked right. In September, it opposed the Palestinian Authority’s effort to gain recognition as a state from the U.N. Security Council.
It’s impossible to predict how the discourse on J Street will shake out, but one thing is certain: The battle over J Street’s acceptance is taking place at the most granular level of the Jewish community.
On November 16, Berkeley’s umbrella group for Jewish student life decided by a one-vote margin to bar the university’s chapter of J Street U from joining as a member organization. (The final tally was 10–9, with two members abstaining from the vote.) This was the first time a Jewish student group barred J Street U outright. But the organization has had a mixed reception when it has attempted to make inroads at other universities.