Philadelphia Feud Erupts Over Federation Embrace of Anti-J Street Film

Troubles Just as Group Makes Bid for Mainstream Acceptance

Fairly Balanced? J Street leader Jeremy Ben-Ami is portrayed as an incoherent voice for appeasement in a controversial video embraced by the Philadelphia Jewish federation.
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Fairly Balanced? J Street leader Jeremy Ben-Ami is portrayed as an incoherent voice for appeasement in a controversial video embraced by the Philadelphia Jewish federation.

By Nathan Guttman

Published March 26, 2014, issue of March 28, 2014.

J Street, the dovish Israel lobby that has struggled for acceptance in the wider Jewish community, is facing its greatest challenge yet. In the coming weeks, the Jewish establishment’s most prominent gatekeepers will vote on whether J Street can come under the proverbial communal tent.

The odds of success for J Street’s bid to join the Conference of President of Major American Jewish Organizations are not clear. But acceptance in organized Jewry’s primary umbrella group for Israel-related issues would constitute an official mainstream stamp of approval for J Street six years after its founding.

Now, a controversy has erupted in one of the nation’s largest Jewish communities that highlights the bumpy road the group still faces.

At issue is a March 27 event sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and by the local Hillel, titled “What It Means To Be Pro-Israel.” The answer to the question, at least in the eyes of the organizers, is revealed in the event’s content: It will feature a screening of a full-length anti-J-Street documentary and a panel made up mainly of critics of the organization.

The upcoming event has sparked an angry debate within the Philadelphia community, the nation’s fourth largest, and has brought to the surface accusations against the Jewish federation’s leadership and its decision-making process. “Political views on the right are listened to more, because the few people donating large amounts of dollars are on that political side,” said Jill Zipin, a community activist who has protested the decision to sponsor the event. “The Jewish federation shouldn’t be a tent of one Jewish donor.”

Panelists at the event, which will take place on the University of Pennsylvania campus, include Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, a staunch defender of Israel and just as staunch a critic of J Street; Charles Jacobs, who heads the group that produced the anti-J-Street film, and Sara Greenberg, a Harvard University graduate student who has been active in fighting attempts to boycott Israel.

Supporters of J Street have taken issue with the makeup of the panel and, more importantly, with the movie that will be the evening’s centerpiece. The J Street Challenge, released earlier this year, is a documentary aimed, according to the film’s official synopsis, at “examining and debating J Street’s message and its leaders.” It does so through clips from speeches of the lobby’s leaders and a series of interviews with experts, almost all of them known as leading critics of the group. Speakers in the movie accuse J Street of “dividing the Jewish community,” of being “imperialistic” and of manifesting “arrogance” in their views on Middle East peace. The J Street Challenge was produced by Americans for Peace and Tolerance, a not-for-profit organization devoted to fighting Islamic extremism.



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