J Street's Gaza War Support Wins 'Moderate' Praise — But Alienates Some Backers

Grassroots Peaceniks Take to Streets To Oppose Israel

We Don’t Agree: Jewish pro-peace protesters prepare to be arrested during civil disobedience action at the Conference of Presidents meeting.
martyna starosta
We Don’t Agree: Jewish pro-peace protesters prepare to be arrested during civil disobedience action at the Conference of Presidents meeting.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published July 30, 2014.

The last time Israel invaded Gaza, in 2008, the activist group J Street took a hard line against Operation Cast Lead. J Street framed Israel’s attack as collective punishment and demanded an immediate end to the conflict.

The organization was pilloried by American Jewish leaders.

This time around, J Street has taken a radically different position, sticking close to other mainstream Jewish groups. J Street has asserted Israel’s right to defend itself, and has condemned Hamas while expressing concern for Palestinian and Israeli civilians.

The more moderate approach has won the group praise from some former critics, while threatening to alienate core activists. It has left American Zionists critical of the war without any established Jewish organizations on their side, as both Americans for Peace Now and Ameinu have also chosen not to criticize the invasion.

Former high-ranking J Street staff members were among the organizers of a July 28 protest in New York City against Israel’s invasion of Gaza. They acted under the name #ifnotnow and made no mention of their former J Street affiliations.

“J Street got really criticized for the way it handled it in Cast Lead,” said Kathleen Peratis, a former J Street board member who split with the group in 2011 after visiting Gaza and meeting with Hamas officials. “It has made a very strong effort to modify its language… so that it can be a credible player and a credible applicant to the [Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations].”

J Street tried to join the Presidents Conference, a round table of national Jewish organizations, in a lengthy process that culminated in April with a vote that rejected J Street. But the application to the Presidents Conference came at the tail end of a multiyear process of moderation that is on display in J Street’s response to the ongoing Operation Protective Edge.

“We are much larger, much bigger, have a more diverse and varied constituency,” said Jessica Rosenblum, J Street’s director of media and communications, of the difference between her organization’s response to the Gaza conflicts in 2008 and 2014. She also said that the crisis itself is different, citing the increased range of Hamas’s rockets and the ratcheting escalation. “I think it stands to reason now that our position would be different than it was in 2008,” she said.

On December 28, 2008, a day into Operation Cast Lead, J Street wrote a letter to supporters asserting that “neither Israelis nor Palestinians have a monopoly on right or wrong.”

“While there is nothing ‘right’ in raining rockets on Israeli families or dispatching suicide bombers, there is nothing ‘right’ in punishing a million and a half already-suffering Gazans for the actions of the extremists among them,” the group wrote.

Blowback came fast. Responding in a column in the Forward, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, then president of the Union for Reform Judaism, slammed the letter, calling it “morally deficient, profoundly out of touch with Jewish sentiment and also appallingly naive.”

The response shook the fledgling lobby. J Street invited Yoffie to its convention in 2009, and the group began to make efforts to shift its rhetoric and message. “They were a young organization,” said one activist who is part of a progressive Jewish organization and not authorized to speak on the matter. “Since then, J Street has tried to appeal more to the center.”

That shift was apparent in 2012, at the start of Operation Pillar of Defense, a brief aerial bombardment of Gaza. J Street’s statement on the operation said that it “stands with Israel” and that the group affirmed Israel’s right to defend itself.

Since the beginning of the current Gaza conflict, J Street’s differentiation from the rest of the Jewish community has been largely limited to the tone of its statements.

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