When the self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group J Street was founded over a year ago, many in the Jewish community predicted that it would have little to no influence in the shaping of American foreign policy. While American Jews are indeed overwhelmingly left-of-center in their political orientation, they also happen to hold rather hawkish views on Israel. A 2007 American Jewish Committee survey found that the overwhelming majority of American Jews believes that Israel “cannot achieve peace with a Hamas-led, Palestinian government” and that “the goal of the Arabs is not the return of occupied territories but rather the destruction of Israel” — views sharply at odds with J Street’s support for engagement with Hamas and its tendency to accuse Israel of hindering the peace process.
J Street’s moral relativism was on full display in its reaction to last year’s Operation Cast Lead. None other than Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Reform movement and one of America’s most prominent liberal Jewish leaders, admonished the organization in these very pages, describing its denunciation of Israel’s military operation against Hamas as “very wrong” and “deeply distressing.” Despite its claims, J Street does not represent mainstream Jewish opinion in this country, let alone in Israel, where the Jewish population was nearly unanimous in its support for Cast Lead. Yet notwithstanding the Jewish community’s rejection of J Street’s vision, the organization seems to have garnered the support of the most important constituency of all: the Obama administration.
On July 13, J Street’s executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, joined a select group of Jewish leaders for a White House meeting with President Obama. The purpose of the meeting was to smooth over tensions that have emerged between the pro-Israel community and the administration, tensions sparked by the latter’s propensity for publicly pressuring and criticizing Israel. It is in the execution of this strategic gambit — forcing Israel to do things that its leaders and populace do not want — that J Street will prove to be of great value to Obama.
Both Obama and J Street have fixated upon the subject of settlements. Both seem to believe that a settlement freeze holds the key to unlocking Middle East — if not global — peace. In their analysis, only American pressure can lead to a solution, as the Israelis are too hidebound and paranoid to understand what is in their own best interest. (Indeed, Obama reportedly told the assembled Jewish leaders that Israel needs “to engage in serious self-reflection” — something at which our president, as the author of not one but two memoirs, can claim not inconsiderable expertise.)
Who keeps preventing the full flowering of the necessary American leadership? In the J Street narrative, it’s establishment Jewish organizations, which distort American foreign policy by shielding Israel from pressure that would otherwise lead to peace. And who better to counter the influence of the so-called “Israel Lobby” than other Jews? J Street and the constellation of far-left “pro-Israel” organizations put a kosher stamp of approval on Obama’s bizarre hectoring and moral equivalence. By casting Israel as the obstructionist, as the “drunk” driver whose car keys need to be taken away (as Ben-Ami put it in one of his more candid moments), Obama will have a free hand to compel the parties to the peace table. And once gathered there, another Oslo accord can be forced upon a recalcitrant Israel (whereupon the disastrous consequences of that agreement — the erection of terrorist infrastructure, a deterioration of the Palestinian economy, deepening mutual distrust — will be repeated).
To this end, J Street seems to spend almost all of its resources bashing supporters of Israel. Those who disagree with the organization’s positions are routinely denounced as “right-wing” or “extremist.” Rather than draw attention to the murderous antisemitism, terrorism and impending nuclear-armed theocracy that Israel must confront, J Street prefers to churn out countless blog posts, press releases and op-eds denouncing the people who it believes are the real impediments to peace: stalwart defenders of Israel like Pastor John Hagee, Senator Joe Lieberman and former House speaker Newt Gingrich.
At the same time, the organization goes out of its way to defend those whose support for the Jewish state is dubious at best. In recent months, J Street has adopted an obscure freshman congresswoman from Maryland, Donna Edwards, as a cause célèbre. In January, after the conclusion of Cast Lead, Edwards was one of a handful of representatives to vote “present” on a resolution expressing support for Israel’s right to defend itself. When local Jewish leaders rightly criticized her, J Street raised $15,000 for Edwards in a matter of hours. Ben-Ami issued a defiant statement declaring, “This is exactly how — for decades — established pro-Israel groups have enforced right-wing message discipline on Israel in Congress.” (Notice the labeling of a resolution introduced by Nancy Pelosi and supported by 390 members of Congress as “right-wing.”) The effect of J Street’s backing of figures like Edwards will be the emboldening of Israel’s critics (who, like the Obama administration, will always be able to point to J Street to validate their “pro-Israel” bona fides) and the weakening of the strong, bipartisan support that the Jewish state has always enjoyed in Congress.
A Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll released last month found that only 46% of registered voters believe that Israel is committed to peace, down from 66% right before Obama took office. Furthermore, only 44% believe America should support Israel, down from 71% a year before. It’s impossible to isolate a single cause for this decline in sympathy for Israel, but surely the change in tone from the White House has played a substantial role. Even more distressing is that ostensibly “pro-Israel” activists are aiding and abetting this dark transformation in public attitudes.
James Kirchick is an assistant editor at The New Republic.