J Street has lost one of its key supporters in Congress, as New York Democrat Gary Ackerman announced he is disassociating himself from the group because of their stance on condemning Israel’s settlement activity in the UN General Assembly.
Now, while it is true that J Street’s power in Congress isn’t judged by one member’s decision to take their endorsement or by another who gives it up, Ackerman is a special case.
First, he is a leading Jewish voice in Congress. Ackerman’s annual deli-style fundraiser event on Capitol Hill brings together pretty much every Jew who has anything to do with politics in this town. And his New York district – New York’s 5th – is about as Jewish as it gets, ranking among the 10 most Jewish districts in the nation.
Second reason for concern – Israel. Gary Ackerman is one of the top authorities in the House on all things relating to Israel. He chaired the subcommittee on Middle East (and will now be the ranking Democrat on it) and has strong ties with leaders from Israel and Arab countries. Ackerman is the kind of congressmen J Street really needs – mainstream, knowledgeable, credible with the Jewish community.
And there’s a third reason why loosing Ackerman is bad news for the dovish lobby – he is great with words. And this means that you don’t want to get on his wrong side, because then Ackerman can easily whip up a press release which includes phrases like this to describe J Street’s approach to the UN vote: “It is rather the befuddled choice of an organization so open-minded about what constitutes support for Israel that its brains have fallen out.”
To be fair, J Street did issue a response which argues, among other things that Ackerman did not understand the group’s nuanced approach to the issue. But whatever the reason is, J Street is now without Gary Ackerman, which leaves them low on Jewish congressmen, especially from large communities such as New York.
Here are a few things to look for in the coming weeks that can help assess J Street’s direction:
•The group’s second national conference is coming up next month. This is a good opportunity to look at who will be on the congressional welcome committee and compare it to last year. Bigger list means bigger support.
•Who will be the administration official to speak at the conference? Last year former national security adviser James Jones promised that the Obama administration will send a representative to each conference. Interesting to see who it will be.
•Another indicator – the media. A year ago J Street was the hottest story not only in the Jewish but also in the national press. Will it get the same media-hype?
And of course there is the question of the Israelis. Ambassador Michael Oren and J Street already kissed and made up for last year’s snub, but will he come to a conference of a group that does not oppose condemning Israel in the UN on the settlement issue?
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Ackerman Breaks With J Street – A Sign of Trouble Ahead for Dovish Lobby?