NEW YORK (JTA) — Is J Street anti-Semitic? A South Carolina state legislator insists it is. But few — if any — Jewish leaders seem to agree.
Alan Clemmons, a state representative from Myrtle Beach, S.C., is a darling of the pro-Israel community. He led the charge to pass a 2015 state law outlawing contracts with companies that boycott Israel. He has sponsored legislation defining anti-Semitism, and was honored by pro-Israel groups during last year’s Republican National Convention for his support.
So Clemmons was a natural to appear at a one-day summit combating Israel boycotts that was held at the United Nations on March 29. But during his appearance, Clemmons provoked controversy.
A student from J Street U, the campus arm of the dovish pro-Israel lobby, asked Clemmons how to best fight Israel boycotts while also opposing Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Clemmons responded by calling J Street anti-Semitic.
“I personally believe that the organization that you’re representing is an anti-Semitic organization that chooses to ignore the law and chooses to ignore reality in order to push back on Israel in the Jewish community,” Clemmons said to loud cheers across the room. “I stand by my words before that there is no illegal occupation.”
Clemmons, who is not Jewish, has since doubled down on the anti-Semitism accusation. He repeated it in tweets sent later that day and in a Wall Street Journal op-ed Monday. In the op-ed, Clemmons cites former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, who said that anyone who demonizes, delegitimizes or creates a double standard for Israel is an anti-Semite. Clemmons then adds, “Measured this way, J Street is itself anti-Semitic.”
J Street U called Clemmons’ accusation “completely unacceptable.” Liat Deener-Chodirker, the group’s vice president for the southeast, said Clemmons’ statement and the crowd’s reaction reflect the mainstreaming of fringe views in the pro-Israel movement.
“We oppose BDS on all of our campuses, and we saw this as an opportunity to talk about how to best do that,” she said. “It empowers the fringe of the community, and that becomes the face of what we’re doing. We saw fringe voices being made the norm.”
Like Clemmons, Israel’s current government contends that Israel’s military governance of the West Bank is not an occupation, though much of the world disagrees. Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, who has advocated annexing the territory, said in 2015 that Israel should “refute the myth of occupation.”
“The Western Wall is not occupied,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in December 2016, criticizing a recent United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israeli West Bank settlements. “The Jewish Quarter is not occupied. The other places are not occupied either.”
But the United Nations, international courts and most countries do consider the West Bank occupied. Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that the West Bank was occupied territory in 2004, and Israeli politicians on right and left have also used the term. Ariel Sharon, a former architect of the settlement movement, acknowledged the occupation as prime minister, two years before he led Israel to withdraw from Gaza.
“We may not like the word, but what’s happening is under occupation,” Sharon said in 2003, as a stone-faced Netanyahu, then finance minister, looked on. “To hold three-and-a-half million Palestinians under occupation, in my opinion, is a terrible thing. It can’t continue without end.”
J Street has been an outspoken critic of what it calls “the occupation” since its founding in 2008. While leading American Jewish groups tend to stay silent on Israeli West Bank policy, J Street has earned the ire of many Jews on the right for its vociferous opposition to Netanyahu. Unlike virtually all leading American Jewish organizations, J Street supported the 2016 U.N. Security Council resolution.
But no matter what they think about J Street, or whether they use the word “occupation,” Jewish leaders across the board virtually agreed that the group and its affiliates are not anti-Semitic. Several called Clemmons’ statement inappropriate. Even Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America — which insists “there is no Israeli occupation of Judea/Samaria,” using names for the West Bank favored by Israel’s right — said that while he considers J Street “extremely hostile to Israel,” neither the group nor its students are anti-Semitic.
“I’ve never used the term anti-Semitic to describe them,” Klein told JTA Wednesday regarding J Street. He added that he didn’t consider J Street U students anti-Semitic, or even anti-Israel. “Many of these students love Israel and care about Israel. They’re just not knowledgeable,” he said.
Other groups condemned Clemmons for the accusation, and called for respect across ideologies within the pro-Israel movement. Condemnations came from major centrist Jewish groups like Hillel International, the Israel Action Network and the Anti-Defamation League. The World Jewish Congress, which co-sponsored the U.N. event, sent JTA a statement calling for welcoming diverse opinions in the Jewish community.
“ADL firmly holds that in order to fight the scourge of delegitimization, the Jewish community needs to invest in building a broad tent,” ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement Wednesday, echoing a report his group co-wrote this year on how to best combat BDS. “Demonizing members of the community who hold alternative views does the opposite of this. It is the responsibility of leaders to insist on a civil discourse.”
Clemmons did receive praise from South Carolina’s two local Jewish federations — in Columbia and Charleston — for his legislative work supporting Israel. But Judi Corsaro, CEO of the Charleston federation, added in an email to JTA that “J Street is not an anti-Semitic organization.”
“I see that he’s referring to Natan Sharansky’s criteria for when people step over the line,” said Barry Abels, executive director of the Columbia federation, who wouldn’t comment directly on the accusation. “Alan is very supportive of the Jewish community. He’s very supportive of Israel. I think he’s not comfortable with the terms when people talk about Israel as an occupier.”
A spokesperson for the Jewish Agency for Israel, which Sharansky chairs, likewise would not comment directly on Clemmons’ charge, and as a response, pointed to a speech Sharansky gave earlier in the U.N. summit praising pro-Israel work on campus. Sharansky complimented a handful of centrist and right-wing campus Israel groups, but J Street U was not one of them.
The Israeli Mission to the U.N. also did not comment.