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The J Street Scandal

The recent scandal involving the lobbying group J Street, a liberal organization founded in 2008 that bills itself as "pro-Israel and pro-peace," may seem to some like a tempest in a teapot. In fact it is very significant, especially to anyone concerned about Israel, its future, and its relationship to the United States.

Relevant Links
Down the Rabbit Hole  Jeffrey Goldberg, Atlantic. “What is going on [with J Street] is inexplicable, and terribly dispiriting to people who thought that [it] was going to make a useful contribution to the debate over the future of Israel.”  
Is This Lobby Really “Pro-Israel”?  Shmuel Rosner, Jewish Chronicle. The revelations have shocked and dismayed many, but the real question is how J Street’s pro-Israel supporters in Congress will react. We will know soon enough.

The scandal broke on September 24 with the publication of a Washington Times article by the reporter Eli Lake revealing that one of J Street's largest donors was the billionaire financier George Soros. The fact that Soros was funding a liberal organization was hardly surprising, given his well-known political views; but his stance on specifically Jewish issues has been controversial at least since 2003, when he asserted that the rise in global anti-Semitism was the result of policies being pursued by Israel and the United States.

Indeed, J Street appears to have been aware of how toxic an association with Soros could be, since in response to journalistic inquiries, and under "Frequently Asked Questions" on its official webpage, it had specifically denied receiving any funds from the financier. (That statement has now been removed.) Nor is this the only bizarre aspect of its finances. Despite advertising itself as a grassroots Jewish organization, one of J Street's largest reported donations in the fiscal year 2008-09 was a massive infusion of funds—according to the Times article, almost half of the organization's total revenue—from an obscure and somewhat mysterious Hong Kong resident named Consolaçion Esdicul.

While still scrambling to repair the damage caused by these revelations, J Street was hit by another Washington Times bombshell. In this second article, co-authored by Lake and Ben Birnbaum, the Israeli Labor politician Colette Avital, who was once associated with J Street, was quoted as saying that the organization has helped facilitate members of the U.S. Congress and Judge Richard Goldstone, author of the notorious UN report on Israel's Gaza operation that supporters of Israel, Jewish and non-Jewish, consider to be little more than a modern blood libel.

Avital claimed to be "shocked and appalled" by the article, and a J Street blogger wrote that "the right-wing attack machine is in full gear." Standing by its story, however, the Times promptly released the audio from portions of its interview with Avital, making it clear that she was indeed quoted correctly. Equally damning was J Street's own statement to the Times, which, while denying the charge of having facilitated Goldstone's meetings, admitted that "J Street staff . . . reached out to a handful of congressional staff to inquire whether members would be interested in seeing Judge Goldstone. We believed it to be a good idea for him and for members of Congress to meet personally." It must be admitted that this does sound remarkably like "facilitating."

Reactions to the scandal have fallen mostly along party lines. Conservatives have attacked the organization as dishonest at its core and, for all intents and purposes, objectively anti-Israel. Liberals have defended J Street in principle while acknowledging that it should not have covered up its associations with Soros and Goldstone. There is no doubt, though, that a general sense of disillusionment has set in, with, for example, the liberal commentator Jeffrey Goldberg pronouncing the revelations "inexplicable" and "terribly dispiriting."

The truth is that, however disheartening the scandal may be to those on the Left, it was inevitable. In setting out to form a "counter-lobby" to AIPAC and thus to challenge the American "pro-Israel establishment" from the Left, J Street was forced from the beginning to embrace what was essentially a watered-down version of the "Israel lobby" conspiracy theory: the idea, in other words, that a hawkish cabal of Jews loyal only to Israel has prevented the U.S. government from achieving peace in the Middle East. As such, it was only a matter of time before the organization became involved, intentionally or not, with some rather dubious characters.

Moreover, since its inception the "pro-Israel and pro-peace" J Street has been trapped in a schizophrenic and self-contradictory dilemma of its own making. What does it mean to be "pro-Israel" if not, in practical terms, to support Israel's defensive military actions? And what does it mean to be "pro-peace" if not, again in practical terms, to oppose those same actions? What J Street's current travails expose is just how difficult it has become to be both passionately on the Left and passionately pro-Israel, without eventually being forced to aggrandize the former at the expense of the latter.

And that is where the true significance of the J Street scandal may lie. At the organization's inception, its executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami proudly referred to it as President Obama's "blocking back" in Congress. That is, J Street was to provide the new administration's, and thus the liberal establishment's, first line of defense, both in the political arena and inside the Jewish community, for a historic change in American policy toward the Jewish state. Its job was, and still is, to enable the administration to pressure Israel unilaterally without paying a domestic political price for it.

In this, it must be said, the organization has scored a number of successes. But as the impact of events like the Soros scandal sink in, the underlying and rather sordid hypocrisy of its efforts becomes more and more difficult to conceal. Recently, the organization's adviser and co-founder Daniel Levy asserted with uncommon bluntness that Israel's very founding was "an act that was wrong" and that "there's no reason a Palestinian should think there was justice in the creation of Israel." Such honesty, refreshing in its way, may indicate the extent to which the progressive Jewish minority that helped elect Obama and that gave J Street its raison d'être is, at least on the issue of Israel, in the process of being devoured by its own contradictions.

Benjamin Kerstein is a writer living in Tel Aviv.

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Saul Lieberman on October 11, 2010 at 11:50 am (Reply)
J Street pursues its own agenda -- which appears to be making life more comfortable for J Street members.
In Goldberg's town hall session with Ben Ami, Ben Ami explained J Street's "stake" in the Israeli conflict: Israel’s pursuit of unpopular actions and its negative image casts a negative light on the J Street’s members personally. He also explained J Street's place in the Beinart divide: Israel is not the number one priority for J Street members. Hardly a crime, but surely a recipe for bad advocacy and bad tactics. Or worse.
Frosty7530 on October 11, 2010 at 12:28 pm (Reply)
From the outset, J Street seemed, wrong, wrong WRONG to me. I grew up in a very pro-Zionist family; I was raised to believe, rationally or not, that my destiny as a Jew was tied into the State of Israel; should she perish, so would world Jewry go with her. I am not observant or active in Jewish causes; but my gut level instincts told me J-Street was not in the best interests of Jews anywhere. This tiny country, just a mere postage stamp, surrounded by powerful oil rich Arab neighbors, has only survived because American Jews have stood together to protect her interests. Jews know how to argue and survive. I thought it very bad for J Street to split America's Jewish Community up, especially at this time.

I am very grateful to our Christian friends on the right, for their sincere efforts to stand with Israel and support American Jews being united in this effort.
President Obama's hideous treatment of Israel's P.M. should be a warning to all American Jews of where we stand with this administration. Would Obama dare treat a representative of the Vatican in this manner? If this is the treatment he accords Israel's leaders, how do you think he evaluates you? J Street is the worst development in American Jewish politics, ever.
Allen Z. Hertz on October 11, 2010 at 2:38 pm (Reply)
J Street was never "grass roots." It was always a secretly funded, purpose-built, anti-Israel organization, fronting for the Obami who (truth be told)are really dedicated to doing to Israel in 2010 what was done to Czechoslovakia in 1938. Sad to say, there have always been some Jews who are ashamed of the Jewish People and Israel. However, we know that they are a small minority of worldwide Jewry. Most Jews have some understanding that Israel was legitimately born, with a stronger moral and legal pedigree than most other countries, including the USA and Canada which sit on territory that was stolen from the aboriginal peoples of North America. By contrast, of all extant Peoples, the Jewish People has the strongest claim to be aboriginal to the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. From antiquity to the present, there has never been a year, a month or a day, when Jews were entirely absent from the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Moreover, the Jewish People has been affirming its cultural and demographic links to its ancestral homeland continuously for more than 2,500 years. All of which explains why Winston Churchill in 1922 said that the Jewish People is there by right and not on sufferance. Respect for the principle of the self-determination of Peoples might now induce the Jewish People and Israel to perhaps decide to share the Jewish National Home to accommodate the self-determination of the other. If so, would it be wrong to expect that the precondition for such partition would be adequate provision for Israel's security and full recognition of the legitimacy and permanence of Israel as the Jewish State, i.e. as the political expression of the Jewish People in its ancestral homeland? We should not trust organizations like J Street that embody the views of those who are ashamed of Israel and apologetic about the long and unbroken history of the Jews in the Middle East. If anyone is owed an apology, it is the Jewish People. And, prominent among those owing the Jewish People an apology are Muslims and Arabs, inter alia for more than 1400 years of periodically persecuting Middle Eastern Jews, including Muslim and Arab abuse of those heroic Jews who have for more than two millennia lived between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
daniel foster on October 11, 2010 at 3:25 pm (Reply)
the Washington Times lacks credibility when it comes to matters of Jewish import.

1. it has run numerous anti-Israel, anti-Zionist ads in its pages (unlike its rival, the Washington POST).

2. The Washington Times is owned by the Unification Church, whose leader, Rev. Moon, considers himself the
re-incarnation of Jesus, and who has, on occasions and as documented by the ADL, made anti-Semitic comments.

The Washington Times is no friend of the Jewish people.
Ellen on October 11, 2010 at 4:32 pm (Reply)
The Arabs that remained in Israel have a good life. All Palestinians could have remained but their leaders told them to leave and "we will come back and kill the Jews."

They have hurt their own people and continue to do so.
Independent Patriot on October 12, 2010 at 5:15 am (Reply)
Very good article. The author did leave out Ben-Ami's connection to Fenton communication and his coordination of anti-Israel movements on college campuses nationwide. Additionally, JStreet was in fact the brainchild of the Jewish arm of the Democratic Party. It was created precisely as a propaganda tool for Obama.In reality how could anyone think that an organization that included Code Pink and other anti-Semitic radical lefties, would be a pro-Israel organization? Those of us who paid attention knew that JStreet was many things but pro-Israel was not one of them. It is time they got hoisted by their own petard.

The truth is the JStreet is not going away go fast. Ben-Ami and his ilk will try to hang on for dear life. As evidenced by his public spat with Dershowitz. The question is why would Dershowitz even give JStreet his attention and hence legitimize it, if not for his own ego issues. (OK this article isn't a psychological work up of that man either.) But what they have been for the near future at least is greatly marginalized, which is fine. Keep them in their rats cage for as long as possible.

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