The J Street Scandal

By Benjamin Kerstein
Monday, October 11, 2010

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.

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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