The excitement is infectious. The growth astounding. J Street, turning 5 years old next week, has grown steadily and exponentially.
“We are an important voice in the debate and discussion about Israel,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street. “I don’t want to overstate anything. There has been very steady, gradual growth and gradual acceptance.”
But the numbers are anything but gradual. At its first conference in 2009, without a grassroots network on the ground, J Street recruited 1,500 people to its event.
“We were an online organization then,” explained Rachel Lerner, senior vice president of community relations for J Street. “That was the first time we engaged with the people.”
Lerner recalled how the J Street team had been hoping to recruit even 1,000 people — and that seemed like a high number. Before the committee opened the doors, folks were clamoring to get in. When the knob turned, “people flooded in,” said Lerner. “They could not get in fast enough. … There is an entire movement concerned for Israel’s safety, security and a two-state solution. Now, they feel they have a community.”
In 2011, 2,000 people came to the J Street policy conference. In 2012, 2,500, including 650 students from 90 campuses.
Young adult engagement is a hallmark of J Street’s success, and thought-leaders looking at J Street U, the student organizing arm of J Street, “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans,” according to its website, are dumbfounded — and impressed.
Dr. Arthur C. Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said his first interaction with J Street was “eye-opening.” At an annual dinner, flocks of young people filled the seats.
“It is absolutely remarkable and to their credit that they have been able to bring Jewish institutional life to so many young people. It’s absolutely incredible,” Abramson said.
In 2009, there were seven J Street U branches. Today, there are more than 50.
What is the secret sauce? Just ask any of the students involved with J Street U. They’ll tell you the same thing: It’s the ability to put their Jewish values into action around Israel.
“Most of our students grew up going to day or religious schools, attending Jewish camps and involved in Jewish youth groups. … Tikkun olam is important to them. They were taught to make the world a better place,” explained Ira Stup, deputy director of J Street U. “For many of them, there were a series of moments that helped them realize they weren’t always able to apply their Jewish values to [the] Israel [dialogue]. They were taught to spit back talking points. … J Street offers a deep, sophisticated conversation.”
“I found myself frustrated with the narrow and shallow way many of the organizations engaged students with Israel,” said Simone Zimmerman, president of J Street’s national student board and a senior at the University of California, Berkley. “I came to J Street U looking for a community that was willing to wrestle with the toughest questions and seek meaningful, lasting solutions to the greatest challenges facing Israel today.”
Zimmerman said J Street is a place she can combine her love of Israel with her commitment to social justice.
Rachel Cohen organized the J Street U chapter at Johns Hopkins University. She said the process has been challenging, that students can be busy and/or apathetic. But, she marks her group a success, especially after the Johns Hopkins newspaper penned an editorial “about how they’re glad we exist on campus and add to the dialogue surrounding Israel.”
In a paragraph, the J Street mission, according to Ben-Ami, is to mobilize broad support for a two-state solution because it is in Israel’s and America’s best interest. J Street believes “the lack of a two-state resolution poses an existential threat to the State of Israel” due to demographic realities. He said in a debate with StandWithUs CEO Roz Rothstein that experts who have studied conflict resolution say a third party such as the U.S. is needed because the last thing that works is to tell the parties to reach a resolution themselves.
With that in mind, J Street has attacked the field on all fronts, working to effect change on every level and in every place that conversation around Israel is happening in the U.S.
According to Jessica L.D. Rosenblum, director of media and communications for J Street, the organization staffs 50 people, has 15,000 donors and some 180,000 supporters. Its political action committee distributed $1.8 million to candidates last year. In last November’s election, it endorsed 71 candidates — all Democrats — for federal offices; 70 out of 71 won; 21 of the races J Street endorsed were considered competitive by the Cook Political Report. It is unclear how influential the J Street endorsement was.
Most recently, J Street took credit for helping to secure Chuck Hagel in his role as secretary of defense. In an article by Reuters, a former Hagel staffer, Lou Ann Linehan, gave credit to J Street for is support. But Dylan Williams, J Street director of government affairs, said J Street played more of a role in the Hagel nomination and pre-nomination process.
Williams noted that the organization hosted Hagel at an early policy conference and was the first Jewish organization to come out in Hagel’s support. J Street ran a creative marketing campaign, “Smear a Bagel, Not Chuck Hagel,” in which J Street sent bagels to local food banks for every 18 people who signed a pro-Hagel petition.
J Street didn’t regard Hagel “as the only possible choice,” said Alan Elsner, J Street’s vice president of communications. “But we didn’t want to see another perfectly good and qualified candidate be ridden out of town on a rail by a bunch of extreme interests relying on false and distorted information.”
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) ultimately voted in Hagel’s favor. He said neither J Street’s nor any other organization’s position ultimately impacted his decision.
“I have great respect for [Hagel]. He is an honorable person. … My concern was whether this was the right position for him. … He alleviated my concerns,” said Cardin. “I don’t believe lobbying by J Street … or by anyone in the pro-Israel community determined my support.”
The White House declined to comment on J Street.
Apples to … Grapes
Purely looking at the numbers, for all the hype, J Street really isn’t much but a stitch in the side of most larger pro-Israel organizations. This reporter, for example, obtained the 990 c3 financial statements of both the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and J Street from the last several years.
Between July 1, 2008 and June 30, 2009, J Street’s total revenue reached $1,641,153. In a similar tax period (Oct. 1, 2008 and Sept. 30, 2009), AIPAC’s total revenue was $60,749,036. In a similar tax year (circa 2010): $2,189,038 for J Street and $66,176,210 for AIPAC. In circa 2011: $2,972,591 for J Street, $66,862,011 for AIPAC.
Of course, by percentage (10 percent for AIPAC and 81 percent for J Street over a three-year period), J Street’s growth is markedly higher, but the numbers are so distinct that one recognizes one is not comparing apples to apples, but rather apples to grapes.
“I think AIPAC is one of the most effective political groups in Washington, a model other political groups have tried to follow,” said Cardin. “AIPAC has been around much longer and is much more well-established.”
At the AIPAC conference earlier this year, 13,000 people attended. According to AIPAC’s chief spokesman Marshall Wittmann, the same number attended in 2012. Ten thousand people took part in the AIPAC policy conference in 2011. Wittman declined to comment further for this story.
Ben-Ami said J Street never set out to be an alternative to AIPAC. He told the JT, “What we are offering is advocacy related to Israel that offers a different approach than what has been tried by AIPAC for 50 or 60 years. AIPAC … really promotes the U.S.-Israel relationship, which is a good thing to do. We promote a proactive American leadership role in trying to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. That is a very different mission.”
Professor Gil Troy, a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, said he attended the 2013 AIPAC conference and was “quite moved by the sweetness of it, the earnestness of so many AIPAC supporters, how intense their commitments are to Israel, how much less edgy and angry and political they were.”
Troy said he thinks AIPAC has been typed as the “big bad wolf” of lobbies, but he thinks their reputation has been exaggerated and maligned, partially by J Street and partially by other factors. He told the JT that J Street has found it convenient to obscure the deep, enduring and bipartisan ties Americans have with Israel to serve its own agenda.
“J Street exaggerates its voice and its power,” said Troy. “I think they may have hurt AIPAC, but the damage has not been fatal.”
Yehuda Neuberger, chairman of The Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs and a politically inv-olved member of the community, echoed Troy’s sentiments. He said he thinks J Street has a strong PR team and has undoubtedly affected the communal dialogue, but when it comes to the specific issue of the pro-Israel community’s legislative activities, “J Street hasn’t really changed the dynamic on Capitol Hill.”
Crossing The Line
Troy said he has been pleased to watch J Street’s evolution. He said when J Street first came on the scene it was oppositional and defining itself against AIPAC, which sometimes made the group appear “like the cranky rebellious child.” Over the last couple of years, he said, J Street has clarified its vision.
The professor espouses a big-tent Israel dialogue, open on all four sides. But, he said, the tent has to have poles, red lines that can’t be crossed, and blue and white lines, things about Israel that must be affirmed.
J Street, said Troy, sometimes makes him nervous.
“J Street sometimes forgets the balance between criticism of Israel and affirming its legitimacy,” Troy said.
Other American pro-Israel organizations share similar concerns. The Zionist Organization of America’s Mort Klein, for example, accuses J Street of falsely labeling itself as a pro-Israel organization. He told the JT that most of J Street’s positions “are positions the Arabs would be delighted” for it to take.
Klein noted that Ben-Ami has failed to express the fact that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has refused to negotiate with the Israelis for more than four years, that the Palestinian Authority condemns 65 years of occupation, which translates to its considering all of Israel illegal.
“I have never seen any serious criticism of the PA, none,” said Klein. “It is amusing they call themselves pro-Israel.”
Rothstein of StandWithUs feels similarly. She said J Street ignores Palestinian terrorism, ignores Hamas and all it stands for.
“What you hear from Israeli leaders is that they want two states. What you hear from the Israeli people is that they want two states. They want peace. If it means giving away ancient Israel — some of Judea and Samaria — they are willing to do that. They say that, and they have been saying it for decades. This is not J Street’s idea. This is not a new idea,” said Rothstein. “But peace is not between Israel and J Street. And it is not to happen with America telling Israel what to do and how to do it. It must be the Israelis and the Palestinians themselves that negotiate.”
And that is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. J Street, under Ben-Ami, has laid out a two-state proposal with the negotiation of borders starting at Israel’s pre-1967 lines (with some adjustments), a Palestinian capital in eastern Jerusalem, a Jewish capital in western Jerusalem, the Temple Mount and its surrounding holy sites as an international zone, Palestinians earning the right of return to “Palestine” but not to Israel, and a demilitarized Palestinian state with an international presence on its border to ensure the security of both parties.
Do Israelis on the ground, the people who actually would have to live out this proposal, agree with Ben-Ami’s plan?
It is tough to find someone who will answer in the affirmative.
Elsner mentioned an interview Israel Ambassador Michael Oren did recently on National Public Radio. Oren, according to Elsner, sounded a lot like J Street when he told host Steve Inskeep that the current situation is not “sustainable for everybody.”
However, taking each of J Street’s key policy statements and ideas and comparing them against recent polls by the Israel Democracy Institute could tell a different story. While 74.3 percent of Israelis say they are at least “somewhat in favor” of holding peace negotiations between Israel and the PA as of February 2013, only 4.5 percent of Jewish respondents believe that negotiations between Israel and the PA will lead to peace in coming years. And few have confidence in America’s ability to broker this peace. In fact, according to an August poll, 3.1 percent of Jewish respondents (6.5 percent of Jewish-Israeli and Arab-Israeli respondents combined) strongly believe that President Barack Obama has the ability to bring about a real breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinians negotiations.
Israeli Jews — 55 percent — continue to define themselves as right wing. While 60 percent of Israelis, according to Professor Tamar Hermann, Peace Index co-director, support in principle the idea of two states for two people, 58 percent believe that east Jerusalem should not be transferred to the Palestinians, and 51 percent believe that under no circumstances should communities in Judea and Samaria be dismantled.
“Feel free to criticize … but to lobby because you want to get your way over there really does not put a lot of trust in the Israeli people,” Rothstein told Ben-Ami during their debate.
Israel has a democratically elected government that issues policies based on representing the people, and Israelis contend that Americans who live across the ocean should respect that democratically elected government and its policies.
“I don’t know if the problem I have with J Street is more with J Street’s policies or with the fact that they are not looking at it [the Palestinian-Israeli conflict] from the point of view of the State of Israel,” said Marc Prowisor, head of security projects at the One Israel Fund. “Who will suffer? Not them.”
David Rubin, author of “Peace for Peace: Israel in the New Middle East,” said he thinks what J Street promotes is “very harmful” for the State of Israel.
“The J Street policy continuously recycles the old land for peace formula, which for Israel would be national suicide,” he said. “All J Street’s policies will bring is an increase in terrorism.”
Yael Patir, director of J Street’s Israel program, pushes back. When posed with the notion that J Street has not been accepted by Israelis, she said, adamantly, that it was just a matter of miscommunication. Patir told the JT that in its first four years, “our focus was not really to communicate J Street’s message to the Israelis.”
Today, J Street is working with politicians and the media to better convey its message.
“When delegations come … we meet with people from the whole spectrum of Israeli society. … They don’t necessarily agree with J Street, but have no problem engaging and dialoging with us.”
Whether it’s as bad for Israel as Prowisor and Rubin contend is clearly up for debate, but even more moderate voices in Israel do believe that J Street is not
listening to the Israeli side of the story.
“They have crossed the line — on an individual and on an official level — and have adopted policies that are not only against the view of the Israeli government, but an overwhelming consensus of the Israeli people,” said Gil Hoffman, chief political correspondent and analyst for The Jerusalem Post. “That’s wrong. You can’t be pro-Israel if you are going against almost everyone. There is a fine line between representing a fringe that needs to be represented and going against a consensus in a problematic way.”
Hoffman said the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is heavily nuanced — and so are terms like “occupation” and “1967 borders.” He said in Israel the people know that and analyze their options in that way. J Street, he said, is looking at the occupation with one brush.
Hoffman said he does not think Israelis have warmed to J Street, noting that dozens of Israeli political leaders will attend AIPAC’s annual policy conference while only a handful attend J Street’s — and they are criticized for doing so. He said AIPAC is perceived in Israel as supporting the Israeli government, no matter who is in office.
“AIPAC is not Likkud, Labor or Kadima. It’s Israel. That is what makes them respected here,” said Hoffman.
Some of J Street’s policies just don’t jibe when critically examined. For example, J Street contends that Israelis must be pressured into making peace now because demographics are such that Jews will be a minority in Israel within a generation and will be ruling over a majority that doesn’t have rights. But that is only if the 1.5 million people living in Gaza, a territory from which Israel unilaterally withdrew in 2005 and has no governing power, are included in the calculation. With Gaza removed, J Street’s assertion is off by 50 percent, and the demographic emergency is alleviated.
Likewise, J Street expresses concern that what binds America and Israel is a shared democratic vision.
“The No. 1 reason Americans support Israel is shared values,” said Lerner of J Street. “I have a fear that if Israel is not a democracy, then American support for Israel will wane. That will put Israel in a difficult situation.”
But yet they are calling on America to help form a Palestinian state in which Abbas has repeatedly declared not a single Jew would be allowed to live.
On the ground, Israelis and Israeli-Arabs are a lot less alienated than the media sometimes portrays. As in previous years, the 2012 Israeli Democracy Index, a yearly state study by the Israel Democracy Institute, sought to examine whether the dual definition of Israel as both Jewish and democratic is in fact accepted by the public. Interviewees were asked whether they felt Israel is “too democratic,” “democratic in the right measure,” or “not democratic enough.” Forty-two percent of Jewish respondents — and 44 percent of Arab-Israel respondents — said the country is democratic in the right measure. Of the total sample, that is 42.4 percent who feel it is democratic in the right measure in 2012, up from 34.1 percent in 2011 and 34 percent in 2010.
Furthermore, more than one-third of Jewish Israelis (34.3 percent) said Israel remaining a Jewish state was more important to them than its remaining a democratic state.
“The average Israeli looks up to or at Americans on many issues,” said Hermann. “But on this issue [the peace process] Americans are thought of as quite naive.”
Hermann said that whereas in the past American involvement in the peace process was welcomed by the majority of Israelis, today “only the Zionist left are calling for Americans to intervene.”
This, said Hermann, is even the case post President Obama’s visit to the Jewish state (though no polls had yet been conducted). J Street is viewed as closely aligned with the president, and 54 percent of Israelis as late as last month do not trust Obama to consider and safeguard Israel’s interests.
“If J Street didn’t exist, Obama would have needed to invent it,” said Troy. “I think there has been a click there that has been useful for the administration and for J Street. Each has grown from the other.”
Patir said she did not feel the above question was properly stated in the poll.
Opening The Flaps
Whether it takes longer for J Street to make inroads in Israel, Abramson said that J Street has made them in the U.S. The organization wants a seat at the table — nationally and on a local level.
J Street recently requested membership into the Baltimore Jewish Council. On April 11, the board voted 28 to 1 (with 1 abstention) in favor of its acceptance. The executive committee will affirm this shortly.
Abramson said BJC criteria requires organizations have a minimum number of members, exist for three years and be focused on Jewish community in a positive way. He said, at face value, J Street meets the criteria.
Abramson is also confident the group will add positively to the dialogue. The Baltimore chapter of Americans for Peace Now, he said, has been a member for a while, as has the ZOA.
“BJC is a big tent,” he said.
And at least in the U.S., the Israeli dialogue is becoming more of one, too.
“J Street wasn’t founded in opposition to any organization, but to fill a vacuum in the Jewish community,” said Ben-Ami.
“No one harbors any illusions that it’s going to be a cakewalk,” said Michael Felsen, a Boston-based J Street member and freelance writer. “The way is strewn with roadblocks and even land mines. … But the path is surely [not] a dead end.”