J Street – Two Years after its Formation

By Dan Lieberman – Washington D.C.

Two years ago, J Street, a newly registered pro-Israel lobby, hit the American Streets with optimism, vitality and promise. Its thrust: To replace or diminish the punch of the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC). 

J Street intends to subdue AIPAC’s charge and steer United States Middle East policy to bring peace to the Middle East – a worthy objective reinforced with strong rhetoric – two state solution, achieve regional comprehensive peace, broaden debate on issues, diplomatic solutions favored over military solutions, an immediate and total freeze of settlement construction, Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem to be under Israeli sovereignty and Arab neighborhoods to be under Palestinian sovereignty. Nevertheless, long time critics of Israel’s policies suspect J Street could have unintended consequences; will not achieve objectives and might sidetrack activists from properly engaging Israel. 

J Street’s challengers accuse it of couching objectives in dubious language with words such as favored, broaden, should support; of not providing rigorous plans to achieve the objectives (such as changing the Israeli administration); of a commitment to Israel that does not sufficiently recognize the seriously oppressive nature of Israel’s policies. How far will J Street go in modifying present Israel? Will it be enough to bring peace to the Middle East or only enough to satisfy J Street’s ambitions for Israel? A lingering doubt has J Street with another “Good guy/ Bad guy” routine; a familiar characteristic of Israel’s political scene? In this routine the out of power Party promises to undo the extremist policies of the Party in power and then, when in power, continues the same extreme policies, while the ‘extremist’ Party, now out of power, promises similar changes.

In its annual reports for 2008 and 2009, J Street shows organization and support. The lobby has raised sufficient funds for a $3 million dollar budget (AIPAC budget is $75 million), has a campus arm, and has sponsored meetings all over the nation. It claims successful financing for selected congressional candidates.

Examining a sampling of candidates supported by J Street and we find they have one policy in common – intensive support for Israel.

Jeff Merkley D-Senator Oregon

“I strongly support the US-Israel relationship, a mutually beneficial bond made stronger by common values, histories, and dedication to democratic principles. Our first and unassailable commitment in the Middle East must be to the security of Israel.”

Gary Peters D-Mi 

“Israel is the lone democracy in a sea of tyranny. In Congress I will fight to make sure that the U.S. – Israeli relationship remains strong.”

Tom Perrielo D-Va

Voted for House Resolution 867 “Calling on the President and the Secretary of State to oppose unequivocally any endorsement or further consideration of the ‘Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict.’ (Goldstone Report)

The lobby has supported Donna Edwards, a Maryland congresswoman with high marks from Arab groups for her fair minded attitudes. Score one for J Street.

Possibly, two years is insufficient to judge the effectiveness of a lobby organization. Nevertheless, after two years, J Street’s accomplishments are meager and have not influenced any administration policies. 

J Street has neither impeded AIPAC’s effectiveness nor been able to convince the administration to implement any of its proposals. Despite charges of its members receiving unauthorized government information, AIPAC continues its successful lobbying efforts without loss of momentum. Peace in the Middle East never looked more discouraging. J Street provides hope, but its inconsistencies, its incomplete agenda, its vagueness, and what it does not say, has not turned hope into accomplishment.

J Street refused to support House Resolution 867, which condemned the Goldstone Commission report on Operation Cast Lead, but “would be able to support a resolution that recognized the history of bias against Israel at the United Nations, the flaws in the original mandate to the Goldstone Commission and the dangers in pursuing resolutions in multilateral fora with a track record of anti-Israel bias; and condemns the series of one-sided resolutions adopted by the UN Human Rights Council.”

The lobby also stated it “further urges the Obama Administration to make every effort to oppose and defeat the one-sided and biased resolution that is likely to be presented in the General Assembly and to work actively for the adoption of a better, balanced resolution. We urge the United States to make clear that it will use its veto to prevent any referral of this matter to the International Criminal Court.”

Rather than supporting existing movements that are taking action against Israel’s oppressive policies, J Street steers them to opposing polices. The Campus Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel has taken off. J Street intends to bring BDS back to the ground. J Street statement:

“This BDS movement is spreading to campuses across the country, but we should be investing – not divesting – in our campus debate, in our communities and in the people who will bring about change in the region.”

With these declarations J Street collided with its demands for a more democratic and less militaristic and civil Israel. What happened to J Street’s initiative, which “supports diplomatic solutions over military ones; multilateral over unilateral approaches to conflict resolution; and dialogue over confrontation with a wide range of countries and actors when conflicts do arise?”

J Street’s principal goal is ”The creation of a viable Palestinian state as part of a negotiated two-state solution, based on the 1967 borders with agreed reciprocal land swaps.” The lobby adds that “The future Palestinian state will require unprecedented levels of international economic and political support to succeed, including a resolution of the refugee issue within the new Palestinian state and in current host countries.”

Note the vagueness of the goals (viable Palestinian state) and the lack of any demands on Israel for achieving the goals. Negotiations? What type? Solution based on 1967 borders “with agreed reciprocal land swaps.” Why not just 1967 borders? Refugee issue resolved by the Palestinians and host countries? What about the nation which created the refugees?

If J Street represents a progressive and just wing of the Jewish community, why doesn’t it exercise its duty to that community? Why is it engaged in telling both sides and the U.S. what to do? Why doesn’t it have as its main thrust proposals for redefining a new Israel that is not virulently nationalist, not militarist, not racist and not a democracy for only its Jewish citizens?

The new Jewish Lobby received much publicity from its recent voyage to the Middle East with House Representatives (Reps. Lois Capps (CA-23), William Delahunt (MA-10), Bob Filner (CA-51), Mary Jo Kilroy (OH-15), and Donald Payne (NJ-10). Weren’t all the congressionals already familiar with the Middle East crisis? Did they need the trip as much as those who had little familiarity with the crisis and were vehement supporters of Israel? Why invite the converted and not those who need to be converted? From its identification with the congressional critics of Israel, J Street gained credibility with those favoring the two state solution for peace. Could that be the reason?

Nor did the trip seem sufficiently meaningful for benefiting the peace process. The delegation met with present and ex-politicians in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Amman, talked with Israeli settlers, families in Sderot, human rights activists, Gilad Shalit’s father, and descendants of Palestinian refugees. No visits to West Bank refugee camps or troubled areas. No visit to Gaza. Was the trip designed for U.S. legislators to convince Israel of its wrongs or for Israel to convince the legislators of their wrongs?

Compare that mission with Rep. Brian Baird’s (D-WA) visit to the Gaza Strip at the same time. The retiring congressman stated that “Israel is squeezing the life out of Gaza with the embargo,” and declared that “the Israeli army visited indiscriminate destruction on the area during last year’s Gaza war.” Baird urged President Barack Obama to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. He said, "We ought to bring roll-on, roll-off ships and roll them right to the beach and bring the relief supplies in, in our version of the Berlin airlift."

Criticism by Jewish groups of AIPAC’s extremist policies is welcoming, not only because AIPAC is able to skew American foreign policy but also because its actions reflect poorly on the Jewish community and arouse anti-Jewish sentiments. Heard in the land is the oft repeated phrase: “The Jews are trying to control the government for their own benefit.”

If J Street didn’t lobby, but behaved similarly to Great Britain’s Independent Jewish Voices in combating one-sided expressions and their harmful effects on the Jewish people, and also spoke out aggressively against Israel’s oppressive policies and their clash with Jewish ideals, then J Street would contribute to an improved understanding of the Middle East crisis and smother the anti-Jewish feeling arising from AIPAC lobbying and Israel’s actions. However, examine J Street, and we find that J Street and its lobby activities reinforce the derogatory.

AIPAC brings on its boat the extremist Jews who, allied with the Christian Right, an organization reviled by all Jews, profess “An Israel first” philosophy. J Street throws a grappling hook to the disaffected Jews who are straying from identification with Israel and its virulently nationalist, militarist and oppressive policies. There might be a shift in the ranks, but J Street, knowingly or unknowingly, essentially caters to another clientele. This clientele is more humane and less dogmatic, but J Street still must prove that it does not, in effect, complement AIPAC.

Can any lobby group, which is chauvinist and dedicated to the support of a foreign nation, be welcome in American politics and be permitted to exercise tremendous influence? J Street doesn’t need to be a lobby. It needs to be a spokesperson for the progressive Jewish population, who are sensitive to the plight of the Palestinians, who are feeling the effects of anti-Jewish sentiment due to perception of Israel’s policies as being racist and tyrannical, and who don’t want history to brand the Jewish community as the destroyers of Palestinian life.

– Dan Lieberman is editor of Alternative Insight, a monthly web based newsletter. He can be reached at: alternativeinsight@earthlink.net.

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