I attended two J Street events last month, because everything I have ever read (or written) about them has been without the benefit of firsthand experience. Not that I thought I'd hear anything unexpected in the presentations, but perhaps the Q&A sessions would be more interesting.
Unfortunately, the impression I was left with is that of an organization which is making significant missteps, both in its political decision-making and in its public relations. I don't disagree with the premise of J Street-- a pro-Israel organization which can speak to liberals, especially university students, in language which resonates for them-- or with their stated political position. They claim to promote a vision of peace between a Jewish state of Israel and an Arab state of Palestine, with final borders resulting from adjustments to the pre-1967 lines and evacuation of settlements beyond those lines. That isn't significantly different from that of the last four Prime Ministers of Israel and is identical with the current policy of the United States. With the small but increasing divide in American politics between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to Israel, a group that arises from the liberal Democratic camp and supports Israel vigorously can play a valuable role. The problem is that too much of what J Street has said and done casts doubt on their claim to be "pro-Israel."
Even before they recently revealed their significant financial support from George Soros, there were warning signs: their funding from Arab and Muslim sources; last year's officially-not-part-of-the-
conference-but-we're- providing-rooms-and-staff meeting of anti-Israel bloggers at the first J Street conference in Washington DC, which featured hard core anti-Israel blogger Richard Silverstein ordering J Street staff to eject a paid attendee who was quietly filming the event (as were others); and the endorsement by J Street of the staging of Seven Jewish Children at the Jewish Community Center in Washington.
Now, of course, the issue of funding--not only, to nobody's surprise, from George "I am not a Zionist" Soros but also over $800,000 from Consolacion Ediscul, a virtually unknown woman living in Hong Kong-- has caught up with J Street, as has its role in reaching out to members of Congress about meeting with Judge Richard Goldstone. So I thought these would be interesting opportunities to hear, directly from J Street's leaders, their answers to hard questions. I was to be sadly disappointed.
The first event featured Molly Freeman (Bay Area local chair of J Street) and Gordon Gladstone, J Street Northwest Regional Director. After the usual stock speeches about J Street's support of Israel came the question period. In response to the inevitable question about Soros and his statement that "I am not a Zionist", Gladstone responded that since Soros had also stated that he has a "deep concern for the survival of Israel", he must be a Zionist, and his previous statement can be excused because English is not his first language. Reading the original article in which Soros made that statement shows that this excuse is insulting--not only to the questioner but also to Soros himself, who is certainly able to use English to express his thoughts quite precisely. Gladstone also said that any phone contacts made by J Street staff to Congressional offices regarding potential meetings with Goldstone were "purely hypothetical"-- though of course these meetings did end up taking place in reality. He was also asked about the statement made at an al-Jazeera forum earlier this year by Daniel Levy, one of J Street's founders and advisory board members, that the creation of Israel was "an act that was wrong." Gladstone stated that he was unfamiliar with that statement so could not comment on it. Finally, a question was raised about J Street PAC and its endorsement process. Earlier this year, Congressman Brian Baird from Washington State, endorsed by J Street PAC in 2008, publicly called for the United States to use military force to break the blockade of Gaza to deliver "badly needed supplies." Gladstone stated that as J Street PAC was separate from J Street, he could not answer that question. He even seemed unaware of what J Street was promoting in Congress ("I don't know what our lobbyists are saying right now."). Freeman did not volunteer any answers to these questions. A subsequent e-mail to Gladstone, including the links to Levy's remarks, remains unanswered.
There would be another chance to get answers-- J Street's founder and executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, came to town. Several hundred people crowded into the auditorium at the Berkeley-Richmond Jewish Community Center; many of them were clearly J Street supporters but many others appeared skeptical; applause for Ben-Ami was not universal.
Nonetheless, I found myself in agreement with about 95% of what Ben-Ami said. He even bluntly declared that J Street was not a pacifist organization, and that he supported Israel's right to defend itself with military force. Of course, I differ with him that "the most urgent threat to Israel is failure to solve the conflict" with the Palestinians-- Iran, Hamas and the BDS movement have all declared that nothing short of elimination of a Jewish state will solve the conflict. But unfortunately, any chance for an interesting evening evaporated when it was announced that questions would have to be submitted on index cards-- and Molly Freeman was going to decide which questions were read. And it should have been no surprise to anyone that the only questions that were read were of the gentle, unchallenging variety. the entirety of the controversies noted above was condensed into "Please comment on Soros and Goldstone." Ben-Ami's answer about Soros was only admitting his lack of clarity about Soros' funding, not explaining why Soros would add them to his collection of funded organizations which includes Human Rights Watch. He also failed to address J Street's role in Goldstone's Congressional meetings, as he only commented on the UN report for which Goldstone bears the major responsibility. The only mildly critical question asked why J Street didn't criticize the Palestinian leadership, only Israel, which gave Ben Ami the chance to demonstrate his pro-Israel bona fides by criticizing the 60+ year history of Palestinian rejectionism.
Here is what I would have asked had there actually been open time for questions. These were also sent to J Street's national office via e-mail, but there has been no response to them either.
1. Why did J Street get involved, in any capacity at all, with contacts with Congress on behalf of Goldstone?
2. What is the process that J Street PAC uses to vet candidates for possible support? How will Congressman Baird's recent statements cause you to change the process or the criteria that you use?
I'm not sure that J Street PAC was paying attention closely this time around, either. Only 12 House members out of 435 cast a vote against the Iran Sanctions Act-- and J Street PAC endorsed 5 of them in the recently conducted election. Perhaps that's because J Street initially opposed sanctions on Iran and only came around to supporting a watered-down bill after it was clear that it would pass through Congress. A number of other members of Congress refused to support a Congressional resolution in January 2009 supporting exactly what Ben Ami says he does: it supported Israel's right to defend itself from attacks AND also explicitly supported the goal of an independent Palestinian state living beside a Jewish state of Israel. Only 22 members voted "present" instead of supporting it, and 10 of those were on J Street's endorsement list.
J Street has taken some positions that are important coming from the left: they support a two state solution and they oppose the BDS movement. But their demonstrated lack of transparency as to their funding, their curious and indefensible involvement with Goldstone, and their endorsement of members of Congress who vote against what J Street itself claims to support, continue to raise concerns that their leadership doesn't seem eager to dispel.