Monday, October 25, 2010

Potholes on J Street

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.  

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The California BDS Initiative-- Anti-Peace and Unjust

The BDS movement is attempting to take its jihad-in-human-rights-clothing program to the California electorate sometime next year. Taking advantage of California's initiative process, they are trying to gather enough signatures to qualify an Israel divestment initiative for one of 2011's statewide elections.

initiative itself is standard BDS text-- the language of "human rights" and "international law", including the ever-present reference to UN Resolution 194 and the false claim that this resolution gives descendants of Arab refugees from the 1947-8 war the "right" to force Israel to repatriate them.

We know this initiative, even if it qualifies for the ballot, won't pass. Even the organizers know it won't pass. But they have learned quite well about the "Big Lie", and they are eager for the chance to bring it to the big stage.

Who is behind this? A resident of Sacramento named Chris Yatooma and his group, the Sacramento BDS organization. A casual look at their website tells you everything you need to know about them They link to all of the usual players in the anti-Israel movement: the Free Gaza movement that wants to allow the Hamas regime to import Iranian missiles without interference; to the If Americans Knew website of Alison Weir, whose assocation with neo-Nazis alarm neither her nor her friends in the BDS movement; to Sabeel, the Arab Christian group that promotes an anti-Semitic "replacement theology"-- that its form of Christianity has essentially replaced Judaism, and it's just the stubbornness of Jews that insist on their own nationhood that stands in the way of peace; to the fringe extremists of Jewish Voice for Peace ,which long ago abandoned the fig-leaf that they don't take any position for or against a state for the Jewish people and has repeatedly participated in anti-Israel demonstrations in the Bay Area; and of course to the International Solidarity Movement, which recruits naive young adults to help shelter terrorist groups (and possibly worse, as multiple reports of rape of young women volunteers in the West Bank have surfaced). In short, not a single group that supports peace between a Jewish state of Israel and an Arab state of Palestine. Yet their pitch to get people to sign the petition is "Can you spare 15 seconds to support peace in the Middle East?"

As to the initiative itself, the clause that would be enacted states as follows:
"The CalPERS Board of Administration and the CalSTRS Teachers Retirement Board shall examine their respective investment funds within six months of passage of this initiative. Upon completion of this six month period, they shall publicly identify and list any investments in companies that provide products or services that contribute to the construction or maintenance of Israeli settlements and/or the Separation Wall in the Palestinian Territories or provide military supplies, equipment and services to the State of Israel. "
(emphasis mine)

There is no provision that states that this would then become inoperative upon the signing of a peace agreement between Israel and the leadership of the Palestinian Authority, or upon a unilateral Israeli withdrawal to the June 1967 lines. Any company that provides any item used by the Israel Defense Forces is the target for divestment. Presumably this could also include companies such as Domino's Pizza and Coca Cola that provide food to IDF soldiers. So, just as the BDS movement insists that BDS activities must continue until a Jewish state allows itself to be demographically eliminated by the forced repatriation of descendants of Palestinian refugees, the BDS initiative requires that divestment be targeted at any military self-defense of the Jewish state--forever.

[Note that in California's Divest from Iran law, the language includes a sunset clause:

m) This section shall cease to be operative if both of the following apply:

(1) Iran is removed from the United States Department of State’s list of countries that have been determined to repeatedly provide support for acts of international terrorism.

(2) Pursuant to Public Law 104-172, as amended, the President of the United States determines and certifies to the appropriate committee of the Congress of the United States that Iran has ceased its efforts to design, develop, manufacture, or acquire a nuclear explosive device or related materials and technology."]

Yatooma and his BDS group have been trying to get attention and validation for this extremist effort by asking the Sacramento Jewish Community Relations Council for a debate on the initiative as well as the proposed anti-Israel boycott at the Sacramento Food Cooperative. Barry Broad, the chair of the Sacramento JCRC, had a very straightforward response which I am happy to share with his permission:

"Mr. Yatooma:

Representatives of your group, the “Sacramento BDS Working Group,” publicly stated on more than one occasion in testimony before the Coop Board that “Jewish money controls the government and media.” Another one of your activists, Dan Bacher, has posted a “historical revisionist” (as in Neo-Nazi) rant on a Democratic Party website (to the extreme consternation of the Democratic Party). Such statements are pure anti-Semitism and a central feature of historical anti-Semitism going back to the nineteenth century—if not further. That your group makes no effort to restrain, much less repudiate, openly anti-Semitic remarks made by your own chosen spokespersons indicates that anti-Semitism is a core value of your organization.

In short, we don’t debate racists. We fight them, whether their hatred is aimed at us or any other racial or ethnic minority. As such, we look forward to defeating the BDS effort at the Coop."

Agreed. We don't legitimize the anti-Semitism at the core of the BDS movement. So what, then, should we do about this?

We educate the public-- we show up where they will be gathering signatures and talk about what this initiative is really about. Our community organizations need to do outreach via interfaith groups, to educate those who our partners in other ventures. At the same time, we should tell those churches who support this contemptible project that we will not be able to work with them in other arenas.

We educate our political leaders-- we meet with them to ensure that they understand the intent of this measure and that they don't add their names in support. We show them that the entire political spectrum of the Jewish community (aside from fringe extremists like JVP) opposes divestment-- even left-wing groups such as J Street and the New Israel Fund.

And, of course, we buy Israeli goods.