There are few better demonstrations of the power of public relations in this age of social media than the rise of J Street, the lobbying organization that proclaims to be “pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian and pro-peace.” Since its founding in 2008, the organization has sought to compete with and to counter AIPAC, the traditional American pro-Israel lobby.
J Street is the brainchild of communications and marketing expert, Jeremy Ben-Ami, who has an accomplished record of leading public relations firms in Israel and the U.S. To his credit, when it was launched, J Street received sympathetic wall-to-wall media coverage including multiple interviews on television and a major positive story in the Sunday New York Times magazine.
From the start, J Street’s strategy was to position itself as the victimized underdog, bravely challenging the Jewish establishment, and claiming that the voices of many in the Jewish community were not being heard on issues relating to Israel. Ben-Ami claimed that rabbis and journalists are afraid to speak critically about Israel. He challenged the community to be more open to debate about the proper relationship between the American Jewish community and Israel. This strategy has worked well. It enabled J Street to get into the Jewish community’s “big tent.” This, however, did not result in the dialogue J Street claimed it wanted. Instead, critics claim, once inside the tent, J Street could actually block open discussion on its tactics and policies, by invoking the powerful norm of “no criticism of fellow Jewish groups.” Once “inside” and protected from criticism, many believe, J Street is now able to use the principle of big-tent organizational consensus to neutralize or block effective Israel advocacy. J Street has thus been dividing the community and weakening American Jewish support for Israel.
In too many cities there are Jewish leaders who are sympathetic to the simple, idealistic message of J Street and to the seductive allure of peace, and have welcomed J Street to present its message without actively seeking a balanced discussion.
This is especially egregious on college campuses: while pro-Israel groups are engaged in defending the Jewish state on campus, not infrequently J Street undermines their efforts and actually re-enforces the ugly ideological assault heaped on the Jewish state, by blaming Israel for the lack of peace.
It was in this context that we decided to produce the documentary film, The J Street Challenge.
The film was conceived to provide the community and students on campus access to some of the most articulate scholars, writers and activists to engage in a kind of virtual debate with J Street.
The film presents J Street’s views through Jeremy Ben-Ami’s speeches and interviews. (Ben-Ami declined to be interviewed for the film, but his views are extensively presented.) These are discussed and debated by Alan Dershowitz, Rabbi Daniel Gordis, Noah Pollak, Caroline Glick, Ruth Wisse and others who critique J Street and analyze the diaspora community’s relationship with Israel. They also provide a closer examination of J Street’s policies and tactics.
Recently, the well-funded J Street announced a major promotional road show to conduct “town hall” meetings in Jewish communities across America in support of President Obama’s and Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to pressure Israel to accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank.
It is important to understand that J Street’s P.R. efforts are focused on American Jewry rather than the Israeli public precisely because Ben-Ami and company have tried and failed to sell to the Israelis the idea that such an arrangement would be in their interest. J Street’s American focus then would seem a kind of work-around of Israel’s democratic process based on the assumption that perhaps the Israelis don’t know what is in their best interest or that Israeli democracy needs outside intervention. What Ben-Ami is selling is a solution to the thorny Middle East conflict — or at least to the conflict between the Palestinian Arabs and the Jews of Israel. Like any successfully marketed product, J Street’s is well packaged, has seductive messaging, and carries an appeal to the vanity and social status of its targeted consumers.
The message is simplicity itself. Ben-Ami says anyone, given 60 seconds, “could write down the outline of the two-state solution.” And the message is alluring: Gadi Baltiansky, head of the left-wing Geneva Project and a J Street supporter says about two-state activists: “We will save the future of Israel, and we will ensure the future of the Jewish people.” This message enables progressive Jews to feel good about themselves: they can be both pro-peace universalists and Zionist particularists. They don’t have to choose. They can avoid the pain of feeling disloyal to their own people and at the same time they can enjoy the benefits of their progressive bona fides – all without actually having to deal with the thorny problems of living in a violent region surrounded by societies struggling with modernity and identity. It’s hard to compete against such a psychologically appealing product.
Many progressive Jews have devoted their lives to promoting utopian universalist social justice. Ben-Ami appeals to them when he says, “We do believe that it is our role to repair the world, to seek peace and pursue it and to be a light unto the nations.” Clearly, the Israel that actually exists is not a Utopia. No state can be that. But for those Jews who seek moral purity, the flesh and blood nation-state of Israel – especially the one portrayed in the mainstream media and in college lecture halls — taints them. As Professor Landes notes in the film, tainted and wounded idealists may evince a moral narcissism, “an overwhelming concern about personally being a moral person and really not caring about the consequences outside of one’s own solipsistic concerns.”
To many younger and idealistic Jews, particularly on campus, supporting Israel is not cool. It is politically incorrect. So they seek to reconcile their Jewishness in this anti-Israel environment by becoming, as Samantha Mandeles, a CAMERA campus coordinator who appears in the film, suggests, “the good Jew: the Jew who helps everyone else, the Jew who puts others before themselves, and the Jew who cares more about strangers than they do about family.”
Like so many before them, today’s young Jews struggle with being Jewish. J Street provides them an effective coping mechanism. As Samantha further notes: “If a Jewish student feels that repairing the world and that being a universalist and being progressive is equivalent to being Jewish, then they don’t have to be proudly Jewish and they don’t have to be proudly Zionist. “ They can escape today’s Jewish burdens; they can be cool and they can fit in, and – at the same time – they can feel good about themselves.
The J Street Challenge highlights how J Street’s idealistic message has captivated many Jews young and old, who are frustrated by the Middle East conflict, want peace between Arabs and Jews, and desire to see an end to the hostility toward the Jewish state and its supporters. Everyone in the Jewish community wants peace. The challenge is how to achieve it. Unfortunately, the Jewish utopian impulse has become a mechanism to mobilize certain elements in the Jewish community for J Street’s ultimate purpose – political coercion of Israel to allow the creation of a Palestinian state.
This article was co-written with Avi Goldwasser, executive producer and director of The J Street Challenge