Over the past six years, J Street has been subject to an unrelenting campaign of attacks grounded largely in lies, innuendo and guilt-by-association aimed at discrediting the organization and those who work for, fund and support it.
Rather than focus debate on substantive disagreements with the policy positions we take, some of our opponents have sought to discredit us personally and organizationally. We have, of course, made an occasional personal or organizational misstep, which has not helped, and all of us at J Street are acutely aware that, given the scrutiny we’re under, we have less than average margin for error.
In 30 years of work in politics and communications, I’ve spent long hours debating whether it’s best to answer or ignore charges grounded in falsehood and deception.
On the one hand, you shouldn’t give credence to the charges by repeating them in the denial. On the other, there comes a point when you have to set the record straight.
I have reached that point when it comes to the attacks on me and on J Street.
Our friends and supporters subjected to a never-ending flow of invective deserve a response to send to friends, family and colleagues who breathlessly forward the newest blast email attacking J Street or the latest invitation to a screening of the “J Street Challenge.”
For those who want a comprehensive run-down on the “myths and facts” surrounding J Street, here is the link to that resource on our website. Here, on a more limited basis, are my responses to some of the charges I hear most frequently.
Support for Israel
J Street is pro-Israel.
I personally am the descendant of four generations of Israelis and Jews who lived in Palestine before there even was a modern state of Israel. Those generations built the modern state and fought for the right of the Jewish people to a nation of their own. Today my parents and their ancestors are buried in Israel on the Mt. of Olives in Jerusalem and in the old sections of the Tel Aviv and Petah Tikva cemeteries.
Many of J Street’s board, donors, staff and supporters have equally deep personal and family connections to Israel. They include many Israelis who have served proudly in the IDF and defended the country. We do what we do because we care so profoundly about the country, its people and its future.
To say we’re not pro-Israel is beyond insulting, it’s a malicious lie.
J Street’s commitment to Israel is the centerpiece of its mission. If you visit J Street’s homepage, you will find a box labeled “Our Principles” with the following language:
We believe in the right of the Jewish people to a national homeland in Israel, in the Jewish and democratic values on which Israel was founded, and in the necessity of a two-state solution.
And, at this link, you can find a complete rundown on all our principles – all solidly grounded in our love and concern for Israel, its security and its character.
Some may choose to say that you can only call yourself “pro-Israel” if you agree with all the policies of the government of Israel. However, a more sensible definition of “pro-Israel” is that you support Israel’s right to exist, the right of the Jewish people to national self-determination in that state and the right of that state to defend itself.
Looking at the 2013 Pew Research Center’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans”, it’s clear that a large portion of Jewish Americans care about Israel yet are critical of the present government. For instance, a 48 to 38 percent plurality believe the present Israeli government is not making a sincere effort to achieve a peace agreement. A plurality of 44 percent of Jewish Americans believe that continued building of Jewish settlements on the West Bank hurts Israel’s security.
Yes, J Street is critical of some policies of the present government of Israel because we, like many Israelis, see them as counter to Israeli interests. It should be out of bounds to question our love or concern for the state of Israel and its people.
J Street opposes the BDS movement. This is the link to our policy opposing it.
Not only do we oppose BDS in theory, we are regularly on the front lines of the battle against it from college campuses to mainline Protestant churches. Ron Kampeas of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports that Steve Gutow (President) and Martin Raffel (Vice-President) of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs explained their support for J Street’s membership in the Conference of Presidents in part by citing “J Street’s cooperation with JCPA in lobbying left-leaning mainline Protestant churches to reject divestment campaigns targeting Israel. Raffel said the importance of J Street lay in part in building a “firewall” between the anti-Israel left and the left in general.”
We appear at public events with people who promote boycotts and divestment, almost always to carry the argument against them, because we believe in free and open debate. The best antidote for ideas one doesn’t like is to present other ideas, not to prevent them from being heard. And, shocking as it may seem, we have invited people we disagree with on this issue to speak at our own events.
We oppose the growing practice in Jewish communal organizations of banning speakers and programs because individuals involved may hold personal views that are out of sync with those of more conservative established institutions or funders. Just because we support the right of pro-BDS individuals and groups to be heard does not mean that we support BDS. One hopes the Jewish community is sophisticated enough to understand this distinction despite our opponents’ concerted efforts to blur it.
J Street has supported every piece of Iran sanctions legislation that has passed Congress since we were founded. Here are our statements in support of the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act of 2009 (which was later enacted as the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010) and the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012.
We strongly believe – quoting our position paper on Iran – that:
Iran obtaining nuclear weapons would pose a very serious threat to American and Israeli interests and to peace and stability in the Middle East and around the world… The United States has a fundamental interest, along with Israel and the international community, in preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability, and J Street supports concrete American actions to address this threat. We support a comprehensive and multilateral approach, including sanctions and active diplomacy.
Our opponents charge that “J Street opposes sanctions on Iran.” We don’t. In fact, we’re proud that the sanctions we supported achieved their purpose in bringing Iran into negotiations that resulted in an interim deal and are now aiming to reach a long-term resolution to the nuclear issue.
There have been times – as now – when we feel that further Congressional action on sanctions legislation would actually undermine the chances of reaching the goal of a diplomatic agreement. That’s an argument not over sanctions, but over timing. After all, sanctions are a means to an end, not the end in themselves.
On the recent Kirk-Menendez sanctions legislation, J Street supported the House version (H.R.850) that passed in the summer of 2013. However, once the interim deal was announced and talks to pursue a longer-term agreement commenced, we felt it best for Congress to wait until the talks concluded before taking action that could derail them. Should the talks break down or the Iranians not fulfill their end of the bargain, we would again support further sanctions legislation.
Some of our opponents like to say that J Street opposes “keeping the military option on the table” when it comes to Iran. J Street has never said any such thing. The United States always has a military option, and we have never said that the President should take it off the table.
What we have said is that, in our opinion, military action would be “ill-advised,” and we have urged Congress not to pass legislation moving the country in that direction. Here’s our policy statement:
While unlikely to permanently disable Iran’s nuclear program, a military strike would have dire consequences and runs the risk of igniting a broader regional war. A preemptive attack could also strengthen the current regime in Iran and provide an excuse for it to redouble its nuclear efforts. We therefore oppose legislation authorizing, encouraging, or in other ways laying the groundwork for the use of military force against Iran.
In staking out this position, we are in good company with a wide range of Israeli and American security experts who have spoken out about the serious downsides of potential military action.
J Street’s funding
J Street is supported financially by tens of thousands of donors. George Soros and his family are one of the largest. The family has provided $500,000/year in support the past few years, or about seven percent of our budget.
J Street receives no funds from governments in the Middle East (Iran, Saudi Arabia or others). We do not receive funding from agents or representatives of those governments.
I have personally admitted that I made a mistake in not publicizing the decision by George Soros to start funding J Street after our launch. I can’t rectify that mistake, but after six years perhaps it’s time to accept my apology and move on.
J Street did not endorse the Goldstone Report. J Street did not escort Judge Goldstone to Capitol Hill.
Ron Kampeas of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency looked into the charges and even asked Judge Goldstone about the report to that effect that ran in the Washington Times. Kampeas wrote in October of 2010 that Goldstone confirmed that, “To my knowledge, J Street had no involvement with the arrangements for the meetings.” Kampeas confirmed that as well with numerous sources on Capitol Hill.
J Street has consistently criticized one-sided and biased activity at the United Nations against Israel. If the Security Council had considered action based on the Goldstone Report, we said at the time that we would have urged the United States to veto such action. We did, however, object to efforts to personally demonize both Judge Goldstone as well as Israeli human rights activists who contributed to his report. We said, “We urge fellow critics of the report to confine their attacks and critiques to the substance and methodology of the report and the appropriate measures that should and should not be taken moving forward, and not the characters of those who created it or brought violators to light.”
I declined to be interviewed for the J Street Challenge
In December of 2012, I was heading to Boston for a public speaking engagement. Our office received the following email:
Dear Mr. Ben-Ami,
We are a small new film production company, in the process of producing a documentary about the Israel/Palestine issue within the American Jewish community.
We are interested in interviewing you while you are visiting Boston in connection with your Dec. 17th presentation at Temple Israel. The interview would be about 30 minutes. We hope to get J Street’s position on the Middle East conflict and the role of the American Jewish community in helping to solve it.
Thank you for consideration,
Not knowing Mr. Kumahia and not having any background on his project, I forwarded the request as I would all such requests to our Communications Department, which followed up with him. My schedule was full for the day and when Mr. Kumahia provided no alternative options for dates and no further background on the project, we let the matter drop.
That was the extent of communication from the film’s production team with me and with J Street. Never were we asked to participate in a film about J Street, nor were we told the identity of the film’s producers or the project’s purpose and scope.
The deception involved in approaching us this way and then claiming that “we declined to be interviewed for the project” is sadly in keeping with the pattern and practice of lies and deceit that accompanies this film, those associated with it, and the larger effort to discredit and defame J Street and its work.
The Bottom Line
Exposing the deception and lies behind our critics’ charges raises the question of why there is such an intense campaign directed against J Street and against those who criticize the occupation, the policies of the present Israeli government and the ever-expanding settlement enterprise on the West Bank?
J Street’s core argument is that the Israel we love is heading down a path of ever-expanding West Bank settlement and never-ending occupation of millions of Palestinian people that ultimately threatens both the Jewish and democratic nature of the state.
Generally speaking, those attacking J Street either support the goal of creating a “Greater Israel” stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea — or they have no answer to the question of what happens to the Israel they love if politicians of the ilk of Naftali Bennett, Danny Danon and Moshe Feiglin succeed.
What happens when more than one million Israelis settle across the Green Line – the explicit goal of members of Israel’s present Cabinet? What happens when Israel annexes large portions of the West Bank as is very possible in the wake of the failure of talks? What do you say about the out-of-control wave of “price tag attacks” and other settler violence against not only Palestinian homes, fields and mosques, but against the bases and personnel of the Israel Defense Forces?
We raise these issues precisely because we are pro-Israel, and precisely because we seek to ensure that there is a secure, recognized and respected democratic homeland of the Jewish people in the land of Israel for generations to come.
Choosing to attack us for raising these questions won’t help answer that threat that growing nationalist extremism poses not just to Israel but to the soul of the Jewish people.
To avoid discussing Jewish behavior or Israeli policy, our opponents have another strategy for avoiding these questions. They turn attention to the Palestinians and say that J Street is unfairly focusing purely on Israel and not on Palestinian intransigence and culpability.
So let me be clear: the Palestinians are not blameless victims without responsibility for the present situation. We condemn the use of terror and violence by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other groups against Israeli civilians. We recognize the innumerable opportunities for peace that Palestinian and Arab leaders have missed over the decades. We denounce those in Palestinian society who deny the legitimacy of the national right of the Jewish people to a state in the land of Israel. We cannot countenance the Holocaust denial and incitement to hatred that is too prevalent in Palestinian society.
But a focus in Israel advocacy simply on pointing fingers at the other side runs against a quintessential characteristic of Zionism from its earliest days: the need for the Jewish people to control their own destiny and not depend on others for our rights and freedom.
The errors of the Palestinian people don’t change the fact that there are nearly as many non-Jews as Jews in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. The wrongs they have committed don’t give Israel a pass from choosing either to give up some of that land to create a separate national homeland for the Palestinian people or to sacrifice either the democratic or Jewish character of the state.
At the end of the day, American Jews who care about Israel owe it to ourselves, our people and our history to have an open and honest discussion about that choice and the role we should play in how that choice is made.
This isn’t simply a test for the state of Israel, it is a test for the Jewish people. Who are we as a people? What do we stand for? How do we behave when we have power? Have we learned from our own history of oppression and are we able to avoid treating other people the way we ourselves said we did not want to be treated?
These are vital questions to the future of our people, and all Jews have a right and an obligation to participate in the discussion. Hurling a stream of lies at us and calling us names because one doesn’t agree with us is not, I suggest, the way to conduct this critical conversation.