Monday, March 30th, 2009
James Besser in Washington
What is about J Street, the pro-peace process lobby and political action committee, that has the leaders of major Jewish groups in such a snit?
I’ve had calls from three of them in the past two weeks, complaining about the new kid on the pro-Israel block; even some liberal Jewish leaders are joining the anti-J Street chorus.
The recent J Street public opinion survey – a mix of straight survey research with a few loaded questions thrown in for good measure, pretty typical for advocacy groups – produced an outpouring of criticism suggesting the entire survey was tainted by political bias.
Underlying it all is the implication the group is somehow disloyal to Israel and undermining Jewish unity at a critical moment for the Jewish state.
But the reaction is far out of proportion to the Jewish “establishment’s” response to other dovish groups. I remember when Americans for Peace Now (APN) appeared on the scene (yes, I’ve been doing this job that long), and the reaction from the big guys was barely detectable. The Israel Policy Forum (IPF) and a predecessor group, Project Nishma, started out with some big name, mainstream Jewish leaders, so you’d think the pro-Israel establishment would have had fits, but I heard almost no reaction. Brit Tzedek v’Shalom was started by a former Knesset member, but its arrival caused barely a ripple.
So why J Street? Why all this fury? More to the point, why do so many find this group so threatening?
I asked one Jewish leader, who asked not to be identified; his response centered on this belief that Israel is particularly vulnerable and isolated at this time and therefore needs a unified American Jewish community as a critical element in its security.
But I wonder: Couldn’t you have made a similar argument when the other left-of-center groups were created? Hasn’t Israel faced grave threats for decades, and hasn’t the Jewish community been divided for just as long on critical peace process questions?
I suspect the answer has to do with something else: J Street is the first group on the left that’s dared to take on the pro-Israel lobby where it really matters: at the critical intersection of campaign finance and congressional lobbying.
It’s one thing to present position papers and talking points, hold Capitol Hill seminars and get small numbers of lawmakers to sign pro-peace process letters and resolutions, things all the dovish groups have mastered; it’s something very different to create a Jewish, pro-Israel and strongly pro-peace process presence in the realm of campaign finance, with a view to using the clout that produces to boost lobbying.
On a small scale at first, J Street is trying to do what the pro-Israel establishment did years ago: build a lobby on a solid foundation created by big networks of campaign contributors. In doing so, it represents a much bigger potential threat to the major pro-Israel groups than its dovish cousins.
That’s the long term goal; short term, J Street is using the funding lever to provide “cover” for pro-Israel lawmakers who disagree with the AIPAC line, threatening what has become AIPAC’s virtual lock on Congress.
AIPAC doesn’t care about the small handful in Congress who are genuinely hostile to Israel, a group that is politically almost irrelevant. Instead, AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups care about the larger group of lawmakers who support Israel, have good relations with the Jewish community but also fear some Israeli policies are jeopardizing its future. Some of those have been afraid to speak up in recent years; J Street, with the promise of funding sources that won’t be shut off if the pro-Israel leadership decides a lawmaker has gone too far in that criticism, hopes to change that.
There’s early evidence that may be working, although there’s no evidence this is dramatically changing the pro-Israel calculus on Capitol Hill.
But there are many unanswered questions surrounding J Street.
AIPAC has created a vast grassroots network that is connected, at least indirectly, to networks of campaign givers. J Street, according to most reports, has made a good start in building something similar, but it will take years before it can compete on the same scale as AIPAC and the allied givers network.
AIPAC’s donors, many of whom are also big campaign givers, have proven remarkably dedicated over the years – as well as remarkably affluent. Can J Street create something similar? Nobody knows.
AIPAC has made mistakes, but it has generally displayed a political mastery that few other lobbies can match. One of its early rules was this: try to keep out of the news and try to let others take credit. J Street has displayed a craving for attention that could reflect a desire to get in the game fast, but may also suggest a political immaturity that may hold its back.
Still, that in-your-face style has gotten J Street a lot of attention very quickly; the intense reaction it has provoked from the mainstream pro-Israel leadership may reflect that fact.
Does J Street reflect the views of American Jews more accurately than AIPAC does? That’s a tricky question that belies simple answers.
There’s little question that AIPAC, which nominally supports whatever Israeli government is in power, sometimes advocates positions that are not majority ones in the American Jewish community when taken as a whole. But are they the majority views of the activist Jewish community, of the segment that is seriously involved in Mideast advocacy work?
Maybe. A big advantage for AIPAC is that it taps an activist core that is remarkably single issue in focus. Can J Street replicate AIPAC’s style with a progressive Jewish core that probably isn’t as intently focused on the single issue of Israel? That could be a problem.
Polls, including J Streets own, show that the views of the Jewish community defy easy classification. Jews continue to support a two-state solution and land-for-peace negotiations, but they are increasingly distrustful of Palestinian intentions; they strongly supported this winter’s Gaza operation, but most believe that it didn’t improve Israel’s security and may have actually hurt it.
It may be that in some ways, at some times, AIPAC more closely reflects the views of the Jewish majority and in other ways and other times J Street does.
My own guess is that J Street is filling a void in Jewish life – a craving among many on a sizable but disorganized pro-Israel left and many in the non-activist center for a group that can represent a more dovish point of view in Congress and on the campaign trail – but it has a long way to go before it rivals AIPAC and the other pro-Israel power centers in money, commitment, expertise and smarts.
But it’s in the game in a serious way; the media is taking note, some members of Congress are paying attention. No wonder we’re hearing so much from an angry pro-Israel establishment.