J Street and its Potholes

Cars stuck at a red light in Israel (Ori Epstein, 2018)

Hayley Stevens’ defeat of Andy Levin has exposed a massive pothole in J Street. The high-profile US House primary between two incumbents who were lumped into the same district quickly became a proxy election between bipartisan, pro-Israel group AIPAC and the more progressive J Street, which was founded as an alternative to AIPAC. Stevens defeated Levin by a healthy 20% margin.

J Street endorsed Levin while Stevens was AIPAC’s candidate of choice. Both groups spent a fortune on this race, seeking to give their candidate a leg up. Yet, AIPAC showed its might as the leading pro-Israel lobby group as, through its partners AIPAC PAC and the United Democracy Project, it raised and spent five million dollars – five times as much as J Street PAC and J Street Action Fund combined.

Until recently, AIPAC did not get involved in the financial battles of election campaigns. J Street was, in fact, the first Israel policy lobbying group that spent money to try to sway elections; this allowed J Street to gain electoral influence in its early years without any competition. J Street used this influence to promote its left-wing views.

AIPAC decided to start spending money in favour of pro-Israel candidates, prompted in part by the election of prominent anti-Israel Democratic representatives of “the squad.” AIPAC’s strategy is to contain the size of the squad by spending money on advertising campaigns against far-left, anti-Israel candidates while countering candidates that J Street endorses who hinder AIPAC’s policy goals. So far, AIPAC has been remarkably successful.

The most recent Levin vs Stevens race should serve as an enormous red light for J Street which will now need to drastically rethink its strategy. J Street has lost one of the representatives most favourable to its cause. The power J Street gained before AIPAC spent money on elections risks has quickly evaporated and is unlikely to be regained, as AIPAC is a far wealthier organization, and wherever J Street will spend to favour its endorsed candidates under its current strategy, AIPAC will counter with its own spending.

Throughout this race, J Street has resorted to attacking AIPAC for spending money on the election while doing the same themselves. Unfortunately for J Street, this strategy was not successful. Voters can easily recognize the hypocrisy of railing against AIPAC’s spending campaigns while J Street itself spends truckloads of money. This strategy is not only bad politics, but J Street also will eventually have to reckon with the poor optics of playing to the antisemitic trope of portraying a Jewish organization’s finances negatively.

Nor did voters fall for the J Street’s attempts to label AIPAC, a bipartisan organization, as a Republican group. AIPAC used the attacks against them to launch a counteroffensive and defend Representative Steven’s consistency with the Biden administration’s positions on Israel while highlighting policy disagreements between Representative Levin and President Biden.

J Street’s disagreements with the Biden Administration, which are similar to Levin’s, pose political challenges in addition to messaging ones. Gone are the days when J Street was able to use disagreements between AIPAC and the Obama Administration to bring Democrats over to its side. The same holds true regarding policy disagreements with Prime Minister Lapid, who, as a left-wing leader himself, is far less susceptible to the types of attacks J Street ran against Netanyahu.

As an organization, J Street has two options to stay relevant: patch up its potholes and ensure its traffic starts moving towards the mainstream or take a left turn into a dirt road. J Street can shift its policies to embrace Biden and Lapid – two leaders on its side of the political spectrum – which will also help them align with larger portions of the US and Israeli populations.

To do so, J Street needs to focus on being pro-Israel instead of being anti-AIPAC. This strategy would require a more forceful condemnation of BDS, concrete actions to combat the anti-Israel movement, and reprimanding attempts to single out Israel at the United Nations.

The other option is far dirtier. J Street can take its anti-AIPAC sentiments to the max and continue to try to attack the leading pro-Israel group in Washington; they can ally with anti-Israel figures, smear AIPAC, and risk ceasing to be pro-Israel in all but name.

This was the strategy Andy Levin chose in the dying days of his campaign. Through his interview with Peter Beinart – who is famous for proclaiming “I no longer believe in a Jewish State” – and campaigning with antisemite Rashida Tlaib (who ran in a nearby primary race), Levin made his choice clear. This last desperate attempt to save his campaign rightly failed and vindicated AIPAC’s spending spree against his campaign.

As for J Street, they, unfortunately, seem headed down the same road. J Street’s recent press releases contain bitter attacks on AIPAC, little support for Israel, and no condemnation of UN commission member Miloon Kothari’s statement regarding the “Jewish lobby” controlling social media.

Hopefully, this will not end up being the path they choose, and J Street will learn the key message from this election; many streets need repaving, and J Street is no exception.

About the Author
Ori Epstein is a recent graduate ('21) of TanenbaumCHAT, a Jewish high school in Toronto, Canada, and is now studying Justice, Political Philosophy, and Law at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Ori holds dual Israeli-Canadian citizenship and had the privilege of attending the International Bible Contest in Israel in 2019.
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