J Street and That Old Uncomfortable Feeling

Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, wrote what I thought was an entirely sensible op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times yesterday, speaking up for the two-state solution and attacking the one-state (i.e.,  no-Israel) solution. “What nobody needs are delusional visions of one-state fantasists whose remedies have no connection with the real world,” he wrote. Bravo, Jeremy Ben-Ami!

Just as I was about to feel all warm and fuzzy in my liberal-American cocoon, I read an op-ed piece in the Jerusalem Post by a graduate student at Harvard named Aaron Magid, who attended J Street’s recent annual conference in Washington. The title was “Feeling uncomfortable at J Street.”

What Aaron saw at the conference, on shrill display, were views that ranged from off-the-shelf Israel bashing to anti-Zionist polemics–all very much at odds with the supposed “pro-Israel” slant of the organization, and sometimes contradicting its professed support of the two-state solution.

“At one of the endless sessions on the Israeli occupation,” Aaron reported, “Fatah’s Husam Zomlot exclaimed, ‘As for the refugee issue, how do you want me to sign a deal with my own hands that would compromise the rights of two-thirds of the nation? Why do I have to compromise? What do the refugees want? Some of them want to return to their original home, but all of them want one thing: full recognition of the nakba [“catastrophe”] that has befallen our people.'”

Zomlot’s advocacy of the “right of return,” which would end Israel as a Jewish state, “was received with cheers among J Street’s extremely left-wing activists.”

That wasn’t an isolated occurrence at the J Street convention.

In addition to the accusatory sentiments among many of the participants, the sessions chosen by J Street also reflected a similar bias.


One breakout discussion was labeled “Conquering the divide: racism, exclusion and ultra-nationalism in Israel,” while another condemned Israel’s policy in Jerusalem.


Four sessions included “new or changed” perspectives on the region, with these speakers all being of the same extreme-left political persuasion. Interestingly, there was not one session that focused on terrorism.

Speakers and participants argued “that if only Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would stop being so obstructionist, a peace accord would be reached immediately.” Aaron wrote: “In the J Street worldview, the Palestinians have no responsibility for the continued violence between both sides. Nuance is not allowed regarding this deeply complex conflict, as instead everyone must follow the party line of bashing Israel at every moment.”

Reading Aaron’s piece brought back memories. It was the late 1990s, and I was becoming acquainted with groups like the New Israel Fund and a self-styled organization called the Arab-Jewish Peace Group.

J Street is quite a bit more ambitious than either of those two groups ever were. AJPG fizzled out, and J Street is considerably more aggressive and high-visibility than the NIF. But what it shares with them is precisely the same hivemind attitude, a “discomfort factor” if you will, that repelled Aaron.

I wrote about my break with such groups in an article for The Jewish Week in June 2001. The title was “The Left’s Blind Spot on the Middle East.” (sorry, no link available.) In this piece I described how I had attended a weekend retreat in the Berkshires for the New Israel Fund in 1999, lured by the “combination of spirituality and progressive politics within a group that supports political and social change in Israel.” I was also active at the AJPG and like-minded groups at the same time and for the same reason.

But over time I soured on them, having experienced the same distress that Aaron records in his op-ed. I still have copies of the increasingly annoyed letters that I wrote to the NIF, such as one that I wrote in July 2002, in response to a fundraising letter from that organization. In addition to taking issue with the NIF’s funding of dubious organizations–not a unique sentiment–I thought the letter itself was obnoxious:

Your [fundraising] letter begins with a very good expression of distress at the “senseless killing of our brothers and sisters in Israel.” But other parts of your letter place Palestinian murder on the same moral footing as Israeli self-defense, and make it seem as if there is no difference between Jewish children singled out for slaughter and Arab children killed in tragic accidents of war (e.g., “neither side has had the courage to halt the deadly pattern of response and counter-response that worsens daily” and “there is no justice, whatever the cause to the killing of an innocent child, whether Jewish or Arab.”)


Amazingly, you even state that “Chairman” Arafat “knows” that “joint existence between Israelis and Palestinians is a reachable, obtainable goal”! “Chairman” Arafat “knows” no such thing. It is perfectly clear that he wants the destruction of Israel.

I don’t have a record of the response, if there was any. So, just to give the NIF the benefit of the doubt, I’m sure that, if there was one, it was courteous and conciliatory. But I was no longer supporting NIF or the AJPG. My ire with the latter, as I described in my Jewish Week article, was caused by something equally annoying:

… in May 2000, I read the e-mails that came into my computer from the AJPG mailing list. These spoke of the Nakba, the calamity. Israel a calamity? While it was true the e-mails were talking about the refugee crisis, not Israel per se, their blindness to the Arab role in the creation of the 1948 refugee crisis was dismaying. I quit the AJPG after that.

I’m sure they were glad to be rid of me. After all, the AJPG was for Arabs who were comfortable viewing the creation of Israel as the Nakba and Jews who were comfortable viewing the creation of Israel as the Nakba.

That same quality of self-abnegation lingers over J Street as well. There is a substantial body of opinion which holds that there’s nothing “pro-Israel” about J Street, that its principal aim is to find new and better ways to poke a stick at Israel, undermining its negotiating position at every opportunity.

J Street has been criticized by, among others, Alan Dershowitz, who opined in 2010 that J Street has “gone over to the dark side.” He pointed out that Jeremy Ben-Ami “has joined the off key chorus of those who falsely claim that Israel, by refusing to make peace with the Palestinians, is placing the lives of American soldiers at risk.”

In lending support to that dangerous and false argument, J Street has disqualified itself from being considered “pro-Israel.” The argument is also anything but “pro peace,” since it will actually encourage Islamic extremists to target American interests in the hope that American casualties will be blamed on Israel. It will also encourage the Palestinian leadership to harden its position, in the expectation that lack of progress toward peace will result in Israel being blamed for American casualties.

Similar concerns were expressed in 2011 by progressive New York congressman Gary Ackerman, who slammed J Street after it urged the Obama Administration not to veto an anti-Israeli Security Council resolution.

“The decision to endorse the Palestinian and Arab effort to condemn Israel in the U.N. Security Council is not the choice of a concerned friend trying to help. It is rather the befuddled choice of an organization so open-minded about what constitutes support for Israel that its brains have fallen out,” [Ackerman] said. “America really does need a smart, credible, politically active organization that is as aggressively pro-peace as it is pro-Israel. Unfortunately, J-Street ain’t it.”

This is just a sampling of the unease that J Street has generated. The root of the problem, I think, is that J Street is trying to be two things that are not at all irreconcilable, but which J Street has failed to reconcile–“left wing” and “pro-Israel.”

Much of the left today views Israel as an inherently “right wing” cause, and is knee-jerk in its adoption of the Palestinian narrative. I could go on for thousands of words describing how this came to pass, and what it says about the evolution of the left. Suffice to say that J Street can’t have it both ways. It can’t allow its annual convention to be a sounding board for tired left-wing tropes and credibly claim to being “pro-Israel.”

In a way, J Street’s leadership is about where I was in 2000. They have to decide: Are they comfortable with the view that Israel’s founding was a Nakba? If they aren’t, why does J Street attract so many people who feel that it was?


Gary Weiss’s most recent book is Ayn Rand Nation, published by St. Martin’s Press. Follow him on Twitter @gary_weiss

About the Author
Gary Weiss, is a veteran journalist and author. He is a longtime investigative reporter who was a senior writer for BusinessWeek magazine and a contributing editor at Condé Nast Portfolio. At BusinessWeek, his articles on Wall Street, focusing on stock fraud and organized crime in the markets, won widespread acclaim and numerous awards, as well as a rare commendation from the director of the FBI, Louis Freeh. He was a regular weekly columnist for Salon and TheStreet.com, and has taught at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. His work has appeared in Parade, The Daily Beast, The New York Times and many other publications. His latest book is Ayn Rand Nation (St. Martin's Press, 2012). His previous books were Born to Steal (Grand Central, 2003) and Wall Street Versus America (Portfolio, 2006).