Dov Waxman
Gilbert Foundation Chair in Israel Studies at UCLA and Director of the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies

J Street comes of age

As it comes of age, the pro-peace, pro-Israel lobby is becoming increasingly inclusive -- and far less left wing

As J Street turns four, the once-brash, -rebellious child in the world of pro-Israel advocacy is quickly growing up to become a more mature, more moderate part of the pro-Israel community in the United States. Although it’s not yet part of the pro-Israel “establishment,” dominated by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, J Street is well on its way to joining this powerful club.

The price it must pay for doing so, however, is too high for some on the left. As J Street gains mainstream acceptance, it risks losing its left-wing credentials. Already, many critics are asking: has J Street moved too far to the center?

When J Street first burst onto the American-Jewish political scene in April 2008, it was welcomed by many left-wing American and Israeli Jews as a long-overdue and much-needed antidote to the rightward drift that had taken place in the organized American Jewish community’s stance toward Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Here, at last, was an organization that could speak on behalf of the supposedly progressive majority of American Jews who were not being adequately represented by the likes of AIPAC, the AJC, the ADL, the ZOA and other groups that dominated pro-Israel advocacy in the United States.

Led by Jeremy Ben-Ami, a former Clinton Administration official, financed by some major Jewish donors (including the controversial billionaire George Soros), and with its own political action committee – J Street PAC – J Street promised to be a new kind of left-wing, American-Jewish peace organization. Unlike predecessors such as Americans for Peace Now, Ameinu, and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, J Street had the political savvy, insider connections, financial backing, and outsize ambitions to compete with the big boys in the pro-Israel lobby. It might even, some speculated and many hoped, be able to challenge the mighty AIPAC, the goliath of Israel lobbying, and the nemesis of those on the left who believe that American pressure upon Israel is needed to end the occupation and bring about a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Alas, no match for AIPAC

Fours years on from the heady days of its founding, the Jewish left’s hopes for J Street have not been realized. J Street has proven to be no match for AIPAC – one only has to compare both groups’ recent national conferences held just weeks apart to gain a sense of how AIPAC continues to dwarf J Street in size and political influence.

Thirteen thousand people attended AIPAC’s conference last month, the largest number in the organization’s history, compared to 2,500 participants at J Street’s conference. President Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta addressed AIPAC’s conference, whereas the Obama Administration only sent White House senior advisor Valerie Jarret and Antony Blinken, the Vice President’s national security adviser, despite J Street’s devoted support for the Obama Administration’s much-maligned Mideast peace policy. Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke at AIPAC’s gala dinner, a massive extravaganza attended by much of the US Congress and Washington political establishment; the keynote speaker at J Street’s Gala dinner, on the other hand, was disgraced former Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Olmert, a man still battling numerous corruption allegations.

While J Street’s conference was full of energy and youth, the disparity between the two groups was clear for all to see.

Ehud Olmert at the J Street conference (photo credit: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 jstreetdotorg, Flickr)
Ehud Olmert at the J Street conference (photo credit: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 jstreetdotorg, Flickr)

Nevertheless, the fact that J Street was even holding a conference at all, no less one that was attended by a senior Israeli diplomat, is testimony to the group’s success. J Street has survived efforts to blacklist it and delegitimize it. It has staunchly defended its “pro-peace, pro-Israel” label and its right, as well as the right of dovish American Jews in general, to criticize the Israeli government while remaining within the pro-Israel camp. J Street has largely succeeded in broadening the “pro-Israel tent” in the United States. While it is still not broad enough for some (advocates of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel, for instance), it is still more inclusive than it once was. Such an achievement, especially in the face of intense and sometimes-vicious resistance, is not to be underestimated. Thanks to J Street, the pro-Israel lobby in the United States is now a bit more diverse, and a little more dovish than it once was.

For those on the Jewish left, in the United States and in Israel, this achievement may be small consolation to what some now view as J Street’s betrayal. In its bid for mainstream acceptability, J Street has consistently taken policy positions at odds with those favored by many of its more left-wing members. Last year, for instance, it publicly opposed the Palestinians’ attempt to gain membership in the United Nations, and it continues to criticize efforts to boycott Israel and Israeli products, even a limited boycott of settlement goods (as recently proposed by Peter Beinart in a much-discussed op-ed in The New York Times). While these positions, and J Street’s general tendency to avoid taking controversial stands, have disappointed many on the left, they have undoubtedly helped J Street to burnish its moderate credentials, and become less of a bête noire in the organized American Jewish community.

Nothing better indicates J Street’s growing respectability than a recent statement by an anonymous senior Israeli government official that the Netanyahu government now regards J Street as “significant” and “a friend,” albeit one with whom the Israeli government has disagreements. For J Street’s Washington-based leadership, this kind of remark is gold-lust. It can be liberally sprinkled over whatever press release or publicity material the group produces to prove its pro-Israel bona fides. No doubt, J Street hopes this will help open more doors in Washington, and more wallets across the country.

Fighting for the middle ground? J Street's Jeremy Ben-Ami (photo credit: Courtesy J Street)
Fighting for the middle ground? J Street's Jeremy Ben-Ami (photo credit: Courtesy J Street)

What may be good for J Street’s political access and influence in Washington DC, however, is much less attractive to its more left-wing base. A positive word from the Netanyahu government (albeit without attribution) and a speech at its conference by Israel’s deputy ambassador in Washington (albeit one that criticized the group) are the very things that are likely to alienate those on the left who want J Street to be an organization that boldly stands up to the right-wing, hawkish government currently in power in Jerusalem.

To put it bluntly, they don’t want Netanyahu’s blessing; they want his downfall.

In courting the powers that be, whether in Washington or Jerusalem, J Street risks forsaking its left-wing credentials, and losing some of its erstwhile supporters. Of course, that may be precisely the point. Despite being touted as the left-wing challenger to AIPAC, perhaps J Street’s real mission is to become more of a centrist alternative. To be sure, J Street is unlikely to simply become “AIPAC-lite.” It remains fundamentally committed to a more dovish approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program. But rather than think of it as a left-wing organization, perhaps it would be more accurate to think of J Street as fighting for the middle ground in pro-Israel advocacy. J Street does not want to be the standard-bearer of the left. It really wants to be a centrist organization. Like it or not, it appears to be succeeding.

About the Author
Dr. Dov Waxman holds the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation Chair in Israel Studies at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). He is also the director of the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies. He has had visiting fellowships at Oxford University, Tel Aviv University, Bar-Ilan University, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He received his Ph.D. and M.A. degrees from the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University, and his B.A. from Oxford University. He is the author of four books: "The Pursuit of Peace and The Crisis of Israeli Identity: Defending / Defining the Nation" (Palgrave, 2006), "Israel’s Palestinians: The Conflict Within" (Cambridge University Press, 2011), "Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel" (Princeton University Press, 2016), and most recently, "The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: What Everyone Needs to Know" (Oxford University Press, 2019).