June 24, 2010
J Street vs AIPAC
The asymmetrical war for the soul of Jewish America
By Stephen Glain
A geopolitical war is on for the soul of Jewish America, and it is asymmetrical. For decades, conservative groups, led by the American-Israel Political Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, have insisted that they alone spoke for a monolith known as the American Jewish community. For the first time, that claim is being seriously challenged. In the two years since its launch, J Street has created an air pocket where liberal Jews can express themselves in the otherwise stultified debate about Israel and America’s support of it. At stake, according to friends of J Street, is whether Israel can survive as a Jewish state in co-existence with its neighbors, or hunkered down and segregated in a ghetto of its own making.
In March, when the Israeli government defied US President Barack Obama’s peace efforts by announcing it would build Jewish housing blocks in Arab East Jerusalem—with Joe Biden, Obama’s Vice President, in Israel on a good-will mission, no less—even Israel’s close supporters in America condemned it as an intolerable snub.
Israeli resistance against US pressure for a settlement freeze is nothing new, of course. This time, however, Americans had a place to park their outrage. Within hours after news of the slight broke, J Street, a pro-Israel, pro-peace lobbying group, received 18,000 signatures on its website from citizens expressing support for Mr. Obama’s Middle East policies. “There is a vast majority of American Jews who form a moderate center and who want Israel to survive,” says J Street media coordinator Amy Spitalnik. “We’re creating space for them.”
A geopolitical war is on for the soul of Jewish America, and it is asymmetrical. For decades, conservative groups, led by the American-Israel Political Affairs Committee, known as AIPAC, have insisted with impunity that they alone spoke for a monolith known as the American Jewish community. For the first time, that claim is being seriously challenged. In the two years since its launch, J Street has created an air pocket where liberal Jews can express themselves in the otherwise stultified debate about Israel and America’s support of it. At stake, according to friends of J Street, is whether Israel can survive as a Jewish state in co-existence with its neighbors, or hunkered down and segregated in a ghetto of its own making. “J Street has to succeed,” says a pro-peace veteran of the Israel-lobby wars who has found herself on the losing end of many a battle with AIPAC. “It cannot fail. Otherwise, the entire left will go down with it.”
Others discount the influence J Street or any other lobbying group might have over the making of US Middle East policy. For them, “creating space” for liberal Jews in America is less important than facing “facts on the ground” in Palestine. “I’m under no illusion that a single organization will create that much change,” says Aaron David Miller, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center who served for years as a State Department advisor on Middle Eastern affairs. “The chances for peace will be driven not by domestic politics but the prospect of success for a deal between Arabs and Israelis.”
Liberal pro-Israeli organizations are not new to Washington, where J Street is based. (Though its name is a sly commentary on how muted is the pro-peace camp: there is no J Street in Washington’s alphabetized urban grid). There is Americans for Peace Now and the New Israel Fund, for example, which as non-profits must confine their activities to educating legislators and opinion makers about Israeli affairs. J Street, on the other hand, is registered as a political action committee, which allows it to contribute to political campaigns and endorse candidates. This year, according to Spitalnick, the group expects to raise $1 million in support of 60 candidates for mid-term elections. It has an operating budget of $3 million and it has more than a dozen full-time staff members on its payroll. It boasts 110,000 online supporters, 7,000 of whom contribute regularly to the group’s campaign war chest.
If that sounds impressive, consider J Street’s opposition. AIPAC, long regarded as one of the most effective lobbying groups in Washington, has a $60 million budget and 300 employees. Its ability to cajole and coerce Congress to its will is legendary. AIPAC lobbyists have been known to draft resolutions on behalf of the Israeli right and get them passed into law by wide margins. Its annual convention is attended by at least half the members of Congress and it has a powerful ally in the Christian-Zionist movement in America, including Christians United for Israel, a San Antonio, Texas-based group with a congregation of 19,000 worshipers.
Needless to say, if there is an AIPAC-J Street fight going on, it is less Clash of the Titans than it is Tom and Jerry. By leveraging the internet and its small but agile web of field offices nationwide, J Street has managed to level the playing field for dissenting views on Israel’s hard line policies. During Israel’s December 2008 siege of Gaza, for example, legislator Donna Edwards of Maryland was one of a handful of lawmakers who refused to vote for a resolution supporting the Jewish state’s right to defend itself, in part because of its disproportionate response to Palestinian provocation. Angered at Edwards’ position—she and twenty-one similarly conflicted Congressmen had voted “present” on the motion—some local Jewish leaders suggested they might whip up a primary challenge against her re-election bid this year. Enter J Street, which rallied to Edwards’ defense with $30,000 in fresh campaign funds within 48 hours. Talk of a primary fight quickly dissipated.
J Street has also organized Congressional tours of Israel that counter the narrative Israeli authorities routinely spoon-feed visiting lawmakers. In February, a group of Democrats made headlines during their J Street-sponsored visit to Israel when Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon refused to see them. William Delahunt, the Massachusetts representative who led the delegation, called the decision “a real surprise and disappointment” and he implicitly scolded Ayalon, who publicly suggested that J Street is anti-Israel, for impugning the delegation’s motives. “It is unwise for anyone,” he said, “to take disagreements as to how to accomplish our common goals and purpose, which is to achieve peace and security—and to misrepresent those differences as questioning support and concern for the state of Israel itself.”
Delahunt’s rebuke was resonant of J Street’s most subversive message: that the conservative establishment does not represent the sympathies of American Jews any more than occupation serves Israel’s long-term interests. Through aggressive use of polling data, the group has established how Obama’s approval ratings among American Jews is 15 percent higher than the national average; that a majority of Jews oppose further settlement building and support a strong US role in the Arab-Israeli peace process, which AIPAC and its allies implicitly oppose; and that most Jews approve of President Obama’s public criticism of the Israeli government when it obstructs the peace process. (The poll also revealed that Israel is not a major Jewish preoccupation; the country rated eighth among the average respondent’s lists of concerns.)
“People are tired of being told you are either with us or against us,” J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami told The New York Times in May. “The majority of American Jews support the president, support the two-state solution and do not feel that they have been well represented by organizations that demand obedience to every wish of the Israeli government.” His remarks were published in a story that focused on an evolving constituency of Israel supporters who reject “the old-school reflexive support of the country’s policies, suggesting that one does not have to be slavish to Israeli policies to love Israel.” For a fledgling influence-peddler in a rough market like J Street, this was a real coup.
In creating space for dissent, J Street is in many ways mining opportunities created by conservative overreach, both in the US and in Israel. Over the last few years, groups like AIPAC, often working quietly or through proxies, have adopted tactics against Israel’s critics of an increasingly thuggish cast. Legislators have complained—entirely off the record, of course—of a growing AIPAC imperiousness in their demands for votes and other displays of support. In 2006, when scholars John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt wrote a provocative article that alleged a pernicious Jewish lobby was manipulating US foreign policy, the attacks set a new standard for biliousness. (The Anti-Defamation League, a major conservative group called it a “classic conspiratorial anti-Semitic analysis invoking the canards of Jewish power and Jewish control.”) They were followed by a campaign against historian Tony Judt, who has called for a bi-national Palestine, and an assault on the character of Chas Freeman, a career State Department Arabist and open critic of Israel, after he was offered a key national security post in the Obama administration. The offer was ultimately withdrawn.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu has tested the limits of the US-Israeli relationship like few Israeli leaders before him. In addition to his mishandling of the Biden visit, he reportedly called White House aides David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel “self-hating Jews.” His inclusion of the openly anti-Arab, some say fascistic, Avigdor Lieberman into his ruling coalition, and his refusal to endorse an independent Palestine have alienated some of the most committed of America’s Jewish Zionists.
Inevitably, J Street has made several missteps and it has disappointed liberals with policy recommendations that do not stray significantly from AIPACism. Last summer, it equivocated lamely over whether or not it would urge senators to sign an AIPAC-backed letter that called on Arab leaders to normalize ties with Israel without a reference to Israeli settlement activity. It has expressed support for an Iran sanctions bill in Congress that the White House opposes as overly restrictive and it condemned as “one-sided and biased” a United Nations human rights report that concluded both Israelis and Palestinians committed atrocities during Israel’s invasion of Gaza.
It would be churlish to applaud J Street’s independence while scolding it for not unswervingly towing the liberal line. There may be less to the group’s initial success than meets the eye, however, for reasons that say more about the political ecology of Washington than they do about J Street’s commitment to peace. J Street has distinguished itself by emphatically endorsing an independent Palestine, contoured roughly along its pre-1967 borders and with east Jerusalem as its capital. Seen from the Middle East, however, that merely places the group within a stale orthodoxy that has come to mean nothing inside Palestine itself. Demands for a settlement “freeze,” for example, are regarded in the West Bank as a hollow gesture that resonates more in America’s capital than it does in Palestine, where national survival is predicated on settlement removal.
Invariably, given Washington’s habit of domesticating overseas issues, media coverage of J Street has focused largely on the political implications of its challenge to the conservative order, with abundant references to J Street’s “David” versus AIPAC’s “Goliath.” Unexamined is the growing irrelevancy of either group given the estrangement of Middle Eastern reality—on one side, a Palestine divided from within and Balkanized from without; on the other, Israel’s dysfunctional and increasingly rightist political culture—from the totemic “peace process” as it is revered in Washington. As Palestinian journalist Ali Abunimah told the liberal magazine The Nation last November, “J Street is supposed to represent a tectonic shift, but it operates within the peace process paradigm and doesn’t challenge it at all.”
After eight years of Bush administration indulgence of the Israeli right, the only kind of presidential peace initiative that might succeed is one Israel is unlikely to accept, regardless of which Beltway lobbying group has the whip hand. The debate in Washington over J Street’s influence may be a lively one, but it has little to do with the region that informs it.
Only occasionally does a shaft of Middle East reality penetrate the Washington biosphere. On April 21, journalist Eyal Press discussed at the centrist New America Foundation a story he had written about the growing religiosity within the Israeli Defense Force. According to the article, published in the April 29 edition of the New York Review of Books, religious nationalists in the IDF are now so numerous and their influence so great within the officer class that an order to evacuate West Bank Jewish settlers “could spark mass mutiny.” Neither Press’ article nor his presentation rated significant mention in the mainstream media.
Stephen Glain – A former correspondent for Newsweek and covered Asia and the Middle East for the Wall Street Journal for a decade. Now based in Washington as a freelance journalist and author he is currently working on his forthcoming book about the militarization of US foreign policy.