Journalist Doug Chandler has provided the following longer version of his article published in the current issue of New York’s Jewish Week. In this version, I’m quoted and Meretz USA’s involvement is mentioned—as we are enthusiastic supporters of J Street. This version also provides some additional context on the alleged contention between being “pro-Israel” and “pro-peace” or “left” that unfortunately divides Jews about J Street’s credibility as a pro-Israel group. I see J Street as providing a “big tent,” in good faith, for Jews with a variety of views about Israel and Zionism, but not for people who see themselves as anti-Israel.–R. Seliger
J Street Goes To Main Street by Doug Chandler
In the midst of a renewed, and often nasty, debate between left-wing Jews and those on the right over what it means to be pro-Israel, one of the Jewish community’s newest groups, the thriving and politically progressive J Street, is rolling out local branches across the country.
The 2-year-old organization sponsored gatherings in Manhattan and 20 other locations February 4, each of which launched a new J Street “local.” More than 300 people attended the Manhattan event, where they kicked off J Street NYC with talks by local leaders and with smaller, breakout sessions to discuss the various aspects of organizing the branch, like advocacy, media and communications, and community outreach.
They also heard from J Street’s executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, who addressed J Street supporters across the country through a video hook-up from Philadelphia, where he helped launch that city’s local.
The evening represented “a new chapter in the struggle for tzedek v’shalom — justice and peace — in the Middle East,” Ben-Ami told his audience, estimated at about 2,000 by J Street leaders. “It’s a struggle for the heart and soul of the Jewish people, a struggle over the type of country that Israel … will be, and about the application of our community’s most basic values and principles to the real-world politics of the 21st century.”
Ben-Ami also outlined J Street’s objectives, saying that his organization believes in the State of Israel, which it considers “the national home of the Jewish people,” and is an advocate for Israel’s “security and survival,” as well as its democracy. The organization also supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which Ben-Ami suggested is the only course that would guarantee those goals.
Many of the organization’s branches, established in such places as Baltimore, Chicago, Boston, Cleveland and San Francisco, are designed to cover specific Congressional districts, pointing to J Street’s nature as a lobbying organization. Its slogan, reflected in buttons and bumper stickers at last week’s New York event, is “pro-Israel, pro-peace.”
But the organization faces some stiff challenges from groups and individuals on the right, many of whom doubt its devotion to the “pro-Israel” part of its creed, and those challenges were evident on the evening it launched its new branches.
In Philadelphia, for instance, home to what many consider one of the nation’s more conservative Jewish communities, right-wing activists attacked local Hillel leaders for leasing space to J Street for last week’s event.
“Most people think that when an institution rents another organization space, they’re giving the organization a hechsher,” said Gary Erlbaum, a board member of Philadelphia’s Jewish federation, using the Hebrew word for the certificate that approves food as kosher.
“J Street is anti-Israel and parades under the pro-peace mantle,” Erlbaum said. “I call them the Jewish pro-Palestinian lobby.”
Another Philadelphia-area activist, Lori Lowenthal Marcus, even organized a competing meeting the night of February 4 in the same building, Steinhardt Hall of the University of Pennsylvania. Sponsored by the right-leaning group she founded last summer, Z Street, the meeting focused on the perils of the peace process and of “negotiating with terrorists,” she said.
Local Hillel leaders defended themselves, saying they have hosted a diverse group of speakers in recent months, including Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, Richard Pipes, the right-wing scholar, and Knesset Member Effie Eitam. But the squabble highlighted a broader question — whether J Street fits comfortably into the mainstream of the Jewish community, allowing it a seat at the table with other Jewish organizations.
“My impression is that they’d like to believe the tent is bigger than it is,” said Gilbert Kahn, a professor of political science at Kean University in Union, N.J. Emphasizing that his figures are speculative, Kahn added that he believes “the center [in J Street] is very much to the left,” with as many as 75 percent of its supporters holding left-wing views and perhaps 10 percent falling on the “extreme” left.
The organization’s leaders “are trying to speak to a large audience, but without alienating significant segments of it,” said Kahn, who believes that J Street is still “refining” its outlook. “If you have people like [those from] Brit Tzedek on the one hand,” but liberal, Zionist Jews on the other, the Washington-based group is bound to have some real divisions.
Kahn’s reference to Brit Tzedek was to Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace, a left-wing organization that recently merged with J Street and a group that some considered on the fringe. But Ralph Seliger, an activist on the Zionist left, disagrees, noting that Brit Tzedek’s founder, its last president and its last executive director are all firmly in the Zionist camp.
Bolstering Kahn’s view is that, for all Ben-Ami’s talk about Israeli security, his speech never once mentioned what many regard as the No. 1 threat facing Israel today: the strong possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran. J Street now supports Congressional legislation that would impose stronger sanctions on Iran — a position the group arrived at only recently — but it opposes “any consideration at this time” of the use of military force against Iran by either Israel or the United States, as spelled out on its web site.
Such stands, though, may be a lot more reflective of American Jewry than many people think, said Kenneth Wald, a political science professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
“There’s a lot of variation among American Jews on whether Israel is central to their political identity,” said Wald. Moreover, he added, “there’s no question that many young Jews are uncomfortable with various Israeli policies,” lessening their identification with the Jewish state.
“I think it would help the discussion immeasurably if the term ‘pro-Israel’ wasn’t reserved for AIPAC alone,” Wald said, referring to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. A supporter of AIPAC, he added that “what it means to be pro-Jewish and pro-Israel has been misappropriated” by one end of the spectrum — a development he considers “unhealthy” for American Jewry.
The reception to J Street among more established Jewish organizations has varied from community to community. In Boston, for instance, the Jewish Community Relations Council has welcomed J Street Boston with a seat at its Israel roundtable, a monthly forum of local Jewish leaders.
Ben Murane, a co-chair of J Street NYC, said the branch “wants to be part” of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York and plans to initiate contact. “We’re part of this community,” he added, “and we want to be involved in the community’s decision-making process.”
Meanwhile, the potential divisions among J Street members discussed by Kahn seemed to be in play at last week’s New York event.
Sherry Alpern, the branch’s other co-chair, told the audience that at least some of her views are to the left of J Street’s platform. In an interview later, Alpern, who chaired the local chapter of Brit Tzedek with Murane, declined to specify which positions she considered too centrist, but said they involve “the language [J Street uses] in describing Israel’s positions” — wording she thinks is overly generous.
In addition, Murane appeared to have trouble with the word Zionist. He initially said he wanted to avoid the question, which means “20 different things” to members of his generation. But the 26-year-old later amended his answer, saying he considered himself Zionist if the definition means support for a Jewish, democratic state, “with world-class human and civil rights,” alongside a Palestinian state.
But Ben-Ami said overcoming disagreements “is a challenge for every organization. I imagine there will always be people who support us in concept but disagree over specific issues.” But J Street’s positions will continue to be determined in Washington, where it’s based, rather than by supporters in the field, said Ben-Ami, who counts among his relatives grandparents who founded Tel Aviv and a father who belonged to the Irgun.
He also said, contrary to the perception of some people, J Street has no desire to be an alternative to AIPAC. AIPAC “wouldn’t characterize itself as an advocacy group with a point of view,” he added, while “J Street is unabashedly an advocacy group with a point of view.”
For its part, AIPAC said through a spokesman that it “represents the views of America’s pro-Israel community and the vast majority of Americans, who believe in a strong U.S.-Israel relationship and support a two-state solution and peace in the Middle East.”
But in an apparent swipe at J Street, AIPAC’s statement added that advocating “for a special, ally-to-ally relationship is what makes AIPAC’s bipartisan, pro-Israel approach different from those groups — on the fringe left and right — who think they know better than anyone, including the people of Israel, and then advocate for American public pressure and confrontation with our allies in the Jewish state.”
But J Street enjoys the support of a good number of AIPAC members, the organization’s leaders say. One of those supporters is Daniel Marks Cohen, a member of AIPAC’s Real Estate Division, who attended the New York event and believes there’s no contradiction in being involved in both organizations. “It’s important that Israel has no stronger ally than the United States, but it’s also important that Israel knows our support isn’t unconditional,” said Cohen, 39 a resident of the Upper West Side.
Others attending the J Street event included veterans of such progressive-Zionist groups as Meretz USA, which support [i.e., identify with–RS] Israel’s Meretz Party, and Ameinu, previously the Labor Zionist Alliance.
Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein, a spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Elohim of Park Slope, Brooklyn, could have spoken for them as she discussed her pride in being a Zionist and her view that Zionist “doesn’t mean you have to trample on the rights of others.”
“The Torah tells us, more than 35 times, that we’re to treat everyone with justice,” including strangers, Epstein said. “It’s important to me to be a strong supporter of Israel who loves Israel and also wants to see it abide by those values within its borders and with others.”