The scandals and controversies racking J Street over the past year are reflected in the notable absence this year of any high-profile Democratic Congressman at their annual conference, a marked contrast from the preceding year.
Obviously the political mainstream now has a better understanding of the organization. Claiming to be a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization, J Street vigorously set itself up as a body with the principal objective being to canvass the US government to exert pressure on Israel to make further unilateral concessions. It had the chutzpa to compare itself with parents obliged to impose “tough love” on drug addicted children.
J Street condemned Israel for “its disproportionate response” in the Gaza offensive against Hamas – highlighting that “we recognize that neither Israelis nor Palestinians have a monopoly of right or wrong.”
It refused to condemn the Goldstone report and, to make matters worse senior officers of the organization actually facilitated meetings between Judge Goldstone and members of Congress.
J Street was challenged for having obtained donations from Arab and pro-Arab individuals and organizations. Over $800,000 came from an anonymous donor in Hong Kong, whose identity the J Street founder, Jeremy Ben Ami, refuses to disclose.
Until recently, Ben Ami had vigorously denied that his organization was receiving funds from George Soros, who is renowned for having proudly proclaimed “I am not a Zionist, nor am I a practicing Jew.”
Yet, last September, the same Ben Ami was obliged to abjectly apologize to the public for having repeatedly lied, after it was disclosed that at least one third of their US budget had been donated by Soros. It was also subsequently disclosed that “The Middle East Lobby of J Street”, a tax-exempt 501(c) 4 organization, had paid tens of thousands of dollars to a consulting firm co-owned by Jeremy Ben Ami, its founder and president. Ben Ami had initially claimed that he did not benefit financially, but had merely chosen the most qualified company.
There were other scandals throughout the year. J Street co-founder Daniel Levy wrote an article describing Israel’s creation as, “an act that went wrong.”
Barry Rubin disclosed that the head of J Street’s office in Israel, Drew Cohen, was on record describing Operation Cast Lead as being an “unjust and even criminal act.” He dismissed Gaza as a “mythic threat” to Israel and referred to the Gaza Flotilla confrontation as “a heinous brutality.”
But what tipped the edge and made an absolute mockery of J Street’s pretension to be “pro-Israel,”was when it openly began urging its members to lobby the White House not to veto the most recent one-sided UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel.
This led Jewish lawmaker Gary Ackerman, a leading New York Democrat Congressman and former supporter of J Street, to express outrage that J Street’s “decision to endorse the Palestinian and Arab effort to condemn Israel at the United Nations Security Council is not the choice of a friend trying to help. It is rather the befuddled choice of an organization so open-minded about what contributes support for Israel that its brains have fallen out…. I have come to the conclusion that J Street is not an organization with which I wish to be associated.”
Thus, despite retaining its position as the darling of the left liberal and anti-Israeli media and continuing to receive funding from somewhat questionable sources, J Street has become marginalized.
Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, who had tentatively opened up a dialogue with the organization said, “J Street claim they’re pro-Israel. They are calling for Israel to be condemned in the Security Council for the settlements and they are condemning some of our best friends on the Hill. So they can call themselves what they like.” He refused to participate in the conference and instructed members of his Embassy to do likewise. Even Birthright canceled jointly sponsored visits to Israel with the organization.
Needless to say, with the organization quoting Ben Ami “doing whatever we can in Congress to act as [Barack Obama’s] blocking back,” the administration stood by the organization and Dennis Ross, the senior advisor to President Obama on Middle East issues, was directed to address the conference.
But this year’s J Street conference will primarily be catering for far left activists, including some notoriously well-known anti-Israeli personalities.
This is exemplified by the award J Street will be giving to Sarah Beninga of the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement, whose manifesto calls for “liquidation or fundamental change of organizations that contribute to the dispossession of Arabs, including the Jewish Agency, the Jewish National Fund and the Israeli Land Authority.”
The only disquieting note is that four Kadima and two Labor MKs decided to participate. It is a somewhat bizarre reflection on our political system, when a number of our mainstream MKs decide to participate in the conference of a group, which only a few days ago had been lobbying President Obama not to veto the UN Security Council resolution and which was boycotted by the Israeli embassy and even US Congressman who had participated in previous conferences.
Whereas Tzipi Livni, the leader of the opposition, who had on previous occasions criticized those condemning J Street, remained silent, to their credit several Kadima MKs condemned the participation of their colleagues. The former chairman of the Jewish Agency, Kadima MK Zeev Bielsky, aptly commented that “it is too bad that some of my colleagues do not understand the danger of supporting an organization that is working against Israel.”
The most disappointing participant is Nachman Shai, traditionally regarded as a mature and responsible opposition MK. He defended his involvement by stating that he disagreed with J Street policy. But he decided to participate because he felt there was a need to speak to young people with doubts about Israel rather than losing them and that the bulk of his address would concentrate on defending construction in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem and settlement blocs outside the capital.
Shai is presumably well-intentioned, but he does not appreciate that he will be speaking primarily to hard liners with closed minds and that his very presence at such a conference provides it with an imprimatur and gives this group, consistently hostile to Israel, the respectability it desperately seeks but does not deserve.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post