Tuesday, May 21, 2024

J Street Stumbles as it Celebrates Annual Conference

New York Jewish Democrat Congressman Gary Ackerman is both a liberal and a devoted advocate for Israel. He has served as chairman of the House subcommittee on the Middle East, and is a supporter of the two-state solution. Last year, unlike many other pro-Israel members of Congress and Senate, he accepted the endorsement of J Street, which bills itself as a left-wing alternative to AIPAC, the official pro-Israel lobby in Washington, DC. Now he has publicly cut his former ties with the organization, and condemned J Street as a willing tool of Israel's enemies. J Street's president and founder, Jeremy Ben-Ami, claims that the militantly secular group is really pro-Israel, even though it openly encourages the Obama administration's public criticism of the Israel's settlement policy in the West Bank and challenges the right of Jews to make their homes in East Yerushalayim, in contrast to Ackerman's own positions on those issues.

Ackerman drew the line when J Street issued a statement on January 20 calling on the Obama administration not to use the US veto to kill a Palestinian-sponsored resolution in the UN Security Council. The resolution would condemn the Jewish communities of the West Bank and the building of Jewish neighborhoods in East Yerushalayim as illegal.


In a statement issued by his office, Congressman Ackerman blasted J Street’s position supporting passage of “a prospective UN Security Council resolution that, under the rubric of concern about settlement activity, would effectively and unjustly place the whole responsibility for the current impasse in the peace process on Israel, and–critically–would give fresh and powerful impetus to the effort to internationally isolate and delegitimize Israel.”


In his statement, Ackerman went on to explain why he views this as more than just a difference of opinion between two liberal declared supporters of Israel. “The decision to endorse the Palestinian and Arab effort to condemn Israel in the UN 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 added that in his opinion, “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 was an explanation of the main point Ackerman had made earlier: “I’ve come to the conclusion that J Street is not an organization with which I wish to be associated.”




The statement is doubly important because it comes from Ackerman, a supporter of Israel with impeccable liberal Democrat credentials and a supporter of most Obama administration policies.


Some liberal Democrats had grown critical of AIPAC for becoming too supportive of Bush administration policies towards Israel. This was especially true after the 9/11 attack, while Ariel Sharon was prime minister. These liberal Democrats felt that AIPAC should have pushed the Bush administration harder to revive the peace process, and failed to adequately encourage Israeli leaders to make more concessions to Palestinian demands.


Like the leaders of J Street, in recent years, Ackerman has suggested that the United States and Israel missed opportunities to engage with moderate Palestinians.


In fact, J Street and its liberal supporters generally put the main onus for the failure of the peace process on Israel rather than the Palestinians, and generally encouraged the Obama administration to step up the pressure on Israeli governments to agree to more concessions to the Palestinians.




However, Ackerman does not share that view. In October, a few weeks following the expiration of Netanyahu’s voluntary building freeze, Ackerman wrote concerning the resumption of construction in Yerushalayim:


“Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. It is not a settlement. As such, the resumption of construction in Jerusalem is not a justification for a crisis, a showdown, a meltdown or even a hissy fit. Ramot and Pisgat Zeev are going to be part of Israel in any conceivable final status deal and to pretend otherwise is pointless.


“Those. . . who chose to waste those ten months instead of diving aggressively into direct talks on peace, cannot reasonably now turn around and complain that the end of the freeze and the resumption of Israeli construction in Jerusalem, Israel’s capital. . . is either a shock or an insurmountable obstacle to peace.”


Ackerman concluded that, “direct negotiations are the sole pathway to [the Palestinian] goal and the sooner they recognize this fact, the better.”


Ackerman’s attitude towards other Jewish West Bank communities is more complex. He supported the Obama administration’s drive for a renewal of Netanyahu’s West Bank construction freeze, not necessarily because he believes that Jews have no right to live there, but because he believes that settlement construction detracts from a larger Israeli goal, the need to counter “the strategic threat from Iran.”




Unlike the Obama administration, Ackerman does not object to limited settlement construction to accommodate what Israel calls natural growth. He does not say so in so many words, but did write in June, 2009, after the Obama administration demanded that Israel impose a total construction freeze: “I do not support a settlement freeze that calls on Israeli families not to grow. . . Real life is messy and the exigencies of any vibrant population need to be acknowledged and accommodated.


But J Street does not take this practical attitude toward the problem. It believes, like the Palestinians, that Jews have no historic right to live on that land. Also, as Ackerman suggests in his January 25 statement, J Street automatically tends to assign the blame for any failure in the peace process to the Israeli side.


This is both unfair and illogical, as Ackerman’s statement goes to great lengths to explain.


“It is not Israel that is refusing to enter final status negotiations. It is not Israel that has refused again and again to make unilateral gestures of good faith (recall the hundreds of West Bank security checkpoints and roadblocks removed, and the 10 month settlement freeze). It is not Israel that is now trying to force the peace process back in to the same dead-end from which the Obama Administration has spent the past month trying to extract itself. But astonishingly, it is Israel that J Street would put in the stocks in the public square.”




Needless to say, the leaders of J Street did not appreciate the bitter criticism from a Democrat Congressman whose re-election in November it endorsed, and for whom it raised campaign funds. But the response by Ben-Ami to Ackerman was exceptionally vehement.


J street accused Ackerman of “misunderstanding…J Street’s position and of the UN Resolution in question.” It then went further, putting up a petition on its web site for its supporters to sign which was to be submitted to Ackerman as a protest against his criticism of the group and its call for the US to allow the pro-Palestinian resolution to pass the Security Council. The petition read:


“Congressman Ackerman —


“I am outraged and disappointed by your attack on J Street.


“I believe J Street’s principled and nuanced approach on Israel and the Middle East is the right way to resolve the conflict.


“Achieving a two-state solution requires real leadership from Israeli, Palestinian, and American leaders. Unfortunately, such leadership was sorely lacking in your recent statement.”


This attack on a leading Jewish Democrat liberal was widely seen by other liberal supporters of Israel as going too far, especially for an organization whose claim to be a pro-Israel organization has recently come under serious question.




J Street first denied and then was forced to admit its financial reliance on contributions from controversial billionaire George Soros, who earned much of his fortune as a speculator in international currency markets by “selling short” and driving down the value of weak currencies when the countries that issued them ran into economic trouble.


Soros is a Hungarian-born Jew who survived the Holocaust posing as the child of a non-Jewish family, which was itself involved in anti-Semitic activity. He later fled to London.


As an adult, Soros has distanced himself from his Jewish roots, and supported causes seen as hostile to Israel. In 2003, he told a Jewish audience that he blamed the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe on “the policies of the Bush administration and the [Ariel] Sharon administration,” adding that, “If we change that direction, then anti-Semitism also will diminish.” Soros proceeded to back up his call for “regime change” in the United States, through the political defeat of the Bush administration and its supporters, with his own generous financial support for radical left wing political action groups such as Moveon.org, which were in the forefront of the criticism of Bush’s Iraq policies, and spearheaded efforts to support Democrat candidates starting with the 2000 election cycle.




Soros also told the Jewish audience that he has personally contributed to anti-Semitism through his high profile currency speculation. He believes that Malaysian prime minister, Mahathir Mohammad, was referring to people like Soros when he said, “Jews rule the world by proxy.”


Soros also boasts of his funding for causes and projects which are widely seen as anti-Israel, including several Palestinian initiatives and the so-called Genva Accord, a peace proposal scheme offering a model for a permanent status peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. The proposal was launched with great media fanfare in 2003 in Geneva. The model agreement was endorsed by former Israeli minister Yossi Beilin, one of the early Israeli negotiators of the Oslo Peace Accords, and Palestinian Authority minster Yasser Abed Rabbo. The international support for the Geneva Accord which Soros helped to generate was one of the factors which prompted Ariel Sharon to propose the 2005 Gaza disengagement plan as an alternative.


Soros has also donated generously to other left wing social and political causes, but avoided contributing to Jewish charities or Israel related causes, because, Soros says, Jews take care of their own, and they and their causes don’t need his help.


J Street has been a notable exception to this rule, and since Soros’ involvement with it has become public knowledge, the group has struggled to distance itself from his negative opinions of Israel and the Jewish community, without much success.




The close association of Soros and other questionable figures with J Street was exposed last September by the national security correspondent of The Washington Times, Eli Lake.


Based upon the group’s IRS 2009 returns, Lake revealed that J Street received a total of $245,000 from Soros and two of his adult children. Furthermore, J Street’s anti-Israel activities in refusing to condemn the conclusions of the Goldstone Report which accused Israel of the use of excessive violence in the invasion of Gaza two years ago, as well as J Street’s opposition to efforts to isolate Iran, are closely aligned with Soros’ position, as outlined in his 2007 manifesto, “On Israel, America and AIPAC,” which was published in the New York Review of Books.


The same tax documents reveal other odd relationships between J Street and a number of non-Jewish financial supporters, including a little known woman named Connie Esdicul who lives in Hong Kong and who contributed $811,000 to the group in 2009, at the behest of another non-Jewish J Street supporter, Bill Benter, who comes from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and who is best known for placing huge bets on horse races.


Another interesting piece of information about J Street buried in its IRS reports is the fact that one of its officers is Mort Halperin, a senior advisor at Soros’ Open Society Institute. Halperin was the ghost writer who actually wrote a letter signed by Judge Richard Goldstone, which was sent to members of Congress in October, 2009, defending his notorious report’s criticism of Israel.




These dubious associations and contributions explain the source for the generous funding of J Street’s recent activities in Washington, while calling into serious question the sincerity of its claims to be pro-Israel. The fact that J Street’s most visible spokesman, Jeremy Ben-Ami, initially denied these associations does not help its credibility.


In this context, the group’s vicious counter-attack on Ackerman’s position regarding the pro-Palestinian UN resolution further damaged its stature, even in Washington’s liberal Democrat circles. Within a few days, Ben Ami was forced to issue a retraction and an apology, but refused to back off from J Street’s own implicit support for the resolution, through its opposition to a US veto to block its passage by the Security Council.


Ben Ami wrote: “At times, we miss the mark. In particular, we allow ourselves to be dragged into the bitter hand-to-hand scuffling that marks modern politics, rather than remaining focused on sparking intelligent conversation on difficult issues. Too often, we descend to the level of those with whom we disagree and our campaigns and actions become too personal.




“This happened last week with Congressman Gary Ackerman, when we reacted sharply to statements regarding J Street to which we objected. We may disagree with him over policy matters at times – but he and we share important larger goals for the United States, Israel and the Jewish people. Our discussions with him and with all those with whom we may disagree at times should be conducted with respect.


“So allow me to apologize for the tone of our email on Friday.”


In a separate interview, Ben-Ami added, “I don’t think it was necessary for us to do more than simply take issue with [Ackerman’s] statement. We took the extra step in urging our supporters to express our outrage; we didn’t need to do that, it only added to the furor and the noise. It’s not the tone we were trying to set.”


Ben-Ami again offered a tortured explanation of how J Street could still claim to be pro-Israel while promoting the passage of a Security Council resolution condemning its settlements as illegal and clearly intended by the resolution’s sponsors to delegitimize Israel in the eyes of the international community.


After explaining that J Street supports President Obama’s statement in his June 2009 speech in Cairo that, “the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop,” the J Street statement blames Israel’s settlement policies for “the lack of movement on the diplomatic front [that] has created the vacuum from which the present Security Council Resolution has emerged.”


After expressing its regret that Israel’s actions have brought this situation about, J Street says that, “if the Resolution does come to a vote, we urge the Obama administration to work to craft language, particularly around Jerusalem, that it can support condemning settlement activity and promoting a two-state solution.” In other words, the US itself should help to draft acceptable language of a resolution condemning Israel.




This is why many long-time American Jewish supporters of Israel have become convinced that with friends in Washington like J Street, Israel doesn’t need any more enemies, and that the perception that J Street is trying to foster, that its views on Israel and US Middle East policy are a fair representation of the consensus within secular, liberal American Jewry, is misleading and very dangerous to the long term health of US-Israeli relations.


This group of opponents who are growing increasingly alarmed by J Street’s subversive influence on the Obama administration Middle East policies include Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren. When asked during a recent interview whether J Street is as “pro-Israel” as it claims to be, he gave a thinly veiled negative response.


“They claim they’re pro-Israel,” he said, but “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.”




The fallout from their recent run-in with Ackerman has further damaged their credibility. Their poor handling of the incident was seen by Washington insiders as a sign of sloppiness in J Street’s decision-making process. Specifically, it was a critical failure to think through the obvious consequences of their actions and statements.


In yet another embarrassing stumble, J Street’s college organization, called J Street U, was forced to announce the cancellation of a recently announced “Birthright” tour to Israel designed for left wing college youth run by tour provider Israel Experience.


Apparently, the organizers of Birthright had second thoughts as to whether it was really in the best interests of Israel and other donors to the program to subsidize a free trip to Israel by American college students in which they would be indoctrinated with J Street’s anti-Israel ideology, as well as its view that Israel is primarily to blame for the current impasse in Middle East peacemaking efforts. Birthright officials decided that it was best to deny that they had ever agreed to sponsor a J Street mission. This forced J Street to issue an apology to those young people whom it had convinced to sign up for the tour.




The full extent of the damage done to J Street’s credibility by these recent revelations and admitted mistakes will become apparent at its annual conference that runs from February 26 to March 1. Last year, the conference program was filled with anti-Israel speakers and panelists, forcing many of the embarrassed members of the congressional host committee for the event to ask that their names be removed from the list.


This year, J Street has refused to reveal details of its plans for the conference program. Prominent liberal Democrats have been reluctant to commit themselves to attend, let alone participate in the program, and given Ackerman’s experience with the group, it is hard to blame them.


It has become apparent that J Street’s growing credibility problems are primarily of their own making. Even within liberal Democrat circles, it is simply unacceptable to affiliate with a group that has deliberately aligned itself with countries intent on using the UN as a forum for routinely vilifying and delegitimizing Israel. As one pro-Israel Washington activist recently told a reporter for the Washington Post, it is acceptable for those who claim to support Israel to disagree on settlements or on the peace process, but “when it comes to aid for Israel and the UN, these things are non-negotiable.”


To paraphrase Ambassador Oren’s comment, J Street can call itself whatever it wants, but its provocative actions and shady associations have characterized it as an enemy of Israel, and no amount of tortured left wing rationalizations can explain that away.



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