While covering J-Street’s first annual national conference over the last three days, I think I recognized one of 1,000-plus attendees from television. Proudly wearing a Code Pink t-shirt, the woman was handing out cards advertising a December 31 march to “break the illegal Gaza siege.” If I am right in my recollection, I remember watching her being removed by Capitol Hill police officers with her Code Pink compatriots for protesting some congressional hearing I was watching on C-Span. She may not have been welcome on Capitol Hill, but she sure seemed in her element at J-Street.
After three days among J-Streeters, I have reached some important conclusions about the nature of the organization, its followers and its future. By listening to its executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, speak during the plenary sessions, one would be led to believe that J-Street was founded to fill the void for a “pro-Israel” lobby that supports a “two-state” solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and opposes settlement expansion.
But the largely unspoken reality, which was only sometimes acknowledged by conference attendees and speakers, is that J-Street has arisen to challenge the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the hugely successful bipartisan lobby that supports a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.
If so, this is more than a little strange. I happen to know many people who work at AIPAC, who used to work at AIPAC and who are active supporters of AIPAC. For the record, I interned for AIPAC when I was in college. Of all the people I know (we are talking dozens), I am not aware of a single person associated with AIPAC who does not support a two-state solution to the conflict. Indeed, AIPAC as an organization supported Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and the Oslo Accords in the 1990s. The natural implication of both polices, of course, was the creation of a Palestinian state down the road.
So if there is no void to fill here, what about J-Street’s emphasis on removing settlements? Well, if you support a two-state solution, then you necessarily understand that the natural implication of that policy is that most settlements will be removed from the West Bank in a final peace settlement. There is a difference of emphasis, of course. J-Street seems to think by the nature of its emphasis that settlement expansion is the number one impediment to peace in the Middle East. As far as I am aware, AIPAC does not subscribe to this fantasy, though the organization is ideologically diverse enough that some of its members very well may. But certainly the settlements issue is an unpersuasive reason for J-Street’s existence.
So, what sets J-Street apart as an organization? One wouldn’t discover the crucial differences between AIPAC and J-Street by only listening to Jeremy Ben-Ami’s speeches or by reading J-Street’s website. These differences can best be gleaned by listening to J-Street attendees and observing their actions.
You can learn a lot by observing how people act. During this week’s conference, J-Streeters most often applauded when Israel was criticized or when a speaker demanded that Israel remove settlements. Quiet invariably filled the room when a speaker defended Israel. Such a stance was not to be tolerated. Thus, when liberal Rabbi Eric Yoffie blasted the biased Goldstone Report, which unconvincingly accused Israel of war crimes, some people booed.
It is also instructive to listen to what J-Streeters asked when they were given the opportunity to question various speakers. Again, more often than not, these questions were critical of Israel. For instance, at a panel discussion on Iran, one J-Streeter asked why Israel could have nuclear weapons and not Iran? The question was warmly received with applause.
Just as significant as what J-Street’s leaders and supporters say is what they do not say. While Jeremy Ben-Ami tried to walk a fine line and present as moderate an image as he could without completely alienating his audience, it was notable how rarely he mentioned Palestinian terrorism or the threat to Israel of a nuclear Iran. When he gave the floor to pre-selected members of the audience, their comments were most often critical of Israel in some way. Not once did I hear someone from J-Street praise Israel for its liberal values or its democratic system.
In interviews I conducted on Sunday night at the opening of the conference, some J-Streeters told me that it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if the international community tried Israeli leaders for “war crimes.” Many also told me they couldn’t see much of a moral difference between a democratic Israel and Israel’s totalitarian enemies. As much as Jeremy Ben-Ami pretends that J-Street is a moderate, pro-Israel organization, its membership is chock full of left-wing radicals. Against this background, it should come as no surprise that J-Street’s campus offshoot recently dropped the “pro-Israel” part of the organization’s increasingly untenable “pro-Israel, pro-peace” slogan.
The contrast with AIPAC is acute. At AIPAC conferences, you get a sense that the attendees actually like Israel and admire it for the values it upholds in very difficult circumstances, even as they recognize that the country is not perfect. With J-Street, too many members are embarrassed by Israel. They are more willing to give the benefit of the doubt to Israel’s repressive enemies than the democratic Jewish state.
I have written previously that J-Street will ultimately collapse because it was built on a foundation of fallacies. But this collapse could come more quickly than one might expect. After all, this is an organization that calls itself a “pro-Israel” lobby but spends most of its time criticizing Israel. And if, as may well be the case, the leadership of J-Street is saner than many of its members, what will happen if, down the road, J-Street takes a relatively rational stance in defense of Israel that alienates its radical base? If J-Street’s conference this week is any guide, that will be the end of this already unnecessary organization.