J Street started out just five years ago as the enfant terrible of the American Jewish world; and the Israeli government, the Israeli Embassy in Washington and almost all the leaders of the mainstream American Jewish organizations held it at arms’ length.
Moreover, prominent right-wing supporters of Israel in those days privately spread the word that J Street should be anathema to all true friends of Israel, and that if it were to succeed, it would do serious damage to the standing of AIPAC, the America Israel Public Affairs Committee, as the powerful, respected – and feared – foreign policy lobby in the United States.
But that was then and this is now. When J Street held its fifth annual policy conference at Washington’s Convention Center from September 30 to October 4 this year, the roster of speakers and eminent guests was a Who’s Who of both American and Israeli political life.
The embattled Obama Administration rolled out its top guns, led by Vice President Joe Biden, a longtime leading supporter of Israel in the Democratic Party who spoke to a rapturous welcome. House of Representatives Minority Leader and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi also addressed the conference.
Even more stunning was the delegation from Israel, with seven members of the Knesset from six different parties in attendance Among the Israeli delegation were Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and representatives of the Likud and ultra-Orthodox Shas parties.
The conference attracted 2,800 participants – still a lot smaller than AIPAC, which routinely has 10,000 participants at its annual policy conferences, with members of Congress and the Senate from both US parties attending its showcase dinner. And critics complained that the calls of speakers and participants for a two-state solution to be implemented as quickly as possible were unrealistic, simplistic and they were unwilling to hear counter-arguments.
The tone of the conference gave little cause to believe that J Street has mellowed or softened in its views. But it has indisputably arrived on the scene. The conference was a triumph. J Street still can’t compare with the wall-to-wall financial muscle and political support of AIPAC, and probably never will, but that was never its aim anyway.
The conference was addressed by political heavyweights from both the United States and Israel, as well as a member of Fatah – something you will never see at AIPAC.
And in a telling sign of changing times, outgoing Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren attended the event, too.
He pointedly did not go to last year’s.
Jessica L.D. Rosenblum, J Street’s director of media and communications, had good reason to celebrate when she spoke with The Jerusalem Report after the conference.
“Our growth is indisputable. We have arrived on the scene,” she says in an interview.
“We now have a network of 160,000 supporters and chapters on 50 campuses.
We are teaching people to advocate for Israel; we provide them with a platform that is democratic and that embraces traditional Jewish values of peace and social justice.”
Rosenblum has no doubt that J Street has dramatically increased the size of the active, pro-Israel community in the United States.
“The latest conference has been a triumph,” Rosenblum says. “When we were launched, many people anticipated that association with J Street would be a political liability and did not want to be publicly identified with us. But we quickly refuted that assumption. In 2012, our PAC [political action committees] supported a slate of 71 candidates for the Senate and the House of Representatives and 70 of them won.
“And we are changing things,” she continues.
“Most pro-Israel PACs do not challenge any incumbents. They just support them. And if they are insufficiently pro- Israel, they simply hope to work and change their minds. However, we have not hesitated to challenge incumbents and support their challengers when we regard it as necessary.”
J Street’s own PAC “exists to show the wellspring of support for Israel,” Rosenblum says. “We are looking for candidates who share our values. And we are finding them. We endorse new voices, not just the best bet to win the immediate race. Twentythree of the 71 races in which we endorsed a candidate were highly competitive, in 2012.
We won 22 of them. All seven of the candidates for the Senate we supported won.”
The real power of any PAC lies in its ability to raise significant sums of money to support its favored candidates in their election races, and J Street’s PAC is no exception.
Judged by this crucial standard, J Street’s PAC may not be in the same league as AIPAC’s, but it is indisputably another success story. It hit the ground running and was a success straight out of the gate. It is the largest, single, pro-Israel PAC in the country.
In the 2008 national election cycle, it raised $600,000. In 2010, it raised $1.2 million for the candidates it supported; and in the 2012 election cycle, this sum has risen to $1.8 million.
Critics charged that J Street would seriously damage the political clout of AIPAC and weaken the Jewish community by destroying its image as a united monolith on Israel. But J Street officials and activists say the opposite has happened.
“J Street has dramatically widened the political base of the American Jewish community,” Rosenblum tells The Report. “We are reaching wide sections of the community – especially among young professionals and on campuses – that had no dealings with AIPAC or any other organized support for Israel before. We think of ourselves not as dividing the Jewish community but as broadening the base of Jewish advocacy.”
Rosenblum is not alone in this assessment.
Charles Freeman, Jr., former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia and former assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration, agrees with Rosenblum’s assessment that J Street has already proved itself a success and that it has established itself as a significant player across the United States and in Washington policymaking.
Freeman tells The Report that J Street has already succeeded in creating a new and far more open debate on Israeli-Palestinian issues in the American Jewish community, and that this has already had a significant impact on domestic US politics.
“J Street is certainly having a significant impact on the American Jewish community and the national political scene,” Freeman says. “Its latest conference included Members of the Knesset from Likud and Shas, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who holds the peace negotiations portfolio in the current Israeli government, and Vice President Joe Biden. J Street is becoming a significant factor in the American Jewish community.”
Freeman also dismisses the claims of some critics that J Street was just a flash in the pan. He maintains that demographic and political dynamics within the American Jewish community suggest it is here to stay as a significant force.
“Most American Jews are liberal and pro- Democratic Party in their domestic politics, and most of them support the Israeli- Palestinian peace process and a two-state solution,” Freeman says. “J Street therefore offers them an alternative to the existing structures that have for decades been dominated by pro-settlement, pro-Likud forces.
“J Street’s supporters are increasingly representative of the development of the American Jewish community,” he adds. “These are increasingly significant voices in the electorate. J Street started out being boycotted, and now they are being sought after.”
J Street certainly has its critics who charge that its positions remain simplistic and naïve. And that it is weakening the Jewish community by destroying its image as a united monolith on Israel.
Sarah Stern, founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth tells The Report that J Street “is really not pro- Israel at all.”
“Most Israelis do not feel that they can safely go back to the 1967 borders and they are also absolutely perplexed that President Obama has given President Hassan Rouhani of Iran the gift of time to finish accumulating nuclear grade uranium – an issue that threatens the very survival of Israel. The supporters and leaders of J Street remain oblivious to these very real dangers.”
J Street and its supporters, Stern says, “represent the uninformed aspect of the Jewish community. They oversimplify by imagining that all one has to do is sit down with opponents who have consistently maintained their commitment to policies unremittingly hostile to the continued existence of Israel.”
However, analyst Ralph Winnie of the Atlantic Council, one of the most influential foreign policy think tanks in Washington, agrees with Freeman’s assessment. He says J Street has already struck down deep roots of lasting support and that it has established itself in reaching out to broad and growing sectors of American Jewish life.
“J Street has become the liberal voice of the American Jewish community on the Israeli-Palestinian issue,” Winnie tells The Report. “They are playing an important and positive role. They are working to try to bring about constructive political change in the Middle East. They are not rabble rousers or raising problems for the Jewish community.”
However, Winnie cautions that J Street supporters and AIPAC activists alike have to prepare themselves for a long, complex and inevitably frustrating experience of negotiations, if any realistic and practical two-state solution can finally be worked out.
“It is not enough to just demand a twostate solution,” Winnie says. “Any realistic peace agreement will require painful sacrifices and compromises from both sides.
And both sides will find political challenges and dangers facing them from their own extremes, even if they do manage to reach a deal.”
Certainly, J Street has given the lie to critics who claimed, on the one hand, that it would never amount to anything, and, on the other, that if it did succeed, AIPAC and American Jewish support for Israel would be critically weakened.
That has not happened. On the contrary, the Obama Administration and the Democratic Party in Congress have both maintained strong and consistent support for Israel. And with isolationist sentiment led by Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky rapidly growing on the powerful Tea Party wing of the Republican Party, the pro-Israel community is rallying around the Democrats more than ever before.
US President Barack Obama won strong majorities of Jewish voters in both his national election victories, exit polls revealed.
This was especially striking as his first opponent in 2008, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, had been one of Israel’s greatest supporters in the Senate for more than a quarter century. And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had openly favored Obama’s second opponent, former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, in 2012. Yet on both occasions, American Jews overwhelmingly supported Obama instead.
Indeed, J Street officials make the point that the creation of their organization by Jeremy Ben-Ami in 2008 filled a gaping hole, and reconciled an enormous contradiction in the American Jewish world.
More Jews than ever are reverting back to their traditional allegiance to the Democratic Party, as the Republican Party grows more strident and extreme, and as isolationists within it grow in standing there.
Also, there is a widespread sense that an increasingly out-of-touch GOP, steered in national policies by its extreme but no longer fringe elements, is heading for a third election walloping in a row in 2016.
In four out of the past five presidential elections, the Democratic presidential candidate won more votes than his Republican opponent. And in 2012, the Democrats even won 1.4 million more votes in elections for the House of Representatives, even though the bizarrely drawn boundaries of House seats still allowed the Republicans to win a majority.
Thus, just as J Street attracts a rapidly growing number of younger, professional and college-level Jews within the American Jewish community, it also has strong ties to a Democratic political establishment that looks increasingly likely to run America for the next seven years, not just the next the next three.
These looming realities mean that as much as many traditional American Jewish and right-wing Israeli leaders may want to ignore or dismiss J Street, they can’t. The lobby, like the genuine changes it reflects, is here to stay.
“We do believe that our existence has broadened and strengthened the base,” Rosenblum tells The Report. “J Street has changed the entire political dynamic of the American Jewish community.”
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