What would you call a group that opposes sanctions on Iran, questions Israel's right to defend itself from terrorist groups firing rockets from Gaza, seeks to pressure Israel into making major concessions without regard to the views of the elected government in Jerusalem, and supports a U.N.-commissioned report accusing Israel of committing war crimes in the course of self-defense? That group is J Street, the new advocacy organization that calls itself "pro-Israel, pro-peace."
J Street held its inaugural conference last week. But a lot of the fanfare came the week before the event, when 13 members of Congress withdrew their support. The names of 160 senators and representatives appeared on the list of conference sponsors, but suddenly names started to disappear. First to go was Representative Mike Castle, the Delaware Republican who is planning to run for Joe Biden's Senate seat in 2010. Just hours later, Politico reported that New York's senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, had pulled their names off the list as well.
The floodgates were open. By the time the conference started, every Republican on J Street's list save Louisiana representative Charles Boustany had bailed. Joining them were an even larger number of Democrats, including Arkansas senator Blanche Lincoln and North Carolina senator Kay Hagan. Ultimately only a quarter of the congressmen--and just two of the senators--listed as conference sponsors showed up at the event.
Meanwhile J Street organizers were becoming uncomfortable with some of their own invited guests after a video turned up of Josh Healey, one of the speakers, reading a poem called "Queer Intifada." He compared Guantánamo to Auschwitz and Anne Frank to Matthew Shepard. In another poem, he asked if "we're the ones writing numbers on the wrists of babies born in the ghetto called Gaza?" Other -videos were soon discovered, including one that showed another panelist calling Israel a "whore" in a reading at a Chicago establishment called "Café Intifada."
J Street cancelled the poetry session citing the "use and abuse of Holocaust imagery" by the scheduled speakers. Then the Israeli ambassador, Michael Oren, turned down an invitation to address the conference. The embassy explained the decision by saying that it feared certain of J Street's positions might "impair Israel's interests." While the Israeli government declined to send a representative, noted Zionist King Abdullah of Jordan did deliver a taped greeting.
When J Street was launched 18 months ago, the group basked in favorable press coverage heralding the arrival, at long last, of a progressive alternative to AIPAC, the dominant pro-Israel lobbying group that enjoys broad bipartisan support in Congress. The only serious hiccup came after a statement the group put out at the height of the Israeli incursion into Gaza in December. J Street said then that, "while there is nothing 'right' in raining rockets on Israeli families or dispatching suicide bombers, there is nothing 'right' in punishing a million and a half already-suffering Gazans for the actions of the extremists among them." One of the country's most prominent Jewish doves, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, blasted J Street as "morally deficient" for its equivocation.
In the months leading up to the conference, J Street took a number of controversial positions that raised red flags among pro-Israel groups and their supporters. Earlier this month, J Street opposed sanctions on Iran, even as the House of Representatives voted 414 to 6 for such action, and with polls showing overwhelming support for new sanctions among Jews in particular and Americans in general. J Street also refused to condemn the report accusing Israel of war crimes in Gaza produced by South African judge Richard Goldstone under the authority of the U.N. Human Rights Commission.
J Street claims that it speaks for the moderate mainstream of American Jews who, it insists, are poorly represented by the current constellation of pro-Israel organizations. But if J Street's pro-Israel credentials were being called into question by its critics in the run up to the conference, it was the J Street rank and file who were eschewing the pro-Israel label once the conference got underway.
On the first day, J Street provided space for an "independent" blogger panel that featured several participants who denied they were "pro-Israel." One was a Palestinian woman who declared herself a "one-stater"--an opponent of the two-state solution that would allow Israel to maintain both its Jewish and democratic character. Another panelist looked around and said, "There are many Zionists in this room, there are also some non-Zionists and anti-Zionists." A third panelist mocked Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel in the course of an attack on Christians United for Israel, the pro-Israel group whose annual conference Wiesel chose to address on the same night that J Street kicked off its meeting.
That night, the Jerusalem Post reported, a board member of J Street U, the group's university affiliate, announced that her chapter would be formally dropping the pro-Israel half of the "pro-Israel, pro-peace" slogan. "We don't want to isolate people because they don't feel quite so comfortable with 'pro-Israel,' so we say 'pro-peace,' " she told the paper. The next day a J Street official, downplaying the story, insisted that J Street would affiliate only with organizations that were explicitly pro-Israel. Later, in subsequent statements, J Street staffers backtracked and declined to draw a line in the sand over the group's pro-Israel character. Asked if J Street was a Zionist organization, executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami responded, "It is silly to insist that any organization that supports Israel say it is Zionist."
As Ben-Ami tried to spin the growing sense among reporters that they were not in fact attending a "pro-Israel" conference, a panel titled "What Does It Mean To Be Pro-Israel?" was taking place. It featured Jonathan Chait of the New Republic and Matthew Yglesias, a blogger at the Center for American Progress. As Yglesias later wrote, Chait argued that "there was an ambiguity running through the J Street constituency as to whether the group was or should be pro-Israel at all."
Yglesias, who was once listed as an adviser to J Street and who has been a tireless booster for the group, said the comment struck him as "kind of nuts." The audience quickly resolved the question. "When we moved to the Q&A time," Yglesias wrote later that day, "it became clear that a number of people in the audience really were quite uncomfortable self-defining as 'pro-Israel' in any sense and that others are uncomfortable with the basic Zionist concept of a Jewish national state."
Another panel titled "Messaging Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace" featured Democratic pollster and J Street board member Jim Gerstein and Matt Dorf, who advises J Street on message strategy.
Dorf explained that "message is a dirty word in the progressive community," comprised as it is of honest liberals who fear "we're tricking people--saying different things to different audiences." But, Dorf assured his audience, "When we talk to different people, we need to say different things."
An audience member, though, asked how he could "message" his mother and father, his grandmother and grandfather, and his cousins. The audience laughed.
It turns out everyone in the room had the sense that in the eyes of their own friends and family, their views on Israel were radical. It seems that both J Street supporters and its leadership face the same problem--convincing the world that they are pro-Israel even though the positions they take and the policies they promote put them squarely at odds with Israeli public opinion.
Michael Goldfarb is the online editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.