The "new," "progressive" voice of the “pro-peace and pro-Israel” lobby known as J Street has had its "pro-Israel" label questioned by many observers, and even some of its own have shed that label. J Street has now also revealed it doesn’t keep its word to trusting Jewish organizations.
On Thursday, February 4, 2010, J Street launched a new "grassroots" division—J Street Local—with an event at the University of Pennsylvania, which was webcast to twenty other locations.
The event involved a deception by J Street leadership on the local Hillel and the surrounding Jewish community. When it was discovered that J Street planned to have its new division roll-out from the Penn Hillel, many Israel supporters were concerned that the outside world would assume that Hillel had endorsed J Street, especially because J Street would be webcasting live from there to cities across the country. Not to worry, said J Street to the local Hillel leadership: We promise not to mention that we’re using your facility, and to make clear in our written and oral statements that Hillel does not endorse us. That condition was agreed upon—it was "not just a promise, it was an agreement"—according to Rabbi Howard Alpert, the executive director of all the Philadelphia area Hillels. On the strength of that essential agreement, Hillel went ahead and rented J Street its space.
And then? J Street’s Ben-Ami said exactly what he’d promised not to say—that he was speaking "here at Penn Hillel"—and failed to say a word about what he’d promised solemnly to make clear: that Hillel does not endorse J Street or its message.
In short, J Street manipulated the Hillel of Greater Philadelphia (of which I am a board member) into leasing to them space in the Hillel building for their J Street Local launch by entering into a firm agreement, and then ignoring that agreement to Hillel’s detriment. J Street’s deception made Hillel’s carefully planned and extensive pre-event efforts to soothe concerned donors, students and others that there was no—and that it would be made very clear that there was no—connection between Hillel and J Street, appear to be naive at best and deceptive at worst.
Within hours of the event J Street sent out thousands of releases and emails urging everyone who was not present at the launch to go to its website and watch the video. The video of Ben-Ami’s remarks is still up on his website, and the text—that is, the pre-drafted statement, not an extemporaneous slip—is at http://www.jstreet.org/blog/?p=833. You can see for yourself. (After remonstrations by the HGP executive director, after thousands of emails and press releases were sent out without the agreed-upon disclaimer, days later a terse note went up in the site under the video box that Hillel had not endorsed the speech. But “Penn Hillel” is still in the video and in the transcript of Ben-Ami’s speech.)
Now we know: J Street will deceive and damage the central organization representing Jewish life on college campuses in order to falsely represent and promote itself. Perhaps the rest of J Street’s exaggerations and misrepresentations fall under the rubric of clever marketing. Lying, manipulation and damaging Hillel’s reputation should be beyond the pale.