The liberal lobbying group J Street, which has operated under the pretense of being pro-Israel, has really taken a hit in the last week. Eli Lake of the Washington Times uncovered that, despite J Street’s longstanding insistence to the contrary, the group has received significant funding from financier George Soros and his children. Additionally, the same report revealed that J Street received $811,967, from a woman named Consolacion Esdicul, a resident of Happy Valley, Hong Kong and an associate of Bill Benter, a hugely successful international gambler.
In other words, to borrow a phrase from J Street’s executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami, the lobbying group accepts money from “foreign nationals.”
So it’s no wonder that the White House is now taking moves to distance itself from the foreign funded lobbying group, as reported by Eli Lake in today’s Washington Times. There’s another angle here, also: President Obama has previously distanced his stance on Israel from George Soros’s views on that subject. The real question is, why didn’t the White House do their due diligence before National Security Adviser Jim Jones attended J Street’s annual conference last year which was apparently funded, at least in part, by a foreign national?
Over the weekend, Ben-Ami took to his group’s website – and cross-published the same post on the Huffington Post website – to respond. Here, in part, is what he said:
Within the past 48 hours, you may have heard that the Washington Times published a confidential J Street tax return, containing private information about some of our donors.
I write to provide an explanation, to assume responsibility, and to put the whole matter in perspective in light of critically important events taking place this week on the world stage related to Israel and the Middle East.
You and I have built something spectacular in J Street. Our success has been phenomenal. In just two and a half years, our three legally independent entities (J Street, J Street Education Fund and JStreetPAC) have raised more than $11 million from over 10,000 donors.
As with so many non-profits, our work depends in part on the generosity and support of our largest donors. Among them are individuals who have provided six-figure financial support and foundations providing major grants to support the work of our Education Fund.
George Soros and his family decided to donate to J Street in the fall of 2008, well after our launch and two years after he publicly stated that it would not be helpful for him to assist in getting the effort off the ground. The family contributed an average of $250,000 per year over the last three years (2008-2010) and their support amounts to just over 7 percent of the total funds raised by the J Street family of organizations.
I accept responsibility personally for being less than clear about Mr. Soros’ support once he did become a donor. I said Mr. Soros did not help launch J Street or provide its initial funding, and that is true. I also said we would be happy to take his support. But I did not go the extra step to add that he did in fact start providing support in the fall of 2008, six months after our launch.
J Street does not reveal the names of donors to its 501(c)(4) corporation or the amounts of their contributions. Neither do nearly all such entities in the United States. The law guarantees donors their privacy and confidentiality. Nevertheless, my answers regarding Mr. Soros were misleading. I deeply and genuinely apologize for that and for any distraction from J Street’s important work created by my actions and decisions.
This is a pretty pathetic statement—but several things stand out. First, when Ben-Ami says that Soros’s money constitutes “just over 7 percent of the total funds raised by the J Street family of organizations,” is he including the money raised from outside donors specifically for political candidates? Because if that’s the case, then it becomes clear that this 7 percent, or $750,000, actually constitutes a far greater percentage of J Street’s operating budget than Ben-Ami is letting on. It’s the same deal with J Street’s Hong Kong financier Esdicul, who gave even more than Soros. Doesn’t this donation actually make up a much larger percentage of J Street’s operating budget?
Don’t expect Ben-Ami to be particularly forthcoming.
Second, Ben-Ami says that “nearly all such entities in the United States” do “not reveal names of donors.” But most groups that don’t want to disclose their funders do two things that J Street did not do. First, these groups simply don’t talk about their funders, rather than flat-out lie about who is funneling money into the group. And second, these other groups do not make the lazy mistake of misfiling their forms with the Internal Revenue Service – and then, in turn, blame the IRS for their stupid mistakes.
What J Street has displayed – never mind their approach to Israel for a second, though we’ll get back to that – is that it is willing to pursue their goals by whatever means necessary, regardless of ethics.
Fortunately, members of Congress are catching on. Again, here’s Lake’s piece today:
In an interview Monday, Rep. Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican and House minority whip, said: "The White House needs to disassociate itself from J Street, denounce J Street and cut off all ties."
Mr. Cantor, the only Jewish Republican in the House, added that "I am hopeful this revelation will now cause people to begin to ignore what they say. They are not reflecting the mainstream position of the pro-Israel community in America, nor do I think they help benefit the U.S.-Israel relationship."
This, of course, isn’t exactly how J Street wanted these revelations to play out. When the liberal lobbying group got wind that their lies would be revealed in print, they hustled to find someone to write a favorable story—the task fell to Chris Good of the Atlantic. He wrote, more or less, the piece they wanted (see here). But even Good realized he had been played, after the Washington Times report had been published, and quickly blew out J Street for “Half-Truths and Non-Truths About Its Funding.”
Ben-Ami blames his critics for these bad news stories – but that’s his way of failing to take full responsibility for his dishonesty. Despites his claim to the contrary, not taking responsibility is exactly what his statement is about.
Toward the end of his statement, Ben-Ami writes:
Having reviewed the facts and accepted responsibility for this situation, I will now be direct about our critics.
Those who attack J Street over the sources of its funding are not good government watchdogs concerned about the state of non-profit financing in the United States. If our critics are really so concerned with transparency of funding, then I challenge them to reveal the sources of funds for the organizations with which they agree.
In reality, our opponents are on the other side of a broader ideological battle over American and Israeli policy, looking for any excuse to avoid debating the merits of the issues. They are defending an indefensible status quo and would lead us to a future that ensures perpetual conflict and violence, not long-term security for Israel or the United States.
J Street is providing hope for those who’ve lost it on this issue and a voice for those who feel they have been silenced. We’re giving inspiration to moderate Israelis and, yes, to Palestinians who still believe there is a way to live side-by-side in two states in peace and security.
This is a totally bogus claim. He isn’t “accepting responsibility,” he’s blaming J Street’s self-inflicted wounds and his own personal failings on his critics. In reality, it’s J Street that’s been lying about J Street.
So, the question, assuming one favors peace, Israel, and honesty, is this: How can someone in good faith, and with good intentions, possibly donate a dime to this organization?
I think many supporters of Israel would heartily agree that a liberal, pro-Israel group in Washington, D.C. could be helpful. But, let’s not forget, that’s exactly what AIPAC is – a liberal, pro-Israel group in Washington. But the difference between AIPAC and J Street is that the former actually supports Israel.