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A Dozen Pro-Israel Members of Congress Ditch J Street

11:05 AM, Oct 21, 2009 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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Another congressman has pulled his name from J Street's host committee -- Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-CA). Bilbray's office called THE WEEKLY STANDARD last night to say they were dropping their support for the event, bringing the total number of congressmen to bail to a dozen even. I've spoken with staffers for most of these members, and all of them had pretty much the same story. They signed up their bosses when they were told the group was "pro-Israel" and that nothing -- not even an appearance -- would be expected of the member himself. As these members found out who the speakers at this conference were, as they found out the positions this group supports (against sanctions on Iran and for engagement with Hamas), they took their names off the list.

Last night I went to the annual conference of the National Jewish Democratic Council -- the Democratic equivalent of the Republican Jewish Coalition. I had the chance while I was there to speak with a number of congressmen and leaders of the Jewish left. Some defended J Street. Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY) said that while he was "not going to defend every speaker," he did "think it presents a different position." Of course, he admitted that position was not his own. "I actually support sanctions on Iran," Yarmuth said.

Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) was also happy to be on J Street's list. "They've been a supporter of mine," she said, and that's good enough for the congresswoman from Maine. When told that one of the keynote speakers at the event had blamed Israel for the 9/11 attacks, Pingree said "I definitely would look into that--that sounds a little bit harsh to me." You think?

And then there was Senator Bob Casey. He's on the J Street list, and yet he has no idea what J Street is. When I asked him whether his serving on the host committee should be construed as an endorsement of either the organization or its positions, he looked like a deer in the headlights. He was not ducking the question, he had just never heard of J Street before. "It's possible that our staff has done something about it that I'm not aware of," Casey said. But when pressed on the actual issues, Casey knew exactly what he was talking about. Casey noted that he is a "cosponsor of one of the leading bills [Lieberman-Bayh-Kyl] moving forward with sanctions," and he said that U.S. divestment in Iran is "critically important." If it's so critically important, why did Casey's staff add his name to the host committee for an organization that opposes sanctions?

One Jewish Democratic operative who would speak only on background said "When I saw 160 members, I thought "you're going to lose some of them.'" Of the 145 odd members who remain on the list, the operative said "I don't think it an endorsement of the positions" that J Street has taken. J Street is "still playing Single A ball," he said. "They have a long ways to go." As for the NJDC affair last night, the crowd was small and the press was outnumbered by members of Congress by at least 4 to 1. Steny Hoyer and Al Franken spoke among others, the atmosphere was collegial and friendly. At the J Street event, there could be 15 reporters for every member of Congress who makes an appearance. NJDC may not be a media darling, but their influence was obvious. If this is the measure of an effective Jewish organization, J Street indeed isn't playing in the same league.