Nicholas Jahr

J Street Paves Its Own Road

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The New Jewish Lobby in Washington
arely haS the appearance of a new lobbying outfit in Washington

been greeted with the avalanche of press that heralded the opening of J Street last April. The name, “J Street,” quickly became something of a floating signifier, at once an allusion to the group’s Jewish background as “ If you’ve been to Jerusalem, it well as to the single street famously doesn’t take much imagination missing from DC’s alphabetical to understand that Jerusalem grid, a street that would run parallel really is two separate polities. to K Street, home to the capitol’s most powerful lobbying firms. By The notion that there’s some inference, the name also revealed the unified city is a figment of the ‘virtual’ nature of the new enterprise imagination.” and the “yawning vacuum” in the American debate over Israel. course, groups such as Americans for “Yawning vacuum” is the phrase of Peace Now and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom J Street’s executive director, Jeremy have long argued for diplomacy and Ben-Ami, who observes that while a a two-state solution to the Israelihalf or more American Jews have been Palestinian conflict (leaders of both shown in polls to favor the establish- groups are included on J Street’s large ment of a Palestinian state, one would advisory council). “The reason we hardly know that from the organiza- formed J Street is there are things that tions that supposedly represent Jewish they can’t do,” Ben-Ami says. interests. Drawing on his experience as policy director for Howard Dean’s Those things mostly involve money. presidential campaign and as deputy In fact, J Street comprises two sepadomestic policy adviser to President rate entities: the eponymous lobbying Bill Clinton, Ben-Ami hopes that J group, which will focus on Congress Street will give that majority a way to and online organizing, and JStreetbe heard, in large part through online PAC, which will channel money to advocacy and organizing that taps select candidates. It’s the latter field the power of small donors across the that progressive Jews have more or country. less surrendered to conservatives, Encouragingly, in just three months until now. “One dynamic in the JewJ Street has raised $1.5 million, its en- ish community is that the people who tire operating budget for the year, and tend to be single-issue activists and built an e-mail list 50,000 supporters voters tend be more conservative strong. “There’s a pent up demand for on those issues,” Ben-Ami explains. this voice,” Ben-Ami said in an inter- “People who make their voting deciview with JewiSh currentS, “be- sions and funding decisions purely cause people are frustrated and tired based on Israel tend to be further to of this void in American politics.” Of the right,” while Jews “who are to
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the left tend to have a wider range of issues and concerns that impact their decisions” and their activism. Using the online organizing tools pioneered by MoveOn as well as the Dean and Obama campaigns, J Street aims to sharpen the contradiction between the often messianic agenda of the right and the values of mainstream American Jews, rallying the (theoretically) silent majority to support candidates committed to a reinvigorated peace process. J Street has now made its first two rounds of endorsements, signing off on a baker’s dozen worth of candidates who are running for or have already grabbed a seat in the House of Representatives. In 2006, the average cost of winning a seat in the House was $1.25 million, while a win in the Senate ran about $8.8 million, meaning that House races are more susceptible to the sort of targeted donations J Street can marshal. Although some of the endorsed candidates, like Darcy Burner of Washington State, have taken strong stands against the war in Iraq — which give some sense of where they would stand if elected — the records of the five sitting Congressional representatives whom J Street is backing provide the best indication yet of what to expect from the new lobby. Rep. Robert Wexler (D-FL), backed in the second round of J Street endorsements, is in some ways both the biggest and most problematic catch. A six-term congressman, Wexler is a co-chair of the Obama campaign in Florida and is often cited as an authority on Israel who ‘speaks for’ U.S. Jews. His acceptance of J Street’s endorsement conveys a certain degree of legitimacy and defense from the inevitable ‘anti-Israel’ charges being leveled against the lobby. Yet in the 2008 election cycle alone,
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Nicholas Jahr is an occasional contributor to JewiSh currentS who has also written for Dissent, The Brooklyn Rail, and City Limits. He is a founding editor of the Crumpled Press (www.crumpledpress.org).
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Wexler has already pulled down $47,700 from PACs labeled as “proIsrael” by the Center for Responsive Politics, placing him among the top twenty recipients in the House. AIPAC lists him as a co-sponsor of eight out of eleven items of legislation that it’s currently pushing on the hill. In the fall of 2007, Wexler introduced a resolution backing Israel’s not-so-covert strike against Syria’s alleged nuclear shenanigans, and he’s now co-sponsoring an anti-Iranian resolution that, critics say, empowers the Bush administration to impose a naval blockade — essentially an act of war. This is hardly the record of a peacemaker. As of this writing, however, Wexler seems to be publicly reconsidering the blockade provisions. While it’s too soon to attribute this to J Street’s influence, it raises some measure of hope for providing even as staunchly a ‘pro-Israel’ politician as Wexler room to maneuver. Jeremy Ben-Ami has said in interviews that J Street will not hesitate to endorse Republicans that meet its criteria. The initial slate includes just one: Louisiana Representative Charles Boustany. First elected in 2004, Boustany is a Lebanese-American who grew up in the U.S. Along with Gary Ackerman (D-NY), he co-authored a letter to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, in advance of the Annapolis conference, commending her efforts and declaring that “we can not allow the financial asphyxiation of the Palestinian Authority, particularly while some continue to provide or allow funding of Hamas.” The letter, which ultimately had 135 congressional signatories, was quietly endorsed by AIPAC (much to the dismay of at least two of the lobby’s major financial supporters). During the war in Lebanon in the summer, 2006, Wexler, Boustany, and Representatives Lois Capps (D-CA)
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and Susan Davis (D-CA), who were also endorsed by J Street, voted in favor of the House’s bellicose resolution of support for Israel. Boustany cast his “yes” vote despite the defeat of an amendment that he and the House’s three other members of Lebanese descent had drafted urging restraint against civilian targets. The Washington Post declared that the final resolution “went even beyond the Bush administration in supporting . . . Israel in its battle with Hezbollah militants.” The Post went on to quote Boustany: “Violence and warfare are always disturbing, but as policymakers, we need to look at what steps need to be made to make a lasting peace, not just knee-jerk reactions . . . I agree with what Israel is doing.” Representative Steve Cohen (D-TN) is just a year into his first term. He’s already been on a trip to Israel on AIPAC’s dime in the summer of ’07, which he followed up by endorsing the Ackerman-Boustany letter later that year. Upon receiving J Street’s endorsement, he told the Forward, “I don’t see J Street and AIPAC as being antithetical in any way.” AIPAC lists Cohen as a co-sponsor of seven of eleven of its bills. With friends like these, J Street may not need enemies. To be effective, however, the lobby must seek to sway relative moderates in a deeply conservative time. Ben-Ami describes his task as providing representation for the “voices of moderate, mainstream American Jews and other friends of Israel,” to contrast “voices on the right that are out of step with the mainstream American Jewish community” and are “leading us down a path that has no relationship at all with the values of the American Jewish community.” On occasion, J Street’s favored candidates have clashed among themselves. In June, 2007, Robert Wexler

co-sponsored a House resolution calling on the U.S. to recognize Jerusalem as “the undivided capital of Israel.” Lois Capps criticized the resolution, stating that “it has long been understood that a permanent agreement about the Palestinian areas of Jerusalem will be left to final-status negotiations . . . I think we tread on dangerous territory when Congress adopts positions that run counter to issues that have yet to be negotiated.” As Gershom Gorenberg, veteran correspondent for the American Prospect, has observed, the issue of Jerusalem is likely to be a flashpoint in any serious negotiations undertaken by a new president. During the Oslo peace process, AIPAC successfully campaigned for a resolution to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, infuriating the Palestinians as well as the Arab world. This time around, the tactic may be to push for a congressional resolution calling for an “undivided” Jerusalem. But the fate of Jerusalem, Ben-Ami believes, “is up to the sides, and it should not be up to an American politician to declare one way or another what the future of Israel will be. And it’s certainly not up to American Jews to make that declaration. “This is an issue that should not be a political football in American politics,” Ben-Ami concludes. “The issue is too difficult and serious. Jerusalem is a sacred place that has been the scene of violence and war and conflict for millennia. A simplistic word like ‘undivided’ doesn’t do justice to the complexity. When it’s used to score political points, it only sets back the prospect of a realistic agreement to ensure Israeli peace and security.” Indeed, in an article reporting the debut of J Street, the National Journal also reported on the formation of the Coordinating Council on Jerusalem, a new organization backed by a number of Orthodox and Zionist groups,
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among others, with a budget of $1 million. The Council has declared that “we oppose any negotiations which involved possible concessions of Jewish sovereignty or control [over Jerusalem].” “If you’ve been to Jerusalem,” BenAmi counters, “it doesn’t take much imagination to understand that Jerusalem really is two separate polities. There is an Arab collection of villages that were Arab villages before 1967 and remain in existence today. It’s still relatively easy to know which side you’re on when you’re there. So the notion that there’s some unified city is a figment of the imagination.” Ben-Ami’s stance is generally pragmatic; he leaves open the question of how far J Street is willing to push politicians to accept an agreement. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Saree Makdisi, a UCLA professor who has written a new book on the occupation, cited a year-old United Nations report stating “that almost 40 percent of the West Bank is now taken up by Israeli infrastructure — roads, settlements, military bases and so on — largely off-limits to Palestinians. Israel has methodically broken the remainder of the territory into dozens of enclaves separated from each other and the outside world by zones that it alone controls (including, at last count, six hundred and twelve checkpoints and roadblocks).” “The two-state solution that is going to be reached will have to take down some of that infrastructure,” BenAmi replies. “Removing settlements and taking down illegal outposts are critical elements of Israeli security.” Ultimately, he believes that while “the final contours of the agreement need to be negotiated by the parties, it’s pretty clear that the agreement will need to provide the Palestinians with the equivalent of 100 percent of the pre-1967 West Bank.
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Winning such concessions will require hard bargaining, and the best leverage the U.S. has to bring Israel to the table is the ‘special relationship,’ including the $2-4 billion Israel receives each year in American aid. “There’s got to be some sort of intervention here where the U.S. says to Israel the time has come to finally do something,” Ben-Ami stated in an interview with Newsweek. Asked, however, if that “intervention” could include lobbying against the special relationship — for example, against the $170 million raise in military aid Congress approved this past June — Ben-Ami’s answer is a flat “No.” “Most of the initiative for a settlement, an ultimate agreement,” he told JewiSh currentS, is going to have to come through presidential diplomacy and the serious engagement of a new administration,” he observed. “The goal of J Street is to provide that president with the political backing and the clear support to use his best judgment to bring about that solution.” For the time being, J Street’s actions have focused on beginning to drive a wedge between voices on the right and those Jews who might be lulled into listening to them by promises of support for Israel, and simultaneously introducing a voice of reason into the debate over Iran. On the former front,

J Street joined other progressive groups in lobbying Senator Joe Lieberman not to address the summit of the notoriously bigoted Pastor John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel. (Lieberman went ahead anyway, opening his speech by declaring, “I am your brother Joseph.”) J Street’s call for diplomacy with Iran has actually been its most successful campaign to date. While the American Jewish Committee’s 2006 survey of Jewish opinion had 57 percent of American Jews supporting a preventive military strike against Iran, J Street’s own polling this summer suggested that 69 percent of American Jews would be more likely to support a candidate who called for “tough diplomacy.” Although there’s not necessarily a logical contradiction between these two positions, the former is regularly greeted with far more enthusiasm than the latter at AIPAC’s annual conference. The challenge before J Street, as a fundamentally moderate voice in a conservative time, is to pry open a space in which the 69 percent of American Jews willing to give diplomacy a chance can be heard. It remains to be seen whether offering candidates the political cover to speak out will be enough, or if a more radical approach is needed.

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