My Problem with J Street

by , October 29, 2009

As readers of Antiwar.com certainly are aware, J Street was created a year and a half ago to serve as an alternative to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).  J Street supports creation of a viable Palestinian state that would exist side-by-side in peace with Israel.  Unlike AIPAC, J Street advocates first negotiating issues rather than dropping bombs and it rejects the view that American Jews should close ranks and reflexively and unconditionally support every government in Israel. J Street targets liberal minded American Jews who are troubled by the Israel Lobby’s right wing-Likud orientation.  It promotes itself as pro-Israel, pro-American, and pro-peace, maintaining that it is possible to support Israel without having to endorse all Israeli government actions.  It has recently concluded its first Washington conference which attracted a smattering of politicians.  General James Jones, President Barack Obama’s National Security Adviser, was a featured speaker.

J Street has come under attack from the usual suspects, to include the Weekly Standard, the National Review, and assorted individual neocons.  Because of the attacks, there has been a "my enemy’s enemy" response and a number of opponents of AIPAC and the neocons have rallied to J Street, in some cases purely because the neocon onslaught suggests that J Street must be a good thing.  Some defenders of J Street have pointed out that it is more moderate than AIPAC and therefore must be considered a better lobbying option even if it sometimes has to embrace compromise policies that are imperfect.  Others have argued that even when it has to take certain positions tactically it still represents the best hope for a peaceful future in the Middle East. 

I have to disagree.  I believe that J Street is just another Israel advocacy group with a slightly more progressive and politically correct and therefore acceptable message.  J Street wants carte blanche United States support for Israel and, indeed, it might reasonably be described as little more than a spin-off of the existing Israel Lobby to make it more palatable to the liberal Democrats that make up the Obama Administration.  It is one more voice pushing the same old agenda with slightly different window dressing.  This is not to suggest that AIPAC and J Street are actually acting in collusion but the two pro-Israel lobbies clearly have the same overriding objective:  to preserve unlimited American support for the state of Israel, not advancing the interests of the United States except insofar as one assumes erroneously that Tel Aviv’s and Washington’s interests are identical.  J Street calls continued massive US military aid to Israel "an absolutely essential aspect of Israel’s security."  If it is difficult to perceive any pro-American element to the J Street program it is because it is not about the United States at all – it is about Israel.  J Street believes Washington should continue indefinitely in its role as Israel’s patron, security guarantor, and financial supporter. 

On many of the specific issues, J Street is AIPAC lite.  It accepts an Israeli state based on religion, not on equal rights for all citizens, specifically supporting the apartheid-like right of any Jew to "return" without affording similar rights to Christians or Muslims who resided in Palestine before 1948. Its Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami calls a one-state solution to Israel/Palestine with all citizens having the same rights a "nightmare."

In a recent interview he praised AIPAC and outlined his vision for a continuing American-Israeli special relationship saying, "for instance, the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel, the essential security guarantee that the U.S. provides, the notion that Israel should always have a qualitative military edge — those are things that have been achieved by lobbying, by what some people would call the ‘Israel lobby.’ J Street is very happy with these achievements, and we support those ends, and we respect and admire much of what groups like AIPAC and others have done over the years."

Ben-Ami also commented on the Mearsheimer-Walt book on the Israel Lobby, saying "I don’t like what Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer have written in their book and in their articles. I don’t agree with Stephen Walt." He criticizes their scholarship and labels them as anti-Semites, claiming that the book "essentially says that all of American foreign policy is controlled by this one lobby and this one interest group, to me, personally, this does smack of the kind of conspiracy theories contained in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion."

Ben-Ami has also recently released a statement on Iran in an apparent attempt to confirm to skeptical would be supporters that J Street is willing to get tough with the Mullahs.

"J Street supports the thoughtful and nuanced approach to Iran sanctions legislation articulated yesterday by Chairman Howard Berman. We agree that it is a vital interest of the United States, Israel and the entire Middle East to ensure that Iran does not obtain nuclear weapons. Further, we agree with the Chairman’s stated policy preferences for achieving that objective. J Street’s first choice — as it is for President Obama and Chairman Berman — is to resolve the nuclear issue through diplomatic means.  We, too, strongly support the Obama Administration’s efforts to engage Iran and hope for promising follow-through to the first round of talks held in Geneva on October 1. However, should engagement not produce the desired results, we too believe that the United States should seek hard-hitting multilateral sanctions through the United Nations Security Council.  If that course of action proves impossible, then the U.S. should work to build the broadest possible international coalition to back such steps. The imposition of unilateral sanctions, without UN approval or the support of allies, should be, as the Chairman himself says, a last resort. J Street supports the Chairman’s intention to mark up the bill on October 28th and to give the President further time to pursue our preferred options. As we have said before, J Street does not oppose the imposition of sanctions per se. We prefer, as do Chairman Berman and President Obama, attempting to achieve the desired result through diplomatic engagement and multilateral action."

Describing Congressman Howard Berman as "thoughtful and nuanced" regarding Iran is, to say the least, generous and many have noted that his House bill is basically an act of war requiring intervention by the US Navy and would devastate the Iranian economy. His bill has 327 co-sponsors and was marked up yesterday in committee so that it can move to a vote in the full house.  Supporting "hard-hitting multilateral sanctions" will only end any hopes for a negotiated solution and will strengthen Iranian hardliners, as J Street well knows.  There is in fact little practical difference between J Street’s position and that of AIPAC.  J Street even supports denying Iran the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, which is basically the Israeli government position, not that of the US.

Ben-Ami does not accept the UN’s Goldstone report that detailed the Israeli war crimes committed in Gaza in January, saying he is against embracing "the Goldstone report and for standing up for the right of Israel to defend itself or for its military aid."  He publicly praised President Obama for rejecting the report’s carefully arrived-at conclusions.  J Street’s nuanced criticism of the brutal Israeli invasion of Gaza also deserves to be quoted in full because it ignores the murder of 300 Palestinian children by the Israeli Defense Forces and only differs from AIPAC’s position in tone: 

"Throughout the recent Gaza crisis, J Street consistently called for strong American and international leadership to reach a cease-fire that ended all military operations, stopped the rockets aimed at Israel, instituted an effective mechanism to prevent weapons smuggling into Gaza to re-arm Hamas, and lifted the blockade of Gaza. While the military response by the Israeli Defense Forces may be understood and even justified in the wake of Hamas rocket attacks, we believe that a military response that is disproportionate and escalatory will ultimately prove counterproductive, igniting further anger in the region and damaging long-term prospects for peace and stability for Israel, the Palestinians, and the whole region. Obviously Israel has the right to employ military force to defend its citizens and interests. The right question to ask, however, is not whether Israel has that right, but whether the specific actions taken by Israel in Gaza actually serve Israel’s legitimate long-term security interests and America’s best interests. In this case, J Street believes they may well not."

There are other examples of allegedly moderate J Street positions actually veering sharply to the right.  A J Street sponsored event in mid September featured retired Israeli Major General Danny Rothschild.  The general was being introduced around Washington where he openly advocated a two-state solution with the Palestinians because of his belief that it is the best solution for Israel.  But he also reiterated standard Israeli talking points about "Islamofascism" and Iran, i.e. that there is no use talking to those people and that Iran intends to develop a nuclear weapon and has repeatedly threatened to destroy Israel.  He claimed, wrongly, that Tehran is rapidly building up its armed forces and advocated a military solution to the Iran problem.  One attendee commented afterwards that Rothschild sounded like an Israeli version of Republican Senator John McCain. 

J Street might well be sincere in its efforts and if they help bring about something equating to a peace settlement in the Middle East, I wish them success.  But it appears to me that J Street’s positions are just a variation on the usual Israel-first policies that have been dominant in Washington for so long.  Since its founding, J Street has been drifting closer to the Israeli government positions that it once seemed to criticize and, since I am naturally cynical, I might wonder if that was the intention right from the beginning.  One might well question in any event why there should exist a lobby operating in Washington consisting of American citizens promoting the interests of a foreign country — but we live in strange times.  The founding fathers might have considered such a schizophrenic world view inappropriate for ostensibly loyal American citizens, a view that I share.

Read more by Philip Giraldi