Rift in US advocacy group J-Street over Syria?

By Nathalie Rothschild, September 18, 2013
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J Street, the left-leaning American pro-Israel advocacy group, has denied claims that the debate over US intervention in Syria has caused a rift within the organisation. And, while the group decided to “stay out” of President Obama’s campaign to secure Congressional approval for a strike on Bashar al Assad’s chemical-weapons sites, it has said it may support military intervention in Syria in the future.

In August, J Street released a statement condemning the Syrian government’s chemical weapons attack but stopped short of taking a position on the president’s call for Congress to authorise the use of force.

J Street has prided itself on “having the president’s back” and there are rumours that a fierce internal debate about whether or not to support Barack Obama’s Syria campaign has caused tension between J Street’s activist base and the leadership.

Alan Elsner, J Street’s vice-president for communications, denied those rumours.

“There is no rift whatsoever. The feedback we have received has been pretty much unanimous in favour of the decision that was taken — that is, the decision not to take a position,” Mr Elsner said.

He added: “We did not decide to oppose the president, we decided to stay out of it. We are not lobbying on the issue. We are not campaigning against him.”

A J Street activist in southeastern USA who wished to remain anonymous said: “I know there are many activists who would perhaps prefer that J Street more vociferously speak out against military action… As many people have criticised J Street from the right, there are just as many disgruntled activists on the left who would prefer J Street be more vocal in staking out narrow positions.”

Mr Elsner did not rule out the possibility that J Street will back US military intervention in Syria in the future.

“We are a peace organisation but not a pacifist organisation. There have been cases in the past where we have supported military action,” said Mr Elsner.

He insisted that J Street’s decision not to back Mr Obama’s Congressional bid, in contrast to other pro-Israel lobby groups such as Aipac, will not affect the group’s relations with the White House.

“We have our annual conference in two weeks and we are expecting that the administration will be represented at a very high level. Our close and warm relations with the administration is entirely intact,” said Mr Elsner.

Last updated: 4:38pm, September 18 2013