The dovish Israel lobby gains ground on Aipac

By Nathan Guttman in Washington, August 27, 2009
Jeremy Ben-Ami, director of J Street, which is widely perceived as the “anti-Aipac”. “We’re off to a good start”

Jeremy Ben-Ami, director of J Street, which is widely perceived as the “anti-Aipac”. “We’re off to a good start”

Eighteen months since it set out to change the face of pro-Israel advocacy in the American capital, J Street has succeeded in becoming a household name.

The young organisation, which bills itself as a pro-peace lobby, was part of the exclusive club of Jewish groups invited to a White House meeting with President Obama last month, and boasts a constantly growing operation at a time when most organisations on the Middle East policy scene are downsizing.

But even after a year of operating, J Street is still under attack for its dovish views, which critics argue are out of step with the mainstream Jewish community.

Others claim that, despite being high-profile, the new lobby cannot yet show that it has actually succeeded in changing the way American Jews talk about Israel.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s executive director, believes that despite the difficulties, his organisation has already made a difference.

“We’re off to a good start,” the former Clinton adviser and PR executive said.

The group has built an online support network of over 100,000 members and financially supported 41 candidates for congress in the 2008 election cycle. Thirty-three of them got elected.

“The impact we had on political circles in Washington and within the Jewish community has made a difference in the debate,” Mr Ben-Ami said.

J Street, which now has a staff of 18 employees and a $3 million operating budget, is focusing on two goals. The first is to provide President Barack Obama with the political backing to help him achieve a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The second is to “broaden the debate” in the Jewish community over what it means to be pro-Israeli (see right).

J Street opposes Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank, supports US pressure on this issue and believes that toughening sanctions against Iran at this point in time would be counterproductive.

Not surprisingly, J Street is widely viewed as the “anti-Aipac” — the dovish force expected to counterbalance the established pro-Israel powerhouse.

Aipac officials refuse to speak on record about J Street.

But Aipac’s lobbying operation is significantly bigger than that of J Street both in terms of staff and budget.

“For people on the Hill, Aipac is still the primary address when it comes to issues relating to Israel,” said an activist with a pro-Israel advocacy group not related to Aipac.

Another activist dismissed J Street as having “zero impact” on the legislative process.

Mr Ben-Ami argues that his group’s scope is much more limited than that of Aipac since it deals solely with issues relating to the peace process. He points to several instances in which non-binding resolutions supported by J Street gained dozens of co-sponsors in Congress, although they eventually failed to pass.

Aipac, by contrast, saw all the resolutions it supported this year pass.

“J Street has yet to prove itself as a lobby,” said an activist with a pro-Israeli group. “It takes time to gain credibility in Congress when you’re up against Aipac.”

But despite criticism, J Street is enjoying a momentum rarely seen in the world of Jewish advocacy.

It has dominated media reports on the pro-peace movement in America over the past year and is now increasing its grassroots operation.

The group is in merger talks with Brit Tzedek V’Shalom, a large volunteer network of pro-peace activists which could provide J Street with an even larger base of supporters.

But is it changing the Jews’ views?

In addition to influencing political policy regarding the Middle East, J Street aims to “broaden the debate” in the Jewish community over what it means to be pro-Israeli.

And a year and a half after its launch, J Street has undoubtedly succeeded in stirring an open, and at times bitter, debate.

As it prepares for its first conference, scheduled for October, J Street is still under fire from mainstream groups.

In a recent open letter to its director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti Defamation League, took issue with J Street’s focus on Israeli settlements as an obstacle to peace.

Groups and individuals on the right have also criticised J Street in recent weeks after it was revealed that some of its donors are affiliated with Arab and Muslim groups.

During the early days of Israel’s 2008 military operation in Gaza, J Street criticised Israel’s actions and called for an immediate ceasefire.

The group came under attack not only from hawkish Jewish organisations but also from mainstream leaders who thought it was inappropriate to dispute Israel’s actions at a time of war.

But activists see these open debates as positive signs.

“It is important to continue having this discussion on the leadership level so that other people will get the OK to have this discussion at their own Shabbat dinner,” said Isaac Luria, the group’s campaign director.

Last updated: 11:42am, August 27 2009