This is a guest post by Andrew Luger, a Partner at Greene Espel and Board Member of J Street Minnesota.
J Street was founded in 2008 on the simple principle that Israel’s security and future as the democratic homeland of the Jewish people requires a two state solution. This simple founding principle – based in part on the pressing demographic reality facing Israel – is, in and of itself, relatively uncontroversial.
Because J Street’s founding principle seeks active United States involvement in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, J Street at times takes positions that are at odds with the current Israeli government’s positions.
I joined J Street last summer when my daughter served in the D.C. headquarters as an intern. Since then, I have been working closely with others in Minnesota to build a strong local presence.
As I posted recently, our first public event at Mt. Zion attracted over 400 people. Our supporters serve on synagogue boards, work for community organizations and take leadership roles in the Twin Cities Jewish community. In a short time, we have attracted a broad cross section of the community with our pro-Israel, pro-peace agenda.
In reaction, a small, but vocal, part of our community has attacked J Street with false accusations and slurs. These slurs include “questions” about J Street’s “motives” and “intent,” in short, a campaign to demonize J Street by calling into question its loyalty to Israel. Our community should have none of this. Challenging the loyalty of another instead of engaging in legitimate debate on the merits of policy is beneath the Twin Cities Jewish community.
Moreover, the very premise of the challenge – that American Jews should not voice their opinions, they should merely support whatever the government of Israel does – is faulty. Listening to the outcry from the right that we have no business making our opinions known raises the question: where was this indignation when American Jews challenged the peace process in prior years? Did these same voices rise up when American Jews fought Oslo and tried to undermine Rabin’s efforts to forge peace? No.
I value and respect the strongly held opinions of those who believe we should support all of the policies of Israel’s current government, whatever they may be. And I respect the work of AIPAC in particular for ensuring that our government provides critical military and other assistance to Israel. But we part ways when it comes to how we choose to advocate for Israel. I choose the J Street approach, as do over 160,000 American Jews.
The question is, how do we, as a community, handle this new reality? J Street Minnesota is growing, it is not going away. Will friendships crater because some favor the traditional approach while others embrace the new one? Many of us have known each other for years. We believe in so many of the same things. Will all of this come to an end? I hope not, no one benefits from such division. Instead, I would hope that the Twin Cities Jewish community would engage in a respectful and civil dialogue; this means avoiding the type of untoward attacks and accusations that have marked the first two years of J Street’s existence. It means rejecting the false accusations that have been tossed around with no concern for the facts. And, it means speaking to one another, not lecturing or demonizing.
But first, we have to clear up a number of false accusations about J Street.
Some of these have been thrown about so casually that, by now, they appear to be fact. They are not. Unfortunately, some are willing to believe anything about an organization with which they disagree. For those who are wondering what all the fuss is about, I will try to address here, briefly, some of the falsehoods thrown at J Street and accepted without scrutiny by the group’s opponents. A more complete explanation of “myths and facts” about J Street can be found on its web site.
In a recent post, Elyse Rabinowitz repeats the accusation that J Street “sheparded” Judge Goldstone around Washington. This is untrue, as is the implication that J Street somehow embraced the Goldstone Report. J Street staff did not take Goldstone to meetings or walk him around D.C., and J Street did not support the Report. To the contrary, J Street put out the following statement regarding Goldstone and the U.N:
As the Goldstone Report returns to the agenda of the United Nations, J Street remains opposed to one-sided and biased action at the United Nations based on the Report. Specifically, we reiterate our position that the United States government should exercise its veto if the Security Council considers a resolution referring charges against Israel and Israelis to the International Criminal Court.
The United Nations and other international bodies such as the Human Rights Council have a demonstrable history of bias against Israel and have focused disproportionate attention on Israel at the expense of numerous other serious human rights crises around the globe.
We believe the best way for Israel to deal with the Report and to address charges of misconduct during Operation Cast Lead is to launch its own credible, independent investigation as it has at several critical points in its history. In this, we echo the position of many leading Israelis in and out of government, notably including Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, outgoing Attorney General Menachem Mazuz, and former Supreme Court Chief Justice Aharon Barak. We also share the sense of many in Israel that problems cited with the Report could have been better addressed had Israel cooperated with the Commission in the first place.
While J Street made its criticism of the Report known, it also made clear its opposition to the campaign of personal demonization against Judge Goldstone.
Right wing bloggers have asserted that one of J Street’s founders, Daniel Levy, stated that the founding of Israel was a “mistake” and was “wrong.” Just the opposite is true. Levy is a lifelong Zionist who served as a negotiator for different Israeli governments. At a conference, he was explaining (to a generally anti-Israel audience) how Israel’s founding was necessary, and that this necessity excused one of the outcomes – the displacement of Palestinians. Levy never said that Israel was a mistake and the accusation is an outrage that no one should repeat.
When J Street was founded, right wing opponents stated that George Soros was a chief funder. This was their way of delegitimizing J Street because, they argued, Soros was an enemy of Israel. The facts are otherwise. Soros chose not to be among J Street’s early supporters in part because he knew that this would be used against J Street. And J Street stated publicly that he was not a founding source. Once J Street was on its feet financially, Soros decided to donate. He has done so, according to his written statements, because he believes in free and open debate of ideas and positions, and because he is sympathetic to the many Americans and Israelis who seek a two state solution. While he himself does not identify as a Zionist, he has made clear his support and defense of Israel. There is nothing nefarious or anti-Israel about the fact that Soros has donated to J Street.
J Street’s Pro-Israel Credentials.
Some have questioned whether J Street is really pro-Israel, insinuating I suppose that it has a hidden agenda that makes it an anti-Israel organization in disguise. This grassy knoll approach is both bizarre and easily rejected. Here are a few facts about J Street and its senior leadership.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s founder and president, has multi-generational ties to Israel. His great grandparents were among the first to make Aliyah. His grandparents were among the founders of Tel Aviv. His father was in the Irgun. Jeremy has worked and lived in Israel and has advocated for Israel throughout his life.
Hadar Susskind, the J Street policy director, has dual Israeli and American citizenship. He served in the IDF and worked at the JCPA. Susskind, like Ben-Ami, was voted one of the top 50 Jewish Americans by the Forward.
Other staffers similarly come to J Street from mainstream Jewish organizations, including local JCRCs and from political campaigns. They have lived, studied and worked in Israel and joined J Street for their love of Israel and their desire to see it thrive.
When bloggers imply that J Street is secretly anti-Israel, the question remains: why do so many prominent Israelis support J Street? These include a long list of military leaders and current and former Knesset members, along with columnists, musicians, writers and others. One such supporter is Ami Ayalon, the former Commander of the Navy and head of the Shin Bet. Ayalon has dedicated his life to the defense of Israel. Agree with them or not, no one can accuse these lifelong Israelis of being anti-Israel. An abbreviated list of Israeli supporters can be found here and here.
Students, BDS and Anti-Israel Sentiment on College Campuses.
All of us are appalled at the growing, and vicious, anti-Israel movement on college campuses. I was discouraged to see a picture of BDS supporters in an article about J Street on this site. The picture should not have been part of the article. J Street opposes the BDS movement and, in fact, is doing something about it, including promoting J Street U’s “Invest, Don’t Divest” campaign. At J Street U, progressive pro-Israel students engage in a number of activities designed to change the conversation about Israel so that those who oppose some of Israel’s policies can engage in constructive dialogue, not destructive boycott campaigns. By creating an explicitly pro-Israel space on campus for young Jewish students to grapple with the realities of the conflict and advocate for Israel in a way that is consonant with their values, J Street is ensuring a lasting base of support for Israel in the US. I recently met three national J Street U leaders, college students who are fighting against anti-Israel sentiment on a daily basis. These are community leaders of the future.
Presbyterian General Assembly.
Similarly, J Street played an important role, working with our local JCRC and others, to influence the direction of the recent Presbyterian General Assembly. Far from supporting divestment, Rachel Lerner, a senior official with J Street, addressed the General Assembly and gave a passionate speech denouncing their draft report on behalf of J Street. Lerner’s strong statement condemning the report and denouncing the report’s recommendation to boycott Israel has been credited by many as helping to influence the Presbyterian Assembly. (See CAMERA’s report on Lerner’s strong condemnation of the Presbyterian draft report and the video of Lerner’s full speech here. Anyone who takes the time to watch or read Lerner’s speech will quickly realize that the slurs about J Street being anti-Israel are simply nonsense.
In short, those who throw out the “anti-Israel” slur do not know the people at J Street or the passion they share for Israel. I have met them and I work with them on a regular basis. The caricature of them by the right bears no relation to who they are.
It is clear that J Street is not for everyone, and that some in the traditional pro-Israel community are having trouble accepting this new organization with a new approach. This post is not designed to win them over. Rather, my goal here is to explain why J Street exists, why it is and will be an important part of the pro-Israel movement, and to address the false assumptions and unwarranted attacks that threaten to divide our vibrant Twin Cities Jewish community. Since I became involved in J Street, countless lawyers, business people and community leaders have asked how they too can get involved. These are good-hearted, passionately pro-Israel members of our community who have not felt at home in the traditional organizations advocating for Israel. J Street offers them an opportunity to become involved in supporting Israel.
For the health of our community, I ask those who disagree with J Street to give up the grassy knoll, to stop the spread of falsehoods and to engage in a constructive discussion about how we can work together going forward. We should be working together, and we can.