Our Pro-Israel Lobby: J Street, AIPAC, and You

Israeli flagThe Jewish world is abuzz with news of  J Street‘s first national conference in two weeks in Washington, D.C., entitled “Driving Change, Securing Peace.” J-Street is seen by some as the new “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby and brands itself as “the new address for Middle East peace and security.”

Others call J Street’s “pro-Israel” label a sham, given that the organization’s “political action committee has received tens of thousands of dollars in donations from dozens of Arab and Muslim Americans, as well as from several individuals connected to organizations doing Palestinian and Iranian issues advocacy,” according to the Jerusalem Post’s investigation of the matter.

Furthermore, J Street’s policies on the Arab-Israeli conflict (including a freeze on settlement-building, and a two state solution based on Israel’s 1967 borders) have led some, from the Israeli Embassy to the campus organization Stand With Us, to express concern that J Street advocates for policies that could “impair Israel’s interests.”

In any case, more than 150 congressmen and women are buying into J Street’s new “pro-Israel” message (tainted or not), and will be turning out in style at the end of the month at J Street’s D.C. policy conference. The conference, and J Street’s style of “pro-Israel” advocacy, are a direct challenge to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)‘s role as the sole entity representing the interests of pro-Israel American Jews before Congress.

That perceived threat was directly expressed by Chuck Freilich, a former Israeli deputy national security advisor, in his Jerusalem Post op-ed Monday entitled “AIPAC, J Street or J-Date.” Freilich asserts that J Street’s conference and efforts to lobby congress on Israel is “dangerously misguided” and “weakens” the U.S. Israel relationship.

Freilich agrees on some points of policy with AIPAC, and on some with J Street. What he challenges in his op-ed – and I want to hear your opinions on this in the comments – is the idea that there can or should be be two pro-Israel voices in Congress. Freilich writes:

To date, despite the plethora of Jewish organizations in all other areas, the US-Israeli relationship has largely had one voice in Washington. This is as it must be. AIPAC has a devoted, sophisticated, often brilliant professional staff and lay leadership. It simply does not get better.

IT IS presumptuous of our brethren in the US, and frankly offensive, for them to believe that they “know better” what is right for Israel. The Jewish state is a vibrant, pluralistic democracy. Only Israel’s citizens, who endure the consequences, bear the responsibility for its policies. The place to change Israel’s policies is in Israel, not Washington. A corollary of sovereignty is the right to err. We waited for that right for 2,000 years.

AIPAC understands that balance, says Freilich, and assumes the role of “promot[ing] the US-Israel relationship regardless of who is in office in either country . . . [and] do[ing] its utmost at all times to strengthen the relationship.”

The role of Pro-Israel American Jews is to “express their views,” for sure, says Freilich, but to “express their criticism within the Jewish community, the public at large, pretty much anywhere – except before the administration and Congress.  There, we have to present one voice – not “pro” every Israeli policy, but united, unswerving support for Israel and a strong US-Israel relationship.” (emphasis added).

What do you think? Is there a problem with having J Street and AIPAC both lobbying congressmen and women on behalf of pro-Israel American Jewry? And if so, is the problem that there should not be multiple voices advocating different policies (as Freilich asserts) or rather that one of these voices in this case may be too tainted with anti-Israel money or too focused on pushing an agenda that is not in Israel’s interests for the organization to call itself “pro-Israel?” Discuss.

(Photo: josh.ev9)