When it was founded six years ago, J Street faced some suspicion from the mainstream Jewish community.
Three items headed the list: J Street’s stated goal of redefining what it means to be pro-Israel, its strategy of lobbying the US government to pressure Israel, thereby circumventing Israel’s democracy, and third, some of its suspicious funding sources.
J Street responded to those wary of including the new organization within the community’s “big tent” by saying that all sides in the debate deserve to be heard and that many American Jews are concerned about Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians. These Jews should be included in the larger conversation about Israel.
J Street president and founder Jeremy Ben- Ami went further, accusing his critics of using big donors to shut down legitimate discussion: “We see our communal institutions and our leaders regularly held hostage by a few large funders or a few loud voices who urge them to stay silent and shut the door to debate.”
Pretty soon, due to the pluralism inherent in the Jewish tradition, Ben-Ami’s marketing skills and a massive flow of money from wealthy donors into J Street’s coffers, J Street gained access to the tent. Helped by pressure from J Street donors, J Street has been given membership within many JCRCs and Hillels.
J Street leaders speak of its newfound mainstream status in high-minded rhetoric, claiming an underdog victory by the forces of pluralism and free speech over intransigent rightwing censors. J Street donor and board member Larry Gellman, for example, has written that, “The days are long gone when small, wealthy passionate groups of wealthy rightwing Jewish community leaders will be able to intimidate community professionals and rabbis who have agreed to host J Street programs and speakers. ...[W]e are always well served by having multiple approaches and opinions to sift through. That’s how we have always learned and grown.”
Now that it’s inside the tent, however, J Street is entirely focused on aggressively promoting its agenda. It is therefore much less interested in the Jewish community’s having “multiple approaches and opinions to sift through.”
And Larry Gellman is singing a different tune. Gellman, a wealthy Arizona broker who describes himself as “God’s gift to money management” and “the savior of the Jewish people,” took to the pages of the Forward on April 3, 2014, in order to – this is best described by appropriating his own prior words – “intimidate community professionals and rabbis who have agreed to host programs and speakers [critical] of J Street.”
Gellman writes: “I am so saddened and frustrated by the recent decision of Federation and Hillel of Greater Philadelphia to co-sponsor a divisive film screening that demonizes a fellow Jewish group – in this case, J Street. That’s why I’ve urged Federation leaders in my hometowns of Tucson and Milwaukee and around the country to speak out against this trend.”
The object of Gellman’s ire is a film produced by our organization called The J Street Challenge. The film provides a critical analysis of the reasons for J Street’s appeal, as well as the motivations of its leaders and followers. The film presents J Street’s message through video clips of its leaders’ speeches and interviews.
(Jeremy Ben-Ami declined to be interviewed for the film.) A variety of distinguished scholars and writers ranging across a wide political spectrum then analyze J Street claims and actions.
Among these are professors Alan Dershowitz and Ruth Wisse of Harvard, Rabbi Daniel Gordis of the Shalem College in Jerusalem, Caroline Glick, senior contributing editor of The Jerusalem Post, Josh Block, senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, and Bret Stephens, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Wall Street Journal.
We understand that J Street supporters are not likely to agree with the film’s general line of argument. It’s disappointing, however, that Gellman and other J Street leaders who have publicly addressed The J Street Challenge avoid debating specific facts and arguments made in the film. Instead, they resort to emotional ad hominem arguments: J Street’s critics are uncivil and represent the fringe of the community. J Street’s critics make folks like Gellman feel “saddened and frustrated” by arguing with them.
IMPLICIT IN Gellman’s article in the Forward is the quest for dominance by a progressive power structure that has insinuated itself within Jewish leadership for the past 40 years.
As Gellman sees it, only these folks can “define the parameters of what can be discussed in our community.”
So, in response to the Philadelphia screening of our film, progressives went on the attack. The Philadelphia Federation and Hillel were threatened financially by left-wing donors and demonized in the press by leftwing activists.
The hypocrisy is glaring, but smearing critics while paying homage to civility has long been J Street’s modus operandi. While Jeremy Ben-Ami has insisted that J Street be included in the big tent of the Federations and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, he has condemned both of these organizations by name as parts of a “multi-layered, multi-headed hydra.”
Ben-Ami, playing the victim, stated: “This monopoly, this many-headed monopoly in a sense, has been to try to squash us.”
Now Ben-Ami, Gellman and company want to be the monopolists and to squash their critics. To get into the tent, they fought against “censorship” and screamed “pluralism!” Now that they seek to censor, they scream against “divisiveness!” To watch Gellman lamenting a supposed lack of civility is risible. As a blogger for The Huffington Post, Gellman often lashes out in mean-spirited attacks on fellow Jews. According to Gellman, “our people is facing a number of existential threats. For the first time in Jewish history, the most serious of those threats is internal.” The internal threat, according to Gellman, is right-wing pro-Israel activism, which he calls “Israelism – the religion that is destroying our Jewish community.”
Gellman contends that this “Israelist hit squad” has acquired “cult status” and is swept with “an unwarranted anger and hysteria.”
Gellman has the right to demonize those he disagrees with, but he can’t then claim that he supports civility and open discussion. And after the things he has written about the Israeli army, Gellman also can’t claim that he is pro-Israel. Commenting in support of the widely discredited Goldstone Report – disavowed even by author Richard Goldstone himself – Gellman claimed: “Orthodox Israeli rabbis encouraged soldiers to be particularly ruthless to Gazans during Operation Cast Lead – reportedly encouraging them to show no mercy to innocent Gazan citizens, women and children. There is an increasing amount of solid evidence that shows many of those soldiers followed those instructions and behaved very badly – perhaps criminally.”
This is a disgusting false smear that reads more like Hamas propaganda than pro-Israel messaging by a self-described “savior of the Jewish people.” Yet too often this has been J Street’s style. Its leaders complain about the lack of civility in the Jewish community while personally insulting its critics and falsely attacking the Jewish state. They demand open debate for their fringe, often anti-Israel positions, while also demanding that their critics be silenced.
J Street’s behavior in response to The J Street Challenge should serve as a warning to the “mainstream” Jewish community. Modern- day Jacobins like Ben-Ami and Gellman don’t do compromise. Once accepted into the big tent, as J Street’s reaction to The J Street Challenge demonstrates, they demand silence from those who challenge their opinions or contradict their dubious claims of being pro-Israel.
Ilya Feoktistov and Charles Jacobs are respectively research director and president of Americans for Peace and Tolerance, in Boston, Massachusetts.