The perils of partisanship: J Street's uphill battle against David Friedman

J Street’s alignment with progressive Democrats likely dooms its fight against appointment of David Friedman as ambassador to Israel.

David Friedman with Donald Trump in Manhattan (photo credit: Courtesy)
David Friedman with Donald Trump in Manhattan
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Donald Trump’s Israel adviser first compared members of J Street, a Jewish American organization which lobbies for a two-state solution, to “kapo” Jews who collaborated with Nazis during the Holocaust, its leadership dismissed him as just another offensive figure in a fringe if insurgent presidential campaign.
But now that Trump is president-elect, and now that his adviser, David Friedman, is his declared choice for ambassador to Israel, J Street has shifted into panic mode.
This unapologetically liberal organization believes it is on the right side of Jewish American history: that the majority of American Jews are pluralists, sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and in need of an organization that more accurately reflects their politics. In the process of constructing that narrative, they have aligned themselves exclusively with progressive Democrats, who have in turn taken to J Street as a Jewish organization willing to back their tougher stances against the Israeli government.
But their criticisms of Israel have drawn ire from Jerusalem, and many in the Israel advocacy community in the US characterize J Street as a fringe organization in its own right.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella organization that attempts to represent the alphabet soup of Jewish groups, voted against including J Street as a member in 2014 over its contentious politics.
J Street has nevertheless enjoyed political cover for the last eight years, in a position of influence as its ilk have run the White House. J Street even had a candidate of its own on the presidential ballot in 2016 in the form of Hillary Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine of Virginia, a close ally of the organization for whom it has aggressively fund-raised.
That is all about to change. J Street is facing the consequences of its partisanship, girding for a united Republican majority in the White House and Congress it has roundly ostracized.
J Street is vowing to fight Friedman’s nomination with “everything we’ve got” – but its strategy of aligning with the Democrats means that it no longer has much to work with. The lobby has no clout with the party entering power, and must transform for the first time since its founding in 2008 into an oppositionalist organization.
Friedman doubled down on his criticism of J Street this month at a forum on Israel in Washington, days before being tapped by Trump as Israel envoy: “They’re not Jewish, and they’re not pro-Israel,” he said, as the organization’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, sat in the room.
Ben-Ami has secured the support of several Jewish Democrats in Congress who have issued statements against Friedman’s nomination. But while Friedman has offended some and has, at times, used undiplomatic language, Republicans in Congress have seen no reason to oppose his appointment. Indeed, J Street’s opposition has only fueled support for Friedman on the Right.
“The measure of power in Washington is not convincing someone to vote for something they would have already supported,” said one veteran Jewish Democratic activist. “That’s pushing against an open door. It’s convincing someone to vote for something they wouldn’t otherwise support. J Street hasn’t proven any ability to do that.”
Friedman supports moving the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – a controversial decision in diplomatic circles and one opposed by J Street. But most of Congress supports this move: The Jerusalem Embassy Act has been on the books since 1995, deferred by consecutive Republican and Democratic presidents.
He supports Israel’s settlement enterprise, which J Street, the State Department and the international community consider illegal and contradictory to the pursuit of a two-state solution.
But the Republican Party is in the midst of a genuine debate over America’s role in promoting such an outcome to the conflict, and declined to mention settlement activity in its most recent party platform, drafted by Trump’s aides.
J Street leaders argue that their political approach is unavoidable: Such is the cost of taking a principled stance, they argue. But other major American Jewish organizations have found success in carefully cultivating bipartisan support.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, for example, ultimately lost its battle with the Obama administration over the international nuclear deal with Iran reached last year – the administration’s signature foreign policy achievement. But the bar was particularly high: Democrats could afford several defections from their ranks and the landmark accord would still survive a vote in Congress.
AIPAC showed it could remain bipartisan even in difficult circumstances. At the end of that fight, the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate foreign relations committees – Congress’s Republican and Democratic leaders on foreign policy – all voted against the deal. And the American public came away from the fight largely disapproving.
AIPAC leaders have since taken stock and stepped back from a series of battles in which Republicans had hoped for their help. They refused to join GOP partisan efforts to ban the US purchase of heavy water from Iran, or to combat Iran’s indirect accessing of the dollar.
Their goal was to rebuild the bipartisan consensus that has long been the source of their tremendous influence in Washington.
It is a lesson J Street has not yet learned over the course of its short life, in which it has enjoyed alignment with the party in power. How it operates in the opposition will be a test of its adaptability and effectiveness.