jeremy ben-ami j street 248 88 aj.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The J Street 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 Federal Election Commission filings.
Additionally, at least two State Department officials connected to Middle East issues have donated to the PAC, which gives money to candidates for US Congress supported by J Street. The organization describes itself as a "pro-Israel, pro-peace" lobby pushing for more American involvement and diplomacy in resolving the Middle East conflict.
Arab and Muslim donors are extremely rare for other organizations that describe themselves as supporters of Israel as J Street does, Jewish leaders at organizations across the political spectrum told The Jerusalem Post. Because most of these other organizations are not PACs, however, US law does not require them to release their donor lists. J Street's non-PAC arm also does not release a complete list of contributors.
J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami estimated the amount of Arab and Muslim donors to be a very small percentage - at most 3 percent - of the organization's thousands of contributors. But he said that such supporters show the broad appeal of J Street's message and its commitment to coexistence.
"I think it is a terrific thing for Israel for us to be able to expand the tent of people who are willing to be considered pro-Israel and willing to support Israel through J Street," he said. "One of the ways that we're trying to redefine what it means to be pro-Israel is that you actually don't need to be anti-Arab or anti-Palestinian to be pro-Israel."
Activists from several other Israel-oriented groups, though, suggested that J Street's donor list reflects on the group's commitment to Israel and approach to the peace process.
"It raises questions as to their banner that they're a pro-Israel organization. Why would people who are not known to be pro-Israel give money to this organization?" asked Lenny Ben-David, a former Israeli diplomat and staffer for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a major Washington lobby but not a PAC that makes contributions to candidates. "Once you introduce a large group and large amount of money from people who are suspect in their pro-Israel credentials, J Street loses some of its credibility in claiming it is pro-Israel and representing the Jewish community."
Ben-Ami described the organization as one that is "primarily but not exclusively Jewish" and said that as the numbers of Arabs and Muslims participating in J Street are low, he would like to welcome more non-Jews into the fold.
The funds that come from these sources indeed constitute a small fraction of the year-and-a-half-old organization's political fundraising, which totaled around $844,000 in 2008 - a key election year - and $111,000 so far in 2009. They comprise several dozen of the PAC's 4,000-5,000 donors.
But some of the contributors play key roles in the organization. The finance committee's 50 members - with a $10,000 contribution threshold - include Lebanese-American businessman Richard Abdoo, a current board member of Amideast and a former board member of the Arab American Institute, and Genevieve Lynch, who is also a member of the National Iranian American Council board. The group has also received several contributions from Nancy Dutton, an attorney who once represented the Saudi Embassy in Washington.
Smaller donors include several leaders of Muslim student groups, Saudi- and Iranian-born Americans, and Palestinian- and Arab-American businessmen who also give to Arab-oriented PACs.
Additionally, Nicole Shampaine, director of the State Department's Office for Egypt and the Levant, gave $1,000 last summer. Lewis Elbinger, who used to serve in Saudi Arabia, gave a combined $150.
A State Department legal adviser said there were no laws or codes prohibiting employees from donating to groups doing advocacy work on the policies they are formulating.
"The State Department ethics rules don't prohibit contributions to lobbying groups," she said.
Shampaine did not respond to a request for comment from the Post and Elbinger could not be reached.
The donations raised the eyebrows of some Jewish organization officials.
"It informs our view of where these individual foreign service officers' heads are in relation to US-Israel policy," said one who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It might not be the smartest move for them to be showing their hand in that way, though I don't think it's illegal or even unethical."
Though Abdoo, Lynch and Dutton also did not respond to queries from the Post, donor Zahi Khouri was reached by telephone during a visit to the West Bank, where he splits his time along with Orlando.
He explained that he donated to the J Street PAC because "I believe that they are sincere about being pro-Israel and they are sincere about being pro-peace. And AIPAC I consider an enemy of Israel rather than a friend of Israel because they're not helping it to achieve peace."
The businessman behind some of the biggest Palestinian investment groups and enterprises said that he wanted to see a home for Israel and a home for Palestinians, along the 1967 border with a shared Jerusalem and symbolic treatment of the refugees, and felt that J Street would help achieve that.
"They are equally hard on the Palestinians as they are on Israel, so they're not pro-Palestinian. They are just pro-peace and pro-Israel. I believe that," he told the Post.
Khouri, who also does outreach in conjunction with a Palestinian media advocacy group, noted that he doesn't give money to other Jewish or Israel-oriented organizations, and officials with such bodies said it was very unusual to receive money from Palestinian or Muslim Americans.
Mainstream groups ranging from the American Jewish Committee to the United Jewish Communities 150-plus federations rarely if ever get such donations; PACs from the National Jewish Democratic Council's to the Republican Jewish Coalition's don't list such contributors among their public filings.
Other progressive Jewish groups also aren't accustomed to such backers.
"APN receives thousands of checks every year from its supporters. The vast majority - as far as we can tell - are American Jews. That is the segment of the US public that we typically target," said APN spokesman Ori Nir, noting that while he does not keep tabs on every check received, he knows that all of the group's major donors are Jewish.
Nir, whose group has similar stances on the peace process and engagement with Iran to J Street, also said that the organization tears up any checks sent with Israel-bashing notes.
In contrast, Ben-Ami said that J Street doesn't screen or reject donations. "We are so clearly pro-Israel, and we are an organization that is grounded in and based in Jewish values and a Jewish desire to support the State of Israel, that if someone wants to choose to do their political giving through us, it's more a question for them: Do they want to be seen to be giving their money through us. If they do it, that's the statement they're making."
Ben-Ami also rejected anything smacking of a religious test of donors for pro-Israel groups.
"It would be a very big mistake for pro-Israel organizations to apply a religious or ethnic litmus test for support for Israel from other Americans. I don't think anybody checked to see whether [Pastor] John Hagee was Jewish before he was invited to keynote the AIPAC conference," he said. "I don't think we should be banning Christians, I don't think we should be banning Muslims, I don't think we should be banning Arabs from finding a way to support Israel, to support its right to exist and to support a program that is designed to secure the future."
Ben-Ami noted that J Street, as with APN and other Jewish groups, doesn't solicit donations from Muslims and Arabs, but he said that in any case, "Our views are not a reflection of our donors. Our donors are supporting our views."
Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, one of the few mainstream Jewish organizations to recall receiving occasional donations from Arabs or Muslims - though, like most non-profits, it hasn't disclosed its donor list as the law doesn't require it to - said the key issue in his mind about J Street's contributors were whether they were individuals or organizations.
"Individuals have a right to support whoever they want. What would be troubling would be if you find organizations," he said, as it raises the question of, "Why are these Arab or Muslim organizations supporting a Jewish or pro-Israel group?"
Another leader from a mainstream pro-Israel organization said that while his group has never received money from such sources, "There's no moral impediment for reaching into other constituencies. It's not something we have done, but I like to think the cause of Middle East peace is a cause that is not only supported by American Jews but is broadly supported."
At the same time, he suggested that these donors might have chosen to give to J Street because "that constituency supports the kind of a line that maybe naturally gravitates to an advocacy organization that's more critical of Israel."
An official from another Jewish organization who also spoke anonymously had a different explanation for the donations, though. "Arab-American organizations or Palestinian American organizations have minuscule impact in Washington" in comparison to major Jewish ones, he maintained. "That's where the power is. So if you're looking for impact, for bang for your political buck, you'd give to J Street."
Ben-Ami rejected the contention out-of-hand. "I can't see this having become a vehicle in any way for the political expression of Arab-Americans. I think that's ludicrous. I don't see that in the slightest."
He said instead that it was J Street's "approach to being pro-Israel that actually is so attractive to people of other religions, who are trying to find a way to be pro-Israel that breaks the cycle of violence, and breaks the cycle of us-versus-them thinking."