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J Street seems to pop up in all the right places lately, buoyed and immunized by indulgent, adoring and uncritical journalists. The upstart lobby was invited to join other Jewish organizations in a July meeting with US President Barack Obama; a month later it attended a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Yesterday's New York Times magazine published the latest paean to J Street, portraying it as brash and brave, representative of 92 percent of American Jewry, and a young and open organization willing to take on a monolithic and paleolithic AIPAC and other veteran American Jewish organizations.
Frankly, the Times article is missing so many components and questions about the "pro-Israel" organization that it cannot be viewed as anything other than J Street puffery.
For instance, the writer, James Traub, devotes considerable effort to show how J Street is in touch with American Jewish opinion on issues such as Israeli settlements and American engagement in the peace process. J Street commissioned "an extensive poll of Jewish opinion on Middle East issues," Traub wrote.
But Traub failed to report the recent and shocking exposÃ©, written in Commentary by Noah Pollak, that J Street's poll was conducted by J Street's own former vice president, Jim Gerstein. "J Street not only commissions polls," Pollak wrote, "it writes the questions, conducts them, analyzes the results and then carries out promotional campaigns with the findings. If you were wondering how it was possible that J Street could repeatedly produce 'polling data' that almost perfectly complements the group's political agenda, now we have one important clue."
(Challenged on this and other issues, J Street felt compelled last week to post a "Myths and Facts about J Street" on its Web site. As a founder of the original Myths & Facts, a Factbook on the Arab-Israeli Conflict, published by AIPAC's Near East Report, I am reminded how some critics referred to it as "Myths & More Myths," a title much more appropriate to J Street's new attempt at defending itself.)
THE TIMES'S Traub failed to report on the identity of J Street's broader leadership and decision-makers. To whom does director Jeremy Ben-Ami answer or consult? Who sits on the organization's board of directors? Who are the organization's funders? Traub reports on the 50-member finance committee, the existence of which was revealed in a Jerusalem Post article last month. The Post revealed names of some of the members: "The finance committee with a $10,000 contribution threshold," the Post wrote, "includes Lebanese-American businessman Richard Abdoo, a current board member of Amideast and a former board member of the Arab American Institute (AAI), and Genevieve Lynch, who is also a member of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) board."
J Street's Web site presents its distinguished 170-member "advisory council," a display case of wealthy progressive Jews and former US diplomats to the Middle East, including several who became foreign agents working the halls of Washington for Arab countries. Perhaps J Street's ultimate leaders are among these advisers, but there's no way of knowing who they are.
The Post article revealed that J Street's PAC was the recipient of donations from Arab-, Islamic- and Iranian-Americans, but Traub doesn't mention that controversial fact. The existence of these donations is understandably played down by Ben-Ami, but that information certainly should have been made available to the Times's readers.
J Street's finance committee list only reflects contributors to the PAC as they appear in public records of the Federal Elections Commission. The list of donors to J Street's main organization is secret.
Traub should have asked what role George Soros plays in the organization. A National Journal article written in April 2008 prior to J Street's launch reported that "billionaire and controversial activist George Soros, a party to the early talks about forming a new group, is reportedly no longer involved, in part, sources say, because concerns that his participation might be a lightning rod for critics."
J Street's disturbing alliance with the Iranian lobbying group, the National Iranian American Council, is also ignored by the Times's tribute. J Street and NIAC directors coauthored a Huffington Post article earlier this year arguing against new sanctions on Iran.
When Congress was considering anti-Iranian legislation a year ago, J Street went into action. In the words of one anti-Israel blogger at the time, "J Street played a key role in dealing that astonishing defeat to AIPAC in Congress - in which a coalition of peace groups and religious groups spearheaded by the National Iranian American Council lobbied effectively against a belligerent resolution."
One fact the Times magazine seems to get right: "J Street shares the Obama administration's agenda." But the Times should have gone on to ask the nature of J Street's relationship with senior officials in the Obama administration. The National Review article on organizational meetings prior to J Street's launch - and at the height of the Democratic primaries - listed advisers including "several activists with ties to Democratic contender Barack Obama of Illinois." At the height of Israel's Gaza operation in December 2008, J Street's evenhanded statement on the fighting was very similar to that of David Axelrod, Obama's senior adviser, who, speaking on NBC's Meet the Press, avoided endorsing Israel's military action.
J STREET just launched an initiative to "bust" anti-Obama smears within the pro-Israel community. Volunteers to the "Obama Smear Busters" must take a pledge that approaches a vassal-like fealty: "Pledge right now to reply-all [sic] to every smear e-mail you receive about President Obama, Jews and Israel with the truth by filling out the form below."
The New York Times article avoided asking the hard questions and failed to examine who was funding, directing and supporting J Street. I have spoken to several senior reporters in Washington who admitted that they wanted to avoid writing J Street exposÃ©s. Can it be that news agencies fear that taking on J Street would be viewed as an attack on Obama? Ben-Ami himself, admitted to the Times, "Our No. 1 agenda item is to do whatever we can in Congress to act as the president's blocking back."
The writer served as a senior diplomat in Israel's embassy in Washington. He worked for AIPAC in Washington and Israel, and today is a consultant on public affairs. He blogs at www.lennybendavid.com
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