J Street’s fragile alternative

By some of the positions it takes and some of the company it keeps, J Street risks sabotaging its laudable endeavor to present a viable left-wing pro-Zionist alternative to American Jews.

J Street 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
J Street 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
JStreet’s growth in the three years since its establishment is impressive. Its “Giving Voice to Our Values” conference, taking place this weekend in Washington, has drawn over 2,000 attendees, it says, compared to 1,500 a year and a half ago when it held its first such national event. Thirty organizations are participating (up from 20 in 2009), with over 500 students (up from 200 last time) and over 50 members of Congress attending (compared to 44 last time).
In theory, all lovers of democracy and diversity of opinion should welcome J Street’s rise, as a mark of its success in fostering a fundamentally pro-Israel stance even among younger American Jews who might feel alienated from more mainstream organizations’ perceived “Israel right or wrong” position. In practice, however, the concern is that J Street has been stretching too thin its “big tent” of opinions, to incorporate elements of the extreme Left, risking in the process leaving out in the cold American Jews with an unabashedly pro-Zionist sensibility.
This seemed to be the message sent out Saturday night by Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center, in the conference’s opening speech. Though proclaiming himself to be “among J Street’s most fervent fans,” Saperstein nevertheless expressed concern over J Street’s recent attempt to block an American veto of a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s settlement policy beyond the Green Line as “illegal.”
“If you alienate your mainstream support you risk losing everything,” he noted.
In recent weeks J Street lost the backing of a key politician, Rep. Gary Ackerman, the former chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, over its opposition to the US veto. In a damning January 25 press release, Ackerman accused J Street of being “so open-minded about what constitutes support for Israel that its brains have fallen out.”
THE CHOICE of speakers underlines the concerns. The organization has invited Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace and an adamant proponent of BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) against Israel, to address the conference. In June of last year JVP campaigned to get the US teachers’ pension giant TIAA-CREF to divest from numerous Israeli companies, such as Bezeq and Elbit, that purportedly profit from the “occupation.”
Formally, in an eminently reasonable position, J Street opposes all forms of BDS. Instead, it focuses on “creating the political will and atmosphere necessary in the US to promote strong leadership to achieve a two-state resolution to the conflict.” But by associating with pro-BDS groups, J Street undermines its own positive message.
Similarly, as regards another speaker, why should J Street risk alienating its own core constituents by associating itself with Mustafa Barghouti, secretary-general and founder in 2002 together with the late Edward Said of the Palestinian National Initiative, an organization created out of protest against the Oslo Accords? In October 2008 Barghouti, another BDS advocate, took part in a Free Gaza Flotilla that, after initial resistance, was given permission by the Israeli Foreign Ministry to anchor in Gaza.
A third speaker at the conference is Michael Sfard, an attorney who advocates international “lawfare” against Israel. Sfard recently told Amnesty International’s website that he was “lucky” to bring a lawsuit in Canada against a Canadian firm for building in Modi’in Illit and hoped to pursue similar cases in Spain, England and Belgium.
According to NGO Monitor, Sfard also testified as a paid expert witness on behalf of the PLO in a lawsuit brought in a US Federal Court in Miami by terror victims of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a terrorist group indirectly tied to the PLO.
THE DANGER is that, by some of the positions it takes and some of the company it keeps, J Street risks sabotaging its laudable endeavor to present a viable left-wing pro-Zionist alternative to American Jews. Ackerman, for one, has made up his mind.
“America really does need a smart, credible, politically active organization that is as aggressively pro-peace as it is pro-Israel,” he said in his press release last month.
“Unfortunately, J-Street ain’t it.”