Raucous Knesset committee debates J Street

MK Otniel Schneller to lobby head Jeremy Ben-Ami: "You are not Zionists and you do not care about Israeli interests."

J street 311 (photo credit: J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE (AP))
J street 311
(photo credit: J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE (AP))
Fireworks were anticipated Wednesday morning at the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Public Diplomacy Committee’s meeting to discuss the left-wing American lobbying organization J Street, and the crowded session lived up to expectations.
“J Street is pro-Palestinian and not pro- Israel, and gives cover to organizations that support and encourage trade and academic boycotts of Israel,” alleged Committee chairman Danny Danon (Likud) during the meeting. At the end, as part of the committee’s conclusions, Danon read a declaration claiming the committee believed J Street to be a pro-Palestinian organization.
Committee members quickly interceded, complaining that there was no such consensus.
MK Yoel Hasson (Kadima) said that because no vote had been held on the resolution, he would lodge an appeal before Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin to revoke it.
Had Danon held a vote he would have quickly found himself in the minority, with three committee members who support J Street present at the session. Instead, he promised to hold a vote on the committee’s conclusions at a later session, during which he presumably would be able to rally coalition voices in favor of such a resolution.
The committee session was held after MK Otniel Schneller (Kadima) raised J Street’s activities as an agenda item in the Knesset plenum two weeks ago following the organization’s annual conference, which was attended by a number of MKs, including four from his party. The plenum referred the debate to Danon’s committee, and he scheduled the session to take place within a week. However, J Street representatives asked him to reschedule the session for a later date in order to allow them to attend the meeting.
“You are not Zionists and you do not care about Israeli interests,” Schneller said, addressing his words to J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami during the committee meeting. “Fifty rockets a day are fired on the South and you fight against the American veto against condemnations of Israel. You are not Zionists and you do not care about Israel. Only here in Israel do we determine Israeli democracy, and you cannot determine what Israel’s interests are.”
In advance of the meeting, Schneller complained that the organization viewed Israel as an obstacle to peace.
“The State of Israel, they essentially say, prevents us from living quietly with our neighbors, especially in the absence of a peace process,” he said, referring to the American lobbying group. “They don’t love Israel – they love themselves, they love Jewish existence in the Diaspora and are working to ensure that it will be preserved.
They always point out that they go to campuses to explain Israel. They don’t.
They explain that they are the good Jews, and Israel is the bad Jews, that they support America, and that it is Israel that is responsible for freezing the diplomatic process.”
Schneller added that he believed J Street’s attempts to shape public opinion undermined Israeli democracy.
“They asked me who determines the interest of Israel and who am I to decide – and I say yes, it is me. I live in a democratic country and we hold elections to determine how policy is shaped,” the MK said prior to the committee session.
But during the session, J Street’s supporters emphasized that it provided a necessary home for large sectors of the American Jewish population.
J Street chairman David Gilo criticized those “ignoring the voices of some American Jews.” He admitted that the organization was not free of mistakes and that it should be more sensitive to Israeli public opinion, but told MKs that J Street had provided liberal American Jews who do not necessarily accept the government’s policies with a way to support Israel.
MK Shlomo Molla, one of the four Kadima MKs who attended last month’s J Street conference in Washington, said he was “not willing to give up on a single Jew in the Diaspora.”
Much of the discussion during the committee meeting centered on an alleged policy by the Netanyahu government to boycott the organization, its members and its events. Ben-Ami said he had brought a petition with over 15,000 signatures asking for a meeting with the prime minister, but that Netanyahu had not once agreed to meet with the organization’s leadership.
“I do not agree with most of the opinions of the organization,” said MK Nachman Shai (Kadima), who also attended the conference, “but we cannot boycott them.”
Despite the rhetoric against his organization, Ben-Ami said he was happy with the very existence of Wednesday’s heated debate.
“We really do think that this conversation about how American Jews relate to the State of Israel and its policies is central to J Street and what it’s about,” Ben-Ami said.
“The idea that you can be a supporter and lover of the State of Israel, but disagree with the policies of the state, is why we started J Street. We were very grateful to Danny Danon that he gave us the opportunity to have a substantive discussion about the relations between the two communities.”
Despite allegations by critics, Ben-Ami argued that his organization was working against the movement for boycott and divestment from Israel, and that it carried out critical work on campuses “to reach out to students who don’t have an outlet to reach a middle-of-the-road position.”
In response to Schneller’s calls for the organization to meet with him to discuss his parameters for what can be considered a pro-Israel organization, Ben-Ami set out his own definition.
“An absolute parameter has to be the recognition of the fundamental right of the Jewish people to their own state,” he said. “There are plenty of people, even within the American Jewish community, who are anti-Zionist and who do not recognize that right. Second, they must recognize Israel’s right to defend itself against threats – Israel must be strong, because it lives in a hard neighborhood, as we’ve even seen this morning.”