J Street chief Jeremy Ben-Ami calls the plays for the first self-confident alternative Jewish establishment
The headquarters of J Street, the dovish Israel lobby, is all open floorplans and glass dividers, a far hipper aesthetic than most Washington outfits would usually tolerate. From the street, passersby can look up and see the group’s founder, Jeremy Ben-Ami, in his cramped corner box, tapping away at his ThinkPad under a framed, signed group portrait of Bill Clinton and his West Wing staff. In the bullpen outside Ben-Ami’s office, J Street’s junior staffers sit clustered around gray cubicles littered with stickers and maps of the Middle East—though, after next week’s midterms, they’ll be getting more space. In a year of record campaign spending, J Street has managed, despite a string of controversies, to out-raise other, better-established Israel-focused PACs like NorPAC and the Joint Action Committee for Political Affairs. (AIPAC, whose members give individually, and generously, to political candidates, is not itself a registered political action committee.)
In the two-and-a-half years since J Street launched, under the banner of “pro-Israel, pro-peace,” two competing narratives have emerged about the group. One is that by channeling the energy of the anti-war, anti-Bush Jewish left into the cause of Middle East peace, using grassroots organizing tactics borrowed from the playbook developed by MoveOn.org and put to good use by the Obama campaign, Ben-Ami and company have given voice to the inchoate frustration of many American Jews with the impasse between the Israelis and the Palestinians and their frustration with hawkish pro-Israel organizations, namely AIPAC, which was so famously expressed earlier this year in an essay by Peter Beinart of the New America Foundation. The opposing view is that J Street is a front for Democratic political operatives aligned with Obama, and potentially to his left on foreign policy, who hope to exploit the naive sympathies of liberal Jews for the political purpose of undermining the existing Washington consensus on Israel, thereby weakening AIPAC and other Jewish groups whose power depends in part on the perception that they speak on behalf of American Jewry.
Both versions are, to a greater or lesser degree, true. Last month, using an unredacted tax return that appeared on a public website, the Washington Times reported that J Street receives funding from the billionaire investor and social activist George Soros, a longtime critic of Israel, Zionism, and the American Jewish establishment. Though insiders had already assumed as much, the controversial revelation showed that Soros and his family gave J Street $245,000 in fiscal year 2008 as the first installment of a three-year, $750,000 commitment. Critics pounced on Ben-Ami, accusing him of repeatedly lying in interviews about Soros’ involvement, and intentionally obfuscating on the group’s website, which in a section titled “Myths and Facts about J Street” denies claims that Soros was a founder or “primary funder” of the group. “J Street’s Executive Director has stated many times that he would in fact be very pleased to have funding from Mr. Soros and the offer remains open to him to be a funder should he wish to support the effort,” the website said. In an update posted after the scandal erupted, the organization reiterated that Soros did not found J Street—though his senior Washington adviser, Morton Halperin, a senior State Department official in the Clinton Administration and a longtime critic of Israeli policy, was deeply involved in J Street’s inception and continues to serve as one of three members of the lobby’s executive committee.
Yet it remains the case that Ben-Ami has managed, in a remarkably short time, to build something unprecedented in the decades-long history of leftwing American Jewish activism: an organization with the capacity to raise millions of dollars to win political support for ideas about Israel and the peace process that are frequently at odds with the positions articulated by organs of the Jewish establishment. Whatever one thinks of J Street’s policies—which, among other things, include support for East Jerusalem becoming the capital of a future Palestinian state and firm opposition to new construction in the settlements until negotiations are complete—the group has succeeded in provoking a tremendous amount of debate about the political and emotional relationships of American Jews to Israel. “They have built up this thing, which is just this side of miraculous,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.
Ben-Ami and the other progenitors of J Street stepped into the political vacuum left by the perennial inability of established leftwing groups—Americans for Peace Now, the Israel Policy Forum, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, Ameinu, and a long list of long-defunct predecessors—to transcend policy disagreements, clashing egos, tiny budgets, and, according to many veteran activists, a general unwillingness to pick public fights with other Jewish groups. “I tried over the years to get the left to coalesce, and you’d be better off herding cats,” said Charney Bromberg, the former director of Meretz USA, the American branch of the leftwing movement also represented by an Israeli political party of the same name. “We were being totally outgunned by the right, and we consoled ourselves with the idea that we were in the right.” Now, Bromberg went on, “J Street has totally eclipsed the other organizations combined.”
The result is that Ben-Ami is now the de facto leader of the American Jewish left, and his counterparts at other organizations working on peace-related issues feel compelled to support him. “J Street has to succeed, and it has to grow,” said one member of the “peace camp” in Washington. “Now that it exists, we can’t afford to let it fail, because that would be seen as the failure of the left.”
J Street’s supporters are quick to point out that despite its meteoric rise, which was helped along by a generous 2009 profile in the New York Times Magazine, its budget is still just a fraction of the $60 million AIPAC attracted in the fiscal year 2008, the most recent for which documents are available—about $5 million this year across all operations, according to Ben-Ami, including a $500,000 grant from Jeff Skoll, a former eBay executive, who has partnered with Soros on recent initiatives in the Middle East. It’s harder for J Street to claim the role of scrappy David to AIPAC’s financial Goliath in light of Soros’ financial commitment, anchored by Halperin’s active role in the group. “He’s not in the office every day, poring over stuff,” Ben-Ami told me last week, in the last of a series of conversations this summer and fall, of his relationship with Halperin. “Basically we email, definitely every day.”
Indeed, according to Ben-Ami, the germ of the J Street idea sprouted in discussions with Halperin during the 2004 presidential election, when both men worked on Howard Dean’s campaign. “From day one I’d been talking to him,” Ben-Ami said. “He was almost the first person I talked to about this.” The vision that emerged from those conversations, and in other conversations with the marketing strategist David Fenton, the former Rolling Stone PR man and social activist for whose firm Ben-Ami worked after the campaign, bore obvious hallmarks of lessons learned from Dean’s run. The most important was the decision to abandon the humble fundraising attitudes of the left. “It’s a self-defeating world outlook that says, ‘We’re some poor minority backwater that will never raise money,’ ” Ben-Ami told me earlier this year. “We said, $10, $20, $30 million. You’ve got to have ambition.”
Ben-Ami set out asking for $1 million from initial donors—at around the same time that Benjamin Netanyahu was trolling the ranks of wealthy American Jews for contributions to his 2007 election campaign for the Likud leadership. Netanyahu’s target list, published last week by the Israeli paper Yedioth Ahronoth, included pillars of established Jewish groups like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents: Sheldon Adelson, Haim Saban, Ronald Lauder, Ira Rennert, James Tisch, Leslie Wexner, and Mortimer Zuckerman. The hidden contributors revealed on J Street’s tax return show that Ben-Ami tapped instead into a parallel establishment with a great deal of influence both in Democratic politics and Jewish life. J Street received $25,000 from S. Daniel Abraham, the billionaire founder of Slim-Fast who is a longtime Clinton supporter and advocate for Middle East peace; $75,000 from Alan Sagner, a real-estate developer and former head of New York’s Port Authority whose daughter, Deborah, herself a progressive political activist, is on J Street’s board; and $25,000 from Robert Arnow, a major contributor to New York’s Federation who also helped found the Jewish Week. “I’ve been a radical all my life, somewhat, and I was imbued with the idea of another organization challenging the policies,” Arnow, now 86, explained in a phone interview. “I still have faith—I’ll give them a year or two and then we’ll see.”
J Street’s tax filing also included a $25,000 donation from Martin Bunzl, a Rutgers philosophy professor with long involvement in the political side of the peace movement, and $10,000 from Alan Solomont, a former Democratic National Committee finance chair who was a board member of the Israel Policy Forum during the Clinton years and is now the U.S. ambassador to Spain. There was also a $5,000 contribution from Hollywood heavyweights Phil Rosenthal, the producer of Everybody Loves Raymond, and his wife, Monica. And there was Elaine Attias, a feisty 86-year-old Democratic activist from Beverly Hills whose parents, Edward and Anna Mitchell, were such active and early donors to Israel that they became, according to the Los Angeles Times, the first Americans to have a square named in their honor in Jerusalem. “I’ve been involved with the Israeli situation for a long time,” Attias explained to me. “J Street was an opportunity to voice our concerns and express our support for the kind of Israel we want it to be.”
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