J Street chief Jeremy Ben-Ami calls the plays for the first self-confident alternative Jewish establishment
Ben-Ami’s flip soundbite to reporters about the revelation, which he repeated to me, was: “I’m not Gandhi and I’m not Rahm.” He went on to say that, since there was nothing illegal about taking money from Esdicul, the obscure woman in Hong Kong, let alone from Soros, he had no reason to apologize, not even to those of his supporters who were disappointed that he lied to them. “Should the left be the only people who make their donors reveal themselves?” Ben-Ami asked me, leaving only the briefest beat before he answered his own question. “I don’t see why we should go beyond the other team here.”
What may wind up hurting J Street even more, though, is the damage to its reputation as a savvy Washington player. As one longtime peace activist pointed out, one has to assume that everything will be leaked, whether it’s internal documents or confidential IRS filings, and Ben-Ami’s decision to explicitly publish misleading statements about Soros, however artful they may have seemed at the time, rather than just refusing to comment, amounted to an unforced political error. “To me the only problem was that we did seem to imply we didn’t have Soros money when we did,” said Peratis, the New York attorney, who told me she first learned about the contributions from the email Ben-Ami sent to his board before the Washington Times story broke. “That’s what troubled me, and Jeremy appropriately took responsibility for it.” But, she quickly added, “It wasn’t a huge mistake.” There was, however, an immediate cost: Louisiana Rep. Charles Boustany, a descendant of Lebanese-Christian immigrants and the group’s sole Republican endorsee, promptly removed himself from J Street’s list of supporters, according to Boustany’s spokesman Paul Coussan. “We were misled as to their affiliations,” Coussan said, by way of explanation, in an email to Tablet.
It may not be a coincidence that where J Street has had the most visible success so far isn’t on Capitol Hill, where AIPAC still reigns, but in its field operations around the country, where local chapters do things like host public events for Israelis like Yael Dayan, daughter of Gen. Moshe Dayan. Even people in deep agreement with J Street’s positions acknowledge that the general American consensus on Israel outside the Jewish community, let alone among major Jewish political donors from hawkish Democrats like Haim Saban to partisan Republicans like Sheldon Adelson, may simply be more comfortable with the positions and approach of AIPAC. Indeed, some J Street donors still send checks to AIPAC. “Obviously my sympathies are with J Street,” said Murray Galinson, chair of the Jewish Funders Network and a former member of AIPAC’s national board who has given to J Street’s PAC. “But we continue to contribute toward AIPAC, and I think they do good work.”
Episodes like the Soros flap only make it that much harder for J Street and its young lobbyists to achieve their original purpose of getting traction on the Hill; even with money to offer, it’s hard to avoid looking like a liability if you can’t quash attacks from the opposite side. As one experienced Washington lobbyist put it: “It doesn’t make them trayf, but it is one more thing to hold against them.”
In the Times Magazine profile of J Street, which appeared a year ago, after the souring of the Obama Administration’s relationship with Netanyahu and with many of its own American Jewish supporters, Ben-Ami famously said his “number one agenda item” was to “act as the president’s blocking back”—a claim backed by Ben-Ami’s ability to get himself invited, to the surprise of many, to a White House meeting with senior Jewish political leaders in July 2009.
In the 18 months since, however, that leading role has increasingly been played by former Florida Rep. Robert Wexler, who heads the Center for Middle East Peace—a small organization underwritten by Daniel Abraham, who revived it earlier this year, after his initial, quiet contribution to J Street. Since the 2008 campaign, Wexler has acted as Obama’s chief liaison to the Jewish community, and in the past few months he has hosted two dinners for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Jewish leaders—one earlier this summer in Washington, at which Ben-Ami was present, and one in New York during the United Nations’ General Assembly, to which Ben-Ami was not invited. A spokesman for Abraham’s center said it wasn’t a snub—the guest lists deliberately didn’t overlap—but the incident illustrated just how far the left, organized along ad hoc lines with no umbrella organizing capacity, is from matching the smooth interaction of major groups like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents, which move in a synchronized and disciplined way through the interlocking circles of Jewish money and power in New York and Washington.
Translating the yearning for an influential dovish Jewish voice on Capitol Hill into reality remains elusive, and it will get even harder if Republicans, as expected, retake the House of Representatives and perhaps the Senate next week. J Street’s political-action arm has currently raised more than of $1.5 million to back 58 candidates for the House and three for the Senate—all Democrats, 16 likely to lose, according to prognosticator Nate Silver. “We have to solve this problem—I want J Street money to flow to Republicans, I want Republicans to support J Street policies,” Kovner told me. “They are there, but they are being directed not to take it.” (Boustany’s spokesman denied any party pressure in the decision to reject J Street’s endorsement.)
It isn’t clear what the consequence will be for other left-wing Jewish groups, which readily acknowledge that their success is tied to J Street’s fortunes. “We’ve seen a renaissance, and J Street is a mighty factor in that,” Daniel Sokatch, the new CEO of the New Israel Fund, told me—though he quickly distanced his group’s work, and target market, from Ben-Ami’s. “J Street and others can worry about the peace process, but we are worrying about the loyalty oath, the conversion bill,” Sokatch said. “That’s what NIF is focusing on.”
Debra DeLee, the head of Americans for Peace Now, similarly drew a distinction between the upside of J Street’s success at shifting the terms of the Washington conversation and the potential downside of its being increasingly associated with Democratic partisanship. “It’s been a very public statement about the breadth and size of those American Jews who support a two-state solution and the kinds of things that both J Steet and APN are talking about,” DeLee said. But, she added, “We have a different strategic approach.” APN has traditionally maintained its bipartisan access, both on the Hill and in the State Department, by emphasizing its role as a provider of high-quality information about the situation on the ground in the territories. DeLee said that whatever J Street’s fate, she will continue encouraging her supporters to direct their political money through J Street’s PAC. “That does not mean that only endorsed candidates should receive money,” she added. “But if they are supporting these candidates, then they should do it through this vehicle.”
For his part, Ben-Ami acknowledged that the goal line has moved from the original objective of winning a peace deal this year or next to building a durable movement. “We didn’t set J Street up simply to provide support to one president and one administration,” Ben-Ami told me. Asked if he was retracting his blocking-for-Obama vow, he paused. “As long as the quarterback is aiming the ball at the end zone, I’m really glad to be the blocking back,” Ben-Ami told me. “But if time runs out, or the quarterback decides to go home or run the wrong way, we’ll reassess. Maybe there comes a time when we have to get behind and start pushing.”
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