Political journalism would be a lot easier if people remembered how politics works. Today’s topic: Are J Street and the Emergency Committee for Israel primarily dedicated to supporting politicians who adhere to certain positions on the Mideast? Or are they fundamentally partisan groups dedicated to supporting, respectively, Democratic and Republican politicians who represent opportunistic proxies for advancing those positions, picking fights over them, and ultimately enacting them? Much political discourse treats this as an either/or question, as evidenced by this Washington Jewish Week profile of ECI and The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait’s response to it. But actually, the answer is: Both. They are concerned with the positions, but they know that the only way to put that concern to practical action is to be partisan.
The WJW article notes that former Rep. Pat Toomey, the Republican running for (and likely to win) the Pennsylvania Senate race—in other words, ECI’s chosen candidate in the midterm elections’ biggest proxy fight between it and J Street—has a history of voting against foreign aid, including for Israel (Toomey apparently said that he “feels Israel no longer needs economic aid, and should simply receive military assistance”). A “Democratic Hill operative” and J Street policy director Hadar Susskind both seized on the discrepancy, with the operative noting that, despite the fact that ECI will tell you it is nonpartisan, “If they’re anything more than a right-wing organization, they haven’t showed it yet.”
But of course ECI is a right-wing organization! It was founded by Bill Kristol; if you believe he is anything other than a Republican hack, then I’ve got a Weekly Standard subscription to sell you. But who cares? The way a two-party democratic system works is that individuals with idiosyncratic views get herded into one of two gigantic tents, and are then in turn forced, due to structural dynamics way beyond their controls, to go along with certain policies. (For example: Sen. Pat Toomey is going to vote for foreign aid on Israel, because he will have owed some of his election to ECI, which is itself an outfit highly connected to GOP institutions.) I am by no means attempting to single out the Republicans: J Street, too, is nominally nonpartisan, but, as Allison Hoffman reported today, the only Republican on their list of endorsees, Rep. Charles Boustany, backed out after the Soros revelations. J Street head Jeremy Ben-Ami worked in the Clinton administration; its main pollster, Jim Gerstein, worked for the Democratic National Committee.
There is nothing wrong with this. If it didn’t work this way, our politics would probably operate less efficiently, and most people would have genuinely no idea whom to vote for. Susskind of J Street and Noah Pollak of ECI probably aren’t a priori hacks: They both, I don’t doubt, have deep-seated, well-thought-out, and earnest reasons for believing what they believe on Israel. But having formed those beliefs, they have then gone to work for organizations where circumstances require them to sound like hypocrites, and have journalists—we pure souls who are immune to this sort of thing—jump on them by taking what they say at face value (Pollak says that Toomey gets a pass because he voted against foreign aid “as a matter of larger fiscal principles,” not out of “a particular animosity toward Israel—far from it,” which, as Chait points out, is indeed a patently hypocritical thing to say given the candidates ECI opposes). What journalist should be doing is simply treating the groups as extensions, to at least fairly substantial extents, of the two major political parties.
The most interesting point Chait makes is not pouncing on Pollak’s contradiction; it’s when Chait concludes, “One thing you can say about the neocons: They’ve disproven the slur that everything they do is just cover for protecting Israel.” Well, yes and no. I have no doubt that most of the people at ECI do what they do primarily to protect Israel. But the most effective way to do that—particularly fewer than two weeks before Election Day—is to act like partisan hacks. If everybody just admitted this, we would actually, paradoxically, be more free to debate the actual issues.
Group’s New PAC Targets Candidates As ‘Anti-Israel’ [Washington Jewish Week]
Neocons Disprove Dual Loyalty Charge, Confirm Partisan Hackery Charge [Jonathan Chait]
Related: Head’s Up [Tablet Magazine]
Earlier: Emergency Committee v. J Street