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In an Election Month, Everyone’s a Hack

Of course J Street and ECI are partisan—who cares?

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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

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What utter nonsense! For decades, AIPAC has been a resolutely non-partisan organization fostering good US-Israel relations, and has been spectacularly successful at advocating for its Israel-friendly agenda on both sides of the partisan divide. Most mainstream Jewish organizations have adopted similar non-partisan, Israel-supportive stances, and have had excellent and productive relationships with both parties.

It was J Street that deliberately and ostentatiously broke that mold, by declaring itself to be both openly partisan and openly hostile to Israeli-American co-operation and comity. In doing so, it’s representing a growing minority of activist leftist Jews who, like J Street co-founder Daniel Levy, consider Israel’s founding “an act that was wrong”, and frankly wish the country nothing but ill. It is they who first injected partisanship into what was once a matter of bipartisan consensus, in a deliberate attempt to fortify leftist anti-Israel animus with the fuel of partisanship.

No doubt they and their supporters–who apparently include The Scroll–are happy with the resulting partisan wrangling, which has eroded (though hardly destroyed) Americans’ formerly solidly bipartisan support for Israel. But they should own up to their shameful responsibility for it, rather than pretend that it’s some kind of iron-clad political law of nature.

I’m sympathetic to pro-partisan arguments, but I think it’s worth asking – for both organizations you highlight here – whether the partisanship is a consequence of form or function.

J Street first arrived on the American political scene in 2008. According to Allison’s article, it had been incubating since about ’04 in some form.

J Street’s two primary goals are pretty clear: a negotiated two-state solution, and a more open, less angry dialogue in the States about being “pro-Israel.”

I would submit that, by 2008, (and arguably by 2004), it really was not possible to find a sitting Republican who could get behind those two goals. If Republicans spoke about Israel at all, it was only to bludgeon their opponents, and to tar anyone who wasn’t advocating eternal war in the Middle East as anti-Israel. Most Republicans are reluctant even to talk about supporting two states, and some prominent Republicans – among them Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee – explicitly oppose a Palestinian state.

Given that environment, how could J Street have forged alliances with Republicans? I’m happy to be proved wrong on this, I would love to meet Republicans whose feelings toward Israel broadly fit them in with the J Street line, but I really can’t think of any.

(And don’t forget to pile on top of that the Republican leadership’s specific instructions to avoid associating with J Street. Doesn’t exactly leave much room for bipartisan maneuvering.)

A lot of folks have made the claim that J Street is partisan because it has only endorsed Democrats, but it seems to me just as easy to read the cause and effect in the other direction. J Street has certain policy goals, and in the highly polarized debate surrounding Israel there simply aren’t any Republicans willing to support those goals. (Despite those very same policy goals being the official positions of the US, Israeli, and Palestinian governments…but that’s a different conversation.)

I forgot to bring the point back to ECI.

So in the above the argument is that J Street’s partisanship is a consequence of function only. Perhaps they would be happy to partner with Republicans (I suspect, in fact, they would – the J Street people I know would much rather spend their time fighting for two states than fighting Republicans.) But there’s no partnership to be had because Republicans just don’t want – or aren’t willing to say they want – what J Street wants.

In ECI’s case I’m a lot less convinced that we’re dealing with function only. But that’s because I really have no idea what ECI stands for. Presumably they’re in favor of strong support for Israel…except that their number one “endorsed” candidate has repeatedly voted against giving economic aid to Israel. They claim that these no votes are not about Israel but about the entire principle of foreign aid. That’s fine, I guess, but an anti-foreign aid position is still an anti-Israel position, since Israel very much needs our foreign aid.

So what does ECI stand for? Does anyone know? Frankly, it seems to me like they stand for “anyone but liberals,” and the fact that they have a staff of only three people – all of them prominent neoconservatives – and their offices are the same as Mr. Kristol’s Iraq War HQ from 2002-2003, do a lot to back this up.

I don’t want to accuse you of a false equivalence, but that does seem to be a bit of what’s going on here. Unless there’s some demonstrable (or even hypothetical!) way in which supporting Pat Toomey actually helps Israel – rather than just hurting Democrats – ECI doesn’t seem to me like a horse of the same color as J Street.

The only dialogue in the States about being “pro-Israel” that J Street wants is to encourage anti-Israel positions.

Look at the pitches it has made to Arab groups, its funding from Soros who is well known for his anti-Israel positions and its animosity to the current Israeli government, even to the egging on the Obama administration to take even stronger anti-Israeli positions. J Street is a partisan left wing group who are willing to foster anti-Semitism which is disguised as demonizing Israel, delegitimizing Israel – even while it claims to want a 2-state solution – and using double standards for judging Israel, which it would not use for judging Israels foes or other nations.

So for J Street the new dialogue on being pro-Israel is to encourage being anti-Israel as a form of pro-Israel dialogue. Such friends no one needs.

Yisrael says:

Max has no idea what he’s talking about (and the author also leaves this out while including Toomey’s quote as an implied negative), but the $3 Billion or so in the FA budget for Israel is not “economic aid”, but is ENTIRELY military aid. So he’s exactly right, and unless you’re worried that “economic aid to Israel” in the FA budget is going to go from $0 to negative, you have egg on your face.

Now, while I don’t support separating Israel’s MILITARY aid from the overall FA budget, please explain how on earth you could possibly call $3 Billion dollars to Israel ONLY as an anti-Israel position? And when Israel’s aid is $3 Billion out of a total FA budget in the $50 Billions, including controversial-to-social conservatives family planning money, calling it a “vote against Israel’s economic aid” as Max does is a little disingenuous. Finally, Max apparently thinks the only vote or resolution worth looking at when determining somebody’s Israel position is foreign aid (which is as nearly as much about US interests as Israel’s, unless you think we give Egypt a couple billion dollars as a reward for good behavior). Because I have no idea how else he can describe supporting Pat Toomey instead of Joe Sestak as hurting Israel.

The rest of Max’s post is laughable in the extreme. Defend J Street’s mission all you want, but only the willfully ignorant can examine the organization and come up with an argument for their bipartisanship.

I think what annoys people about J street is the deception, not the partisinship. They take funding Soros who’s anti-Israel views are well known and lie about it. They take funding from a unknown woman in Hong kong and lie about it. They state that they are pro-peace. Who isn’t? They should simply stop calling themselves a pro-Israel lobby group because they are clearly not.

Carrie says:

Jeffrey Goldberg suggested a real reporter should find out the story behind the Hong Kong woman who is funding J Street. Why hasn’t a real reporter stepped forward to do this?

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In an Election Month, Everyone’s a Hack

Of course J Street and ECI are partisan—who cares?

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