Assessing J Street
02/25/2011 - 08:08
James Besser

Since last week's story on J Street, several readers have asked about my assessment of how the group is doing after almost three tumultuous years.

Is J Street – which holds its second national conference beginning on Saturday at the Washington Convention Center - starting to have an impact on Capitol Hill, or has its impact been exaggerated by the press and by its own PR people?

Has it succeeded in offering an alternative pro-Israel voice to Jews who support Israel but dislike some of its policies?

Has it achieved a toehold in American Jewish life despite fierce opposition from the pro-Israel establishment, or have its mistakes set it on the road to irrelevance?  (Some of the latest opposition: the Emergency Committee for Israel is urging White House Middle East adviser Dennis Ross to use his scheduled appearance to "challenge J Street and the radical NGO's it invited," according to an official of the group).

Good questions; unfortunately, many of the answers are unclear. J Street remains a work in progress. Early signs are mixed.

In general, I think it's about where you'd expect a new group led by smart people in a politically challenging environment to be after almost three years.

Its growth has been strong; its membership is excited and galvanized, as the almost 2000 registered for the upcoming conference attest; it has created a lot of buzz in Washington.

There's little question it has become a magnet for younger Jews who support Israel but have no interest in what many see as the “Israel is always right” stance of the traditional pro-Israel groups – no doubt one reason for the continuing attacks against the group.

Much less clear is its impact in Washington and the impact of its well publicized missteps.

I don't need to reiterate those blunders – read my story. But there's little doubt missteps and miscalculations have energized the opposition and given J Street's most vehement detractors a lot of ammunition.

That opposition has had a mixed impact, it seems to me.

There's little doubt it has succeeded in making some of the people J Street needs the most – middle-of-the-road members of Congress who support Israel but dislike some of its policies – nervous about too tight an embrace with the progressive group.

J Street's loss of Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) may have been the result of J Street errors, or it may be that he was looking for an excuse to shed the J Street burden because of the intense criticism. I know there are other members who are a little warier of getting too close to the group because of the anti-J Street attacks.

But the relentless, sometimes over the top attacks have also galvanized J Street's base, and from what I hear tipped some middle-of-the-road Jews from apathy to active support for the group.

On Capitol Hill, J Street has developed an aggressive style of lobbying that has angered some lawmakers, and it may have chosen some issues unwisely if its goal is, as stated, to have the back of lawmakers who want to speak out for a more aggressive peace process but are afraid of the political consequences.

Its decision to urge the administration to withhold its veto when the UN General Assembly passed a resolution condemning Israel's settlement activities and labeling them illegal was an example. A skewed UN is too radioactive an issue even for most congressional doves; J Street's position on the resolution made a lot of its sympathizers on Capitol Hill very nervous.

The net result of that effort was probably a loss of influence for J Street.

I hear all the time that J Street is basically a pro-Obama group, and that it wields huge influence inside the Obama White House.

Access – yes. Major influence? I don't see much evidence.

The administration's early focus on Israeli settlements came from the President himself and some of his closest advisers, people tell me, not J Street – although J Street undoubtedly agreed. Since then, officials here haven't done much of what J Street wanted, from withholding a U.S. veto in the Security Council to taking a much more aggressive U.S. peace process role.

I suspect that if Jeremy Ben-Ami was the master puppeteer pulling strings at the White House, U.S. policy in the peace process would look very different than it does today. There's no doubt it has better access than most groups on the left have had. I don't see an administration whose Middle East policy has been inconsistent, at best, carrying J Street's water.

J Street's performance in terms of campaign finance remains unclear. The last election cycle didn't tell us much because it was such a Republican tidal wave, and almost all of the candidates J Street supported were Dems, some of whom lost for reasons having nothing to do with Israel policy. Joe Sestak didn't lose his Senate race in Pennsylvania because of J Street's support, despite the spin.

It takes a lot more than three years to develop the kind of political funding network that backs up AIPAC and other major lobbies. Ask me again in 10 years and I might have an intelligent answer.

As I said, its mistakes have set back its agenda. A more troubling question for J Street is this: does it have a constituency capable of sustaining it the way AIPAC sustains that group?

J Street is aimed at Jewish progressives – a notoriously diverse, diffuse and quarrelsome bunch with numerous political priorities, many of which are ranked as high or higher than the Israel issue.

AIPAC – and the other major pro-Israel groups – draw from a smaller but far more focused group of activists for whom Israel is always the first, and sometimes the only, object of their activism.

AIPAC has no trouble rallying its troops no matter what the issue; I suspect it will be harder for J Street. So far, they've done better than I expected on that score, but maintaining that over a period of years won't be easy.

As I said in my story, J Street has a continuing problem with the diversity of that grassroots base.

Yes, there are many who take very moderate pro-peace process positions, but there are also BDS supporters, single staters, maybe some anti-Zionist Jews. J Street will continue to walk a precarious tightrope between that part of its base, which wants J Street to be more outspokenly leftist, and its other constituency – members of Congress and mainstream politicians who will flee in terror if they see the group moving in that direction.

And to a degree events are working against J Street.

Look at the peace camp in Israel – a faint shadow of what it once was. I know many former peaceniks here who are just so discouraged – by the multiple failures of the peace process, by the turn to the right in Israel, by the inept and vacillating Palestinian leadership, by administrations that promise strong U.S. leadership and then get bogged down in the swamps of Middle East maneuvering – that they've opted out of activism entirely.

The right doesn't have that problem; on the contrary, it appears energized, relatively united around a few core issues and convinced history is on their side.

That gap is something J Street will have to deal with if it wants to sustain its early growth.

On the other hand, J Street clearly holds appeal for the cohorts of younger Jews that have been pulling away from pro-Israel and Jewish involvement. In the long term, that may put J Street in a better position to challenge the pro-Israel establishment – if it can at the same time build confidence among the lawmakers they are lobbying and the congressional wannabees they hope will shift the balance in Congress on Middle East issues.

A tricky act? You bet.

Comments

Its easier playing defense rather then offense. Aipac wants to preserve Israel. J-Street lines up with hamas and hezbollah.

What is notable is that J Street has been very strong at getting press -- good or bad -- which makes it a factor. After all, there are several other groups with similar agendas -- American for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum -- come to mind. J Street, however, has done a better job, as Jim Besser points out, being very brash on Capitol Hill as well as now putting on conferences with major speaking draws. Most interesting will be whether they can gain attraction in communities across the U.S., including having their local chapters join community relations councils. It will also be interesting to see if they apply to belong to the President's Conference, as Americans for Peace Now did in 1993 around the time of the start of the Oslo Accords. The difference then -- which is not small -- is that they had the support for their agenda by the Prime Minister of Israel.
J Street never became relevant. It is a joke.

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