J Street, wrapping up its second national conference today, will fan out over Capitol Hill for a round of lobbying meetings that will deliver a message that could – at least in part -- could warm AIPAC's heart: don't cut aid to Israel.
That, along with a call to continue aid to the Palestinian Authority in the interests of a two-state solution, is the sole “ask” in about 250 Hill meetings – mostly local J Streeters going to their own representatives offices, taking another page out of AIPAC's play book.
That deliberately centrist message may reflect what J Street director Jeremy Ben-Ami described in a Jewish Week story as a tactical shift by the group aimed at reassuring potential friends in Congress that the group he founded and leads isn't out of the pro-Israel mainstream.
That's not going to protect J Street against hits from the right; today there were emails circulating claiming that the group is lobbying for Palestinian aid – and omitting the part about supporting aid to Israel at continuing levels.
It also won't help with the hard left, which increasingly is washing its hands of a group it sees as far too eager to join the more traditional pro-Israel activist community.
Richard Silverstein, in his influential Tikun Olam blog, wrote about the “condescending, dismissive, litmus-test-driven J Street which drives me up a wall” because of the group's treatment of groups further to the left, and particularly boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) advocates.
He writes: “Jeremy Ben Ami specializes in the old Clinton triangulation strategy. You tack straight down the middle between right and left. By doing so you gain the respect of the broad middle that eschews tags of extreme ideology or partisanship. But there’s one big problem with this approach. There is no 'broad middle' that remains in either the American Jewish community or Israel. There is the far right, which is dominant and the left which is largely quiescent. So by hewing to a middle road you essentially satisfy very few.”
Silverstein is right – but he's also missing the point.
J Street's triangulation isn't aimed at the broader Jewish community, but at the members of Congress who will be key to its success as a “pro-Israel, pro-peace process” lobby: centrist politicians who support Israel but object to many of its policies, and want to see a much more aggressive U.S. involvement in ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Again, this points to the inherent conflict I've written about between J Street's grass roots constituency – which, like Silverstein, wants it to be more explicitly leftist and more critical of an administration it sees as waffling on its commitment to make Middle East peace a priority – and the folks on Capitol Hill, who are very nervous about getting targeted as anti-Israel by political groups that have been lowering the bar for exactly what being anti-Israel means.
Can J Street keep its core members happy while working to reassure members of Congress who may be inclined to support it that it won't get them in political hot water? That's the $64 dollar question that – more than all the attacks from the far right and the far left – will determine whether J Street succeeds, or is just another communal one-hit wonder.
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