Friday, November 13, 2009

The rise of J Street

J Street is a nonprofit lobbying group headquartered in Washington, DC that seeks to mobilize American leadership to end the Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israel conflicts peacefully and diplomatically. J Street states that it "supports a new direction for American policy in the Middle East--diplomatic solutions over military ones," "multilateral over unilateral approaches to conflict resolution," and "dialogue over confrontation" with wider international support.

The term J Street plays off K Street, where many Washington lobbying firms are located. In fact there is no such street in the nation’s capital, where the street naming jumps from I (“eye”) to K. The name choice reflects the aspiration of J Street's founders and donors to bring a voice to Washington D.C. that, much like the missing "J Street" of the downtown grid, has been absent so far.

The group’s dynamic executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, maintains that J Street is neither pro- nor anti- any individual organization or other pro-Israel umbrella groups. However, the new group is widely perceived as challenging the much more powerful AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee). One of the founders, Alan Solomont, has described the need for J Street in the following way: "We have heard the voices of neocons, and right-of-center Jewish leaders and Christian evangelicals. [Yet] the mainstream views of the American Jewish community have not been heard.”

What is AIPAC? The roots of this powerful lobbying group go back to 1953, when Isaiah L. "Si" Kenen founded the American Zionist Committee for Public Affairs. Kenen later stated that the group’s Executive Committee decided to change the name to American Israel Public Affairs Committee "to enlarge constituency and support.”

As the political scientist Joel Beinin observes, AIPAC "became a significant force in shaping public opinion and US Middle East policy after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Its power was simultaneously enabled and enhanced by Israel's emergence as a regional surrogate for US military power in the Middle East in the terms outlined by the 1969 Nixon Doctrine.” The group earned its spurs during the 1970s and 1980s when it was able to unseat representatives and senators who were deemed lacking in unqualified support of Israel, such as Sen. Charles Percy (R-IL), Rep. Paul Findley (R-OH) and Rep. Pete McCloskey (R-CA). Today AIPAC claims that it "has grown into a 100,000-member national grassroots movement." In my view, the organization should be required to register as an agent of a foreign power. One may consult the critical site

For its part, J Street--the David to AIPAC's Goliath--is active in two realms. One is fund raising, where it acts as a traditional political action committee raising funds to support a limited number of candidates for Senate and Congressional races. The other sphere of activity is Capitol Hill lobbying.

The attacks that have been launched against the group show that it is having an effect, in my view a salutary one. In the right-wing Commentary Magazine Noah Pollak predicted that the effort would fall flat, showing there are no "great battalions of American Jewish doves languishing in voicelessness." That view is perhaps wishful thinking on Pollak’s part. Predictably enough, other critics have been more outspoken. Rabbi Eric Yoffie termed J Street's critical reaction to the Israeli invasion of Gaza "morally deficient, profoundly out of touch with Jewish sentiment and also appallingly naïve."

Generally speaking, American liberal opinion--as seen in a piece by Edward Witten in the New York Review of Books (“The New J-Lobby for Peace,” Nov 5, 2009)--has been overwelmingly positive. Yet the euphoria may be premature. The Israel-Palestine situation remains as intractable as ever, and will not easily yield to the solutions proposed by the peace advocates, as represented by J Street and its counterparts in Israel itself. Strategically, is unclear whether the new group can muster the financial and institutional heft that will be required to challenge AIPAC’s dominance.

And indeed a skeptic might conclude that the two organizations are not as far apart as they seem. Both place their primary emphasis on the interests of the state of Israel; they simply perceive these interests differently. In my view, a genuine alternative to AIPAC would urge that the United States should now disengage itself from the Middle East entirely.



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