On April 15, after 18 months of planning, a new progressive Jewish lobby called J Street was launched as a counterweight to the increasingly conservative American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). There is no physical J Street in Washington, D.C., but the name conjures up K Street, the hub for lobbying on Capitol Hill.
Israel’s Haaretz newspaper columnist Shmuel Rosner writes that the “J” in J Street also jokingly refers to Jeremy Ben-Ami, the veteran political operative and public relations professional who served as a domestic policy adviser in the Clinton administration and has worked for various progressive and peace-oriented American-Jewish organizations. Ben-Ami is executive director of both J Street – a 501(c)(4) lobbying organization – and of its separately chartered political action committee, JStreetPAC.
As Ben-Ami explained by e‑mail, existing pro-Israel, pro-peace groups – such as Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek V’Shalom and Israel Policy Forum – cannot take political stances because of their nonprofit status. But, as individuals, leaders from all three organizations are allowed to serve as members of J Street’s advisory council.
Initially, JStreetPAC plans to raise and contribute money for a small number of candidates for the U.S. House and Senate, as indicated on its website, “to demonstrate that there is meaningful political and financial support available to candidates for federal office from large numbers of Americans who believe a new direction in American policy will advance U.S. interests … and promote real peace and security for Israel and the region.”
J Street has a four-person staff and a projected $1.5 million annual budget, as compared with AIPAC’s approximately 300 employees and annual expenditures of about $60 million.
Early reports of this project focused on the participation of George Soros, the multibillionaire market speculator known for his outspoken views and his philanthropy for liberal causes. On April 12, 2007, Soros indicated in an article in the New York Review of Books that attacks on his character prompted him to withdraw his involvement from the group so as not to damage its efforts. As a result, Soros is not among the 100 people named on J Street’s advisory council.
Still, others on the council could become lightning rods for attack. One is Robert Malley, a former Clinton administration official who, as a Middle East policy consultant for Sen. Barack Obama (D‑Ill.), has drawn fire for allegedly being “anti-Israel.” Malley has written critically of the U.S. and Israeli roles at the failed 2000 Camp David summit. Another is Henry Siegman, former head of the American Jewish Congress, who for years has written scathingly against Israeli policies in the West Bank.
A separate listing of 25 Israeli supporters includes professors, retired generals and former cabinet ministers. One controversial figure on this list is Avrum Burg, a former chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a prominent Labour Party politician. In 2004, Burg resigned from parliament, and last year wrote Defeating Hitler, an acerbic book that argues for an end to Zionism.
“For too long, the loudest voices … when it comes to Israel and the Middle East, have belonged to the far right,” Ben-Ami wrote in an e‑mail to In These Times. He continues: “For the first time, political incumbents, as well as candidates, will know that there is organized support for sensible, mainstream positions on Israel and the Middle East – one that backs a two-state solution, opposes settlement expansion and advocates diplomatic, not military, resolutions to regional conflicts.”
Ben-Ami concludes: “These are sensible, smart ways to be pro-Israel, and to remain true to the values that the American Jewish community has always promoted of justice and peace for all.”