J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami wanted his organization to endorse a US attack on Syria. (jstreetdotorg/Flickr)
Since the Obama administration began lobbying major US Jewish groups to support its plan to attack Syria, one organization remained conspicuously silent. While AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs all quickly rallied to the cause, J Street, the self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobbying group, issued no statement either for or against the proposed strike.
Amid widespread speculation as to whether J Street would come out for or against the strike, BuzzFeed quoted J Street spokesperson Jessica Rosenblum on 6 September stating that the organization had yet to determine its stance.
The group’s prevarication was mocked by Jonathan S. Tobin of the conservative Commentary, which said that in declining to support a major Middle East inititiative on the part of a Democratic president, J Street was “burning what’s left of its bridges to an administration that they’ve been out of step with for the past two years.”
Yesterday, the Jewish Daily Forward’s Nathan Guttman published an article describing the internal process leading up to J Street’s decision not to make a decision:
J Street’s decision to sit out the Syria debate was reached only after the group failed to agree internally on whether to back or oppose the call for military action — a failure that reflects the built-in tension between J Street’s broadly progressive activist base and its pragmatic leadership, which tends to hew closer to mainstream communal sentiment within the pro-Israel community… “The emails were flying at a pace of one every half-hour for three or four days,” said one activist who participated in the discussion. “There was no consensus among those who took part in the debate, although the preponderance were against US military intervention.”
The same activist told Guttman that “it was widely understood by board members and activists that Ben-Ami would favor backing the President” on his plan to attack Syria, but that Ben-Ami did not directly attempt to influence the board. “Jeremy is a pragmatist … He wants to keep us as progressive as possible without going too far from the mainstream,” the activist stated.
In a recent interview with The New Republic, Ben-Ami stated:
We have the ear of the White House; we have the ear of a very large segment of Congress at this point; we have very good relations with top communal leadership in the Jewish community. If you want to have a voice in those corridors of power, then get involved with J Street.
Ben-Ami’s view, that it is more important for J Street to be seen as a part of the Jewish mainstream than for the organization to adhere to the values held by most of its progressive contituency, has historically tended to win out.
As Guttman notes:
Tensions regarding the lobby’s policy have erupted in the past when controversial issues relating to Israel came up. Two years ago, J Street discussed whether to support the Palestinian bid for statehood presented to the United Nations, a proposed UN resolution that largely reflected the group’s own stated goals. But J Street eventually decided to oppose the move, falling in line with most other Jewish organizations. More recently, the lobby debated taking a stand on the decision of the European Union to boycott products made in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, but here again, the mainstream view prevailed and the lobby decided to steer clear from the issue.
Last summer, J Street played a critical role in convincing the Presbyterian Church (USA) to continue investing in companies helping to sustain Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, despite J Street’s purported opposition to the occupation. The move exemplified the advice of the consersative Israel think tank, the Reut Institute, which urges the use of groups like J Street to divert progressive support away from groups which back up progressive rhetoric against the occupation with nonviolent pressure to end it.
Interestingly, despite Ben-Ami’s insistence that, in return for its willingness to support less-than-progressive positions, J Street is rewarded with “the ear of the White House,” the organization “was not approached” by the Obama administration as it consulted with other major Jewish organizations on Syria.
This begs the question: if J Street’s support is considered unnecessary by the very administration it willingly compromises its principles in the hope of influencing, who exactly does benefit from its repeated interventions against fellow progressives?