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Published on: October 16, 2010
The Problem With J Street

With the Israeli government’s latest (and in my view, misguided) decision to start construction on housing in East Jerusalem, the struggle over the future of the peace process has grown more intense.  Meanwhile, as Middle East diplomacy heats up, J Street–an organization primarily representing American Jews who disagree with the hardline policies of the current Israeli […]

With the Israeli government’s latest (and in my view, misguided) decision to start construction on housing in East Jerusalem, the struggle over the future of the peace process has grown more intense.  Meanwhile, as Middle East diplomacy heats up, J Street–an organization primarily representing American Jews who disagree with the hardline policies of the current Israeli government and look for alternative negotiating strategies–has been engulfed in a scandal. It turns out that despite some repeated weaselly and disingenuous statements by the organization’s president Jeremy Ben-Ami extending over a long period of time and made to many different people –statements which at least one journalist has characterized as ‘a lie‘– J Street has received funding from George Soros and family to the tune of more than $700,000.  Additional questions are being raised about the organization’s other funders; some of the money seems to come from mysterious foreign donors whose identity, so far, has been difficult to establish.

I can’t speak to the unknown foreign donors issue.  The problem of wealthy individuals transferring large amounts of money around the world under a murky veil of cut outs and bank secrecy is a serious one; there is no indication, however, that either the donor or J Street has done anything wrong.  Still, it is always a bad idea for the presidents of public policy institutions to repeatedly attempt to mislead the public about the sources of their funding, and that is particularly true when they are working on hot button issues like the Middle East.  Resignations are normally the correct response to screw ups this big and this ugly, and the organization’s failure so far to demonstrate that it considers this breach of the public trust to be a deeply serious matter is not a good sign.

Israeli President Dr. Chaim Weizmann (right) and President Harry S. Truman, who holds a gift from Israel given in appreciation of American support for the nascent nation (Credit: Truman Library).

That said, I fail to see why anybody, especially a liberal and predominantly Jewish organization, would find it necessary to conceal a financial relationship with George Soros.  While some of Soros’ political stands are controversial, his is a well-known and well-respected name in liberal philanthropy.  You don’t have to agree with him about many things to recognize that his work in promoting the emergence of civil society in the ex-socialist world has been extremely successful.  Some of Washington’s most visible think tanks have benefited from his generosity and political commitments.  Given that Soros  and J Street have many ideas in common, it is hard to see why the organization should act as if the relationship is a dark and dirty secret.  If J Street thought for whatever reason that a political association with Mr. Soros was inexpedient, the group should not have taken his money.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I should say here that I have known George Soros for many years and consider him a friend.  We spend much of our time together arguing about politics and have quite different views about many issues.  George’s intellectual curiosity and his desire to understand points of view different from his own are among the qualities I admire in him.  I have never asked for or received any support from George for my work — and given our political differences I doubt he would give me any money if I asked.   Although institutions at which I have worked have sometimes benefited from his support, the money never went to me or my work — and so far as I know my employment there had nothing to do with George’s decision to support those institutions.  I have not discussed this post with George or anybody on his staff.)

Getting back to J Street, its real problem isn’t the money.  It isn’t the policy positions (which range from reasonable to blockheaded in my view, but that is true of most policy institutes).  It isn’t even the dubious quality of its ethical judgment as revealed by  its deliberately misleading statements about the sources of its support.  The problem with J Street is its core theory of the case, and the business model the organization bought into.

J Street fundamentally misreads the politics of America’s Middle Eastern policies, and as a result it is essentially irrelevant to the real debates that will decide what America will do in the region.  Globally, one of the most common (and idiotic) assumptions about American foreign policy is that “the Jews” control it.  Virtually everyone in the Middle East, a deeply depressing number of Europeans (who cling to anti-Semitic myths about Jewish power and clannishness even while claiming to be completely free of prejudice), and even a handful of misguided Americans think that American gentiles are so weak and so foolish that a handful of clever, rich and unscrupulous Jews have led us around for decades with rings through our noses when it comes to the Middle East.  The allegedly awesome mindbending power of Jews in the media and the allegedly irresistible power of Jewish money (through AIPAC and other organizations) bribed politicians and bamboozled the public.  How else, these theorists of occult Jewish power ask, to explain America’s stubborn and stupid support of the Jewish state?

Everything I know about the history of American foreign policy, the state of American opinion, the nature of American ideology and theology, and the state of American politics tells me this is wrong.   Support for the construction of a Jewish state in the Holy Land has been an important part of American Christian and political thought going back to colonial times.  The ideas of Jewish exceptionalism and American exceptionalism have been bound together in the American mind for more than two hundred years.  During the Cold War, Americans gradually got into the habit of considering Israel one of our most valuable and reliable allies.  In recent years this longstanding association has been substantially strengthened by the widespread public belief that the same people who most hate Israel and want to bring it down are the bitter enemies of the United States and will stop at nothing to kill as many American civilians as they possibly can.

AIPAC’s power, which is real, is a bit like the power of the National Rifle Association.  The NRA has a lot of influence over American gun legislation, and few politicians want to take it on.  It spends plenty of money and mounts plenty of PR campaigns, but if large numbers of Americans didn’t care about gun rights, the NRA would be a much less important and relevant organization.  The NRA mobilizes an existing public consensus, and it increases the impact of the public support of individual gun rights, but its power flows from the public’s belief that gun rights are good — and that the NRA is a reliable watchdog.   Politicians quake in their boots and obey because they know that if the NRA labels them ‘anti-gun’, the voters will believe the NRA on an issue that matters to them — and in most races the politicians who cross the gun lobby will pay a heavy political price.

AIPAC’s power works the same way, but it needs to be stressed that the politicians who fear it aren’t thinking much about the Jewish votes it allegedly commands.  Less than two percent of the US population is Jewish, and Jews aren’t exactly swing voters.  Next to African-Americans, Jews are the most reliable (and most liberal) bloc of voters in the Democratic Party.

AIPAC’s political power ultimately comes from its ability to influence non-Jewish voters.  If AIPAC and related groups call politicians anti-Israel, the tens of millions of non-Jewish voters who connect Israel’s security with American values and interests will believe them.  (A recent poll found that 53% of voters were more likely to vote for a candidate who was ‘pro-Israel’.)  AIPAC is powerful because it is the accredited watchdog on an issue the non-Jewish public cares about; if the dog barks, something is wrong.

Many Americans think that both AIPAC and the NRA sometimes go too far, but they tolerate that (within limits) because they think that in general, these organizations are on the right side of the issue.  If either of these organizations went too far ahead of public sentiment too often, the lobby would lose influence.  They can push the envelope of public sentiment, but they can’t lead the public where it fundamentally does not want to go.

J Street wants to challenge AIPAC as the voice of American Jews on Middle Eastern issues.  J Street argues that AIPAC and other highly visible heads of Jewish organizations (are you listening, Abe Foxman?) are taking views that are not representative of the larger Jewish community.  To make the point, J Street has commissioned some impressive surveys of American Jewish public opinion. The organization’s March 10, 2010 report summarizes the result of this polling:

Despite the public statements of numerous Jewish organizational leaders who have offered sharp criticism of President Obama’s Middle East approach, it is important to recognize that Jews remain a highly progressive constituency and view the Obama Administration as a refreshing change from the previous Administration.  Confidence in the country’s direction under President Obama is dramatically higher than before he took office, as 41 percent of American Jews now believe the country is headed in the right direction (compared to just 10 percent under President Bush in July 2008).  Moreover, as the President’s job approval has fallen with the overall U.S. population (from 54 percent in October 2009 to 47 percent when the March 2010 J Street survey fielded), Jewish assessments of the President are unchanged during this same period and remain 15 points higher than the rest of the country.  And after a little more than a year in office which included a highly visible battle over Israeli settlements and the most recent flap over the Israeli announcement of new housing in East Jerusalem, Jews have a considerably higher favorable opinion of President Obama (59 percent favorable) than Prime Minister Netanyahu (44 percent favorable).

J Street is right about this, I think.  American Jews mostly track well to the left of general American public opinion on Israel, just as American Jews by and large are more liberal than their fellow citizens on many other public policy questions.

But if J Street is right, it is also irrelevant.   Non-Jewish Americans aren’t listening to AIPAC because they are prepared to give “the Jews” whatever they want when it comes to Israel policy.  Still less do they worry that defying AIPAC will bring down the awesome power of “the Jews” on their heads.  They listen to AIPAC because they believe it is a reliable advocate for the approach to the issue they want American policy to take.  A sturdy majority of non-Jewish Americans support Israel for reasons that have nothing, repeat nothing, to do with the generally more liberal and nuanced views of American Jews.  Back in the 1920s, when most American Jews were still anti-Zionist, both houses of Congress unanimously supported the Balfour Declaration, the British statement that it would support the creation of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.

Generalizations are always tricky, but from where I stand Jews in the media are also, on balance, if anything perhaps a bit less likely to take hard-line pro-Likud positions than non-Jews.  Yes, there is Commentary and a relative handful of highly visible Jewish conservative and neoconservative writers at places like The Weekly Standard.  But William Kristol and John Podhoretz are not exactly typical figures among contemporary journalists who happen also to be American Jews.  Roger Cohen, Joe Klein, and Tom Friedman are, for example, considerably more critical of Israel than, say, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity.  David Remnick’s New Yorker doesn’t read much like a Likud PR outlet.  The New York Review of Books stands, if anything, a bit to the left of J Street on Middle East issues.

The mainstream American Jewish journalistic establishment is firmly anti-Likud; the Jewish side of Hollywood is almost vituperatively anti-Likud; the predominantly liberal financiers of Wall Street — like George Soros — feel much the same way.  To the extent that there is an American Jewish establishment, that establishment favors J Street style ideas.  If the Jews of Hollywood, Wall Street and the mainstream media were as powerful and clannish as European anti-Semitic legend has it, Europe would actually like America’s Middle East policies much more than it does.

It can’t be repeated too often:  the American Jewish community is not responsible for the popularity of hard line views among American non-Jews on Middle East issues.  Individual Jews and predominantly Jewish organizations like AIPAC derive their influence over American foreign policy not from their Jewishness, but from the affinity of their policy agenda with the views and priorities of America’s non-Jews.  When American Jews say things about the Middle East that resonate with the views of American non-Jews, they are influential.  When, as in the case of the persistent agitation to free convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, Jewish conservative supporters of Israel deviate from the gentile consensus, that influence suddenly disappears.  When, like the many liberal Jewish journalists and pundits who think hard line policies in the Middle East are bad for both Israel and the United States, they say things that American non-Jews don’t like — their views and their insights are largely cast aside.  In none of these cases is the Jewish identity of the writers the key to the reception accorded their ideas.

(From WikiCommons)

Quite often, America’s most pro-Israel politicians are people who don’t get much Jewish money or many Jewish votes.  Sarah Palin had an Israeli flag in her office when she was Governor of Alaska; this didn’t help her much with Joe Klein, and it didn’t make her the toast of the Upper West Side.  Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee was the most consistent supporter of a hard-line pro-Israel position among the top presidential contenders in 2008; somehow, the Jewish vote didn’t come through for him.

The problem with J Street is not that it is ashamed of its donors and that its Hong Kong offshore donor, in particular, is a mysterious and shadowy figure.  The problem is that it is wasting its donors’ money — and its staff’s time.  Demonstrating that AIPAC does not represent the views of many American Jews is both easy and, from the standpoint of practical politics, pointless.  Changing America’s mind about the Middle East is hard — and based on events to date, it doesn’t look as if J Street is up to the job.

show comments
  • John Barker

    I hope the editors of the “Economist” read this post. They consistently misread America’s attachment to Israel as a product of sinister Jewish influence. I have to conclude that this point of view is a result of deeply ingrained prejudice that trumps historical evidence and reason.

  • geronimo

    Mr. Mead, may I recommend you to the
    U.S Corps of Engineers?–the way you get through a minefield! One superb piece.

  • Snorri Godhi

    “a deeply depressing number of Europeans [...] think that American gentiles are so weak and so foolish that a handful of clever, rich and unscrupulous Jews have led us around for decades with rings through our noses when it comes to the Middle East.”

    I have met a small number of such Europeans, including one member of my own family, unfortunately. No doubt I would have met more, if I discussed politics more often.

    However, the above statement is misleading, because Europeans did not think _for decades_ that a handful of Jews have led Americans around for decades: they started thinking so only when the Cold War was long over. If my experience is any guide, they started thinking so only after the American mainstream media started pushing this idea; so I hold the American media and intelligentsia guilty until proven innocent for this European fallacy. Under the questionable assumption that American Jews control the American media, it would follow that American Jews should be blamed for the European belief that American Jews should be blamed for American attitudes to Israel.

  • nadine

    The problem with taking George Soros’ money is that he is well known for funding leftist, anti-Israel causes so his money was obviously problematic for an organization claiming to be “pro-Israel”. As was J Street co-founder Daniel Levy’s statement that the founding of Israel was a “wrongful act”. So Jeremy Ben Ami simply lied about both. Truly dumb.

    J Street was founded and promoted on the basis of a lie. It is now suffering a well-deserved implosion.

  • Luke Lea

    Nice post!

  • Ann Mere

    The only Jews who voted in their own self-interest before World War II were the ones who voted with their feet. Now there really is no other place for the Jews to go for safety, so it would be nice if American Jews would really take stock of who cares about them in the political process.

  • Pingback: Moe Lane » #rsrh So, this J Street foreign donors thing…()

  • Becky

    I just have to pause and wonder why anyone as informed as yourself would want to call George Soros’ a friend. How about Bernie Madoff, do you admire him enough to call him a friend as well? Oh that’s right, Bernie just stole it, he didn’t toss coins at philanthropic organizations whose purpose is as shady and amoral as the money that funds them.

  • Jabba The Tutt

    United States is a country that has a Zion National Park without controversy.

  • Sophie

    I agree with geronimo. Well argued and true. (I say this as an AIPAC-type Jew who is surrounded by young reflexibly leftist J-Street types in NYC.)

  • Raeefa

    While I think this post raises a good point about the ultimate futility of J Street’s mission, I think there are a few flaws in this argument.

    It’s a (really) good thing that Mead is attempting to debunk conspiracy theories about Jewish power and influence. But the comment about various media figures is just bewildering. Roger Cohen, Joe Klein, Thomas Friedman, and the vast majority of what you’re referring to as the Jewish media establishment identify primarily as liberals, in the same way Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer would identify primarily as conservatives. They’re not representative of the “Jewish community” in and of themselves. They’re representatives of different strands of American politics who just happen to be Jewish.

    And I think Mead is simplifying American Jews’ “dovish” views on Israel compared to the rest of America. If you look at the recent AJC poll of American Jewish opinion, there’s a great deal of hawkishness concerning Israel – on dividing Jerusalem, on the wisdom of a settlement freeze, on Palestinian intentions, etc. – more or less similar to what is in national surveys. Cohen, Klein, and Friedman might be well to the left of that, but I don’t see how their prominence in the media somehow make them representative of the Jewish community. What I do think is that despite American Jews being fairly hawkish on Israel, they don’t prioritize the issue and instead vote on the social/economic issues that they’re solidly liberal on.

    Mead is totally right that AIPAC is successful because it represents the views of a majority of Americans, not just Jews. But the important thing is that the generally pro-Israel views of Americans would be meaningless if there weren’t an organization that mobilized politically in order to achieve the “right” results.

    I’m glad that Mead is arguing against the conspiracy-mongers. But he shouldn’t promote a narrative of Jewish indifference and passivity with regard to Israel in his attempt to disprove the opposite.

  • Yisrael

    Good piece.

    Though there are a few very recent exceptions, those non-Jews who overwhelmingly support Israel simply are not going to make it their top political issue. The pro-Israel Jewish community will and does. With “US opinion on Israel” and “US Jewish opinion on Israel”, it’s all about the highly committed few vs. the uncommitted many. While the uncommitted many are important, without the highly committed few American policy looks very different. This isn’t a negative thing and is true for most other issues as well.

    As for American Jewish opinion and J Street, no matter how the committed few feel about Israeli policy, they most assuredly do not subscribe to the J Street idea that intense American pressure on democratic ally Israel is the way to go.

    My educated guess is that the majority of AIPAC supporters are anti-settlements (not including Jerusalem), but don’t believe they are the crux of the issue, and don’t believe Israel’s defensible borders should be dictated to them by the US and Europe. Unlike J Street, they respect Israel’s sovereignty enough to understand that as American citizens (maybe that’s the issue, since J Street is half-funded by 1 woman in Hong Kong), they won’t pay the price for bad security decisions and dead Israelis so maybe the American Jewish community role should be different. J Street doesn’t seem to think that matters, in the same way they don’t think Palestinian intransigence matters…”if only Israel would do xyz….”

    This basic political understanding applies to those American Jews for whom Israel is not just one of 10 political issues that they have an opinion about, but is rather something at the top of their list of passions because it defines who they are. And these are the committed few for whom Israel isn’t just one in a long line of issues they have political opinions about. That’s J Street’s dirty little secret — at the grassroots level, they’re supported by either the same hard core lefties who have always belonged to Brit Tzedek and other completely un-influential “pressure Israel” groups or those uberliberals who will never make Israel a major focus of their lives but are upset because they’ve watched their liberal friends completely run away from Israel over the past 20 years.

  • SC Mike

    America’s support for the state of Israel and the Jewish folks is broader than just another manifestation of the Jacksonian tradition. Americans like the underdog, we cheer for the person with the good heart and zeal who, against overwhelming odds, prevails. This is such a staple of American culture that even Hollywood acknowledges it by making outrageously profitable movies like Rocky and its sequels, Die Hard and its sequels, as well as most successful westerns and anything Americana.

    But there’s more than just the emotional aspect of the little guy prevailing that makes us Jew-lovers. As the typical American learns more about the intricacies of the Middle East’s politics, cultures, economic realities, and the like, their fervor for Israel increases. They’ve too much sense to fall into the trap that our country’s elites invariably do when it comes to foreign relations because they know there are guys that wear white hats who have to take on the black hats when the latter threaten.

  • Peter

    Great article. I would love to be able to post your articles to my Facebook account!

  • Gary Rosen

    Excellent article, but I agree with Raeefa that Mead may overstate the opposition and/or indifference to Israel among liberal Jews. I believe the overwhelming majority of Jews of all political stripes are fervently pro-Israel. However I think there is a good deal of cognitive dissonance among liberal Jews who refuse to recognize the fact that Republicans and conservatives are now far more pro-Israel than non-Jewish lefitsts.

  • Neighbour

    It’s not a good idea to cite J Street’s polling. It turns out that the polling was carried out by its own vice president, Jim Gerstein. [see the recently released IRS 990s that lists his position in the organization and his payment of $60,000 for polling.] How reliable can the polls be? J Street wrote the questions and analyzed the results to fit its policies.

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  • Raymond in DC

    Just as AIPAC (like the NRA) have influence because their general message resonates with the American populace, the Arab lobby – despite rich resources – has limited influence beyond the Executive branch because their positions do NOT resonate with the American populace.

    J Street’s polling tends to “skew” toward J Street positions, but more independent polling favors Israel even stronger, with pro-Israel support consistently exceeding 60%, while pro-Palestinian support consistently below 20%. The White House may have J Street in their corner, but the American people are clearly not.

  • Pat

    Nice article.

    Over the years I have made essentially, if not as articulate, the same points in friendly, and sometimes not so friendly, discussions.
    When the fact that many Jews in powerful positions disagree, sometimes vehemently, with hard line Israeli positions, I’m met with a look of bewilderment or a somewhat amused patronizing air. It seems to some outward signs of Jewish support for a softer approach to Middle East problems, and in some cases outright support for the Palestinian position is seen as evidence of a Jewish conspiracy. Anti-semitism seems to occupy a deeply rooted place in the human psyche
    and should not be underestimated.

  • Ray Walker

    I wouldn’t care if the area occupied by Israel was occupied by Bulgarians. I don’t accpet gods or chosen people myths. Today Israel is a civilized Western culture and democracy in the middle of a bunch of 9th century jihadists and Islamic antiWeswen hatreds.

    The opinion of American Jews, left or right, is irrelevant. I pay attention to the opinion of those Jews who face the cannones of their enemies. Survival writes its own moral code. Unless you and your family will live or die based on decisions America makes, I am not interested in your opinion.
    I want Israel to win and Islam to lose. I have no problem choosing sides. I certainly wouldn’t tell Israel how to defend itself.

    As long as the Arabs refuse to accept the existence of the Israeli nation there can be nothing but war.Liberals talk so much their minds become incoherent.

  • David f

    1. You fail to mention the strong and significant minority of conservative and republican Jews. Granted the majority are still democrats, if only because, happily, there are still many older kneejerk FDR democrats still with us. But orthodox jews are by far the fastest growing segment, and such Jews overwhelmingly vote conservative and republican. Thus, while a thin and shrinking majority of Jews still vote democrat, they are nowhere near as monolithic as African Americans.

    2. You write that J-Street’s message is probably accepted by most Jews, but it is rejected because it fails to resonate among Gentiles. That’s manifestly incorrect. Most Jews, even liberal Jews, are big supporters of Israel, and J-street is simply an anti Israel group. Most Jews are smart enough to see through it. ( Doesnt take a rocket scientist.) There is close to universal concensus in the community that J-street should be rejected. Thus, J-street is a loser because BOTH Jews and Gentiles have seen through it/

  • http://www.allenzhertz.com Allen Z. Hertz

    Great article! However, I must say that there is some recent polling showing marginal popularity gains for Netanyahu among USA Jews. The fact that it might be possible to argue that Netanyahu has held his own in USA Jewish public opinion, while Obama is slowly sinking speaks volumes. When Obama was at his height, very few USA Jews then realized that there was an element of contradiction in supporting both Netanyahu and Obama. Now, USA Jews are increasingly better informed on this point and have become more sensitive to the practical disjunction that logically requires supporting either Obama or Netanyahu.

  • Larry Snider

    WRM gets it basically right. But J Street has exploded both positively and negatively as an entity in the Middle East debate because it is the first pro-peace Jewish organization to welcome together many of the smaller focused groups and publicly rise up on its heals and say that it was pro-Israel pro-Peace and a counterweight to the conservative power of AIPAC. The are many liberal Jewish members of congregations across the country who remain unwilling to challenge the hegemony of AIPAC as the American representative of Israel simply because that has been and remains its primary function.

  • Eve Rowell, MD

    This article appears to be based more on the author’s political opinions rather than on facts. The author fails to understand why anyone would conceal support by George Soros. In other words he fails to understand two crucial facts: 1) George Soros is a well-known philanthropist of all causes that are anti-Israel and 2) J Street’s primary statement about itself is “We are pro-Israel.” If you do not understand those basic facts, why would I depend on your analysis of anything else? In fact, the problem of J Street is exactly that it misleads the public, it misleads pro-Israel Jews into thinking it is a pro-Israel organization. What the “majority” of Jewish scholars, thinkers, writers, professionals, etc. think about Israel at any one time cannot be represented by comparing one or two pro-Israel commentators to four or five anti-Israel celebrities.

    It is illogical to conclude based upon this author’s personal survey of a smattering of individuals that the majority of Jews in this country think the way J Street thinks. I imagine the author would like us to assume this is the case. It is the difference between biased opinion presented as if it were fact and the truth itself based upon objective standards of evidence or even logic.

    J Street will become irrelevant because it is an anti-Israel organization designed to masquerade as a pro-Israel organization, and over time it will become more and more difficult to conceal the truth.

    Like the sloppy conclusions discussed above, the author’s final conclusion continues to show lack of understanding of the issues involved. It is not at all clear that J Street’s main problem is that it is a waste of donor money. On the contrary, some donors may feel it is an excellent use of their money to try to convince people that an organization that is against Israel’s existence as a Jewish State is really pro-Israel.

    One problem with the thinking on the left, and this article is a good example, is that the world is viewed as they wish it would be, or the way it looks from within a group of only left thinking people, as if that is the way all people think. It leaves this group unable to consider what the rest of the world thinks, including plenty of liberals who just disagree with the most left-wing groups. This is why Democrats are vulnerable politically: they can’t think seriously about any perspective but their own, and solipsistic thinking is just plain maladpative.

  • joe

    Professor Mead:
    Great article! I think American Jews do not mention their support for Israel because they do not want to see themselves and their culture/religion vilified and marginalized like German culture after WWI. German culture has never regained its prominence academically and the number of German-speaking newspapers and communities were reduced to almost zero by the 60s.

    A quick question Professor Mead: what do you think about Chancellor Merkel’s refutation of multikulti and embracing German, judeo-christian values as the leitkultur for Germany and all its inhabitants? More interesting, what did the German Foreign Office threaten Turkey with to get them to co-operate? Nine months ago, Erdogan was proclaiming in Berlin no less that the assimilation of Turks into the German educational system was a breach of human rights and now he’s humming Wagner in lock-step with the CDU/CSU. You gotta know some people…

  • Mark

    Interesting but not convincing. So J-street’s views are currently unpopuar among the general public. So what? it is a young organization, and people’s views can change. As the organzation learns from its mistakes, it can move public opinion to the left. This does not happen over night.

    And David f.: I challenge you to name me one specific J-street position that makes it anti-Israel. What evidence do you have supporting the notion that liberal jews as a group hate J-street. Let me guess: You have none. Universal consensus in the community? Your community maybe.

  • Margie in Tel Aviv

    Undoubtedly the motives of many, even most, members of JStreet are sincere and honestly held as pro-peace, pro-Israel. However, given the well-known views of Soros the principal donor does the leadership allow the murmur of the membership to prevail over the powerful voice of the money? I doubt it.

  • Chris

    Besides my fondness for Israel as a Christian I have to admit a practical benefit of having Israel as a political ally.

    Israel is the scout, the forward base, the war-time picket. Bad things happen first in Israel and give the US a chance to adjust and adapt. Most of our (US) enemies we have in common with Israel not just because we are allies but because of our shared philosophy of equality, democracy, and capitalism.

    And because Israel acts as point-man for our civilization we owe them a tremendous amount of gratitude and respect.

  • Max

    Margie, J Street’s positions are very clearly delineated on its website. If they are switched out for anti-Israel positions due to donor pressure, it will be easy for you to find out. Until then it’s an act of sinat chinam to allude darkly to concealed purposes. Soros contributed less than 10% of J Street’s operating budget. The beliefs and work of its staff and volunteers are a much bigger influence on its policy goals.

    To Mr. (Dr.?) Mead:
    As a big fan of your work, I was dismayed to read this column for a couple of reasons.

    The first is minor, relatively speaking: your portrayal of a Hong Kong donor as “shadowy.” The identity of this donor is public information, and the reason for her major donation to J Street is also public information. There is nothing “shadowy” about this (aside from the fact that this woman is not a well-known international philanthropist; but since when was that our standard for transparency?), and to suggest otherwise is misleading at best. I don’t know whether you were trying to score a rhetorical point or whether you simply didn’t do the minimal research required, but neither motivation, obviously, is justifiable.

    The idea that J Street is unusually cagey about its donors seems to have been born in the minds of those who have not worked in nonprofit fundraising. The simple fact is that J Street, like any other 501(c)4, had no obligation to disclose its donors, and like nearly every other nonprofit working on the Hill it chose to take advantage of this privacy. (AIPAC is another nonprofit that declines to make its donor records public.) I’m surprised that, as a friend to Mr. Soros – a man who seems to spend a great deal of time disbursing funds to one organization or another – this isn’t already obvious to you.

    Mr. Ben-Ami made a mistake in giving misleading answers to questions about Mr. Soros’s involvement. But that is a far cry from recasting J Street as the nexus of shadowy foreign money. I think your word choices were ill-advised.

    I take your point that America’s foreign policy vis a vis Israel is determined more by the overall national attitude than what the small minority of American Jews happen to think. That is worth thinking about and I hope the J Street staff continue to consider the implications, as I believe they have been doing for some time.

    In fact, if you had taken the time to speak to someone from J Street’s national office, my guess is that he could have ably held up his end of the argument. Here are just a few of the responses you might have heard:

    > J Street is not primarily seeking to influence American public opinion, but rather the political will of specific legislators – like any lobby. J Street is particularly interested in working with Jewish legislators, as it’s well known that their advice is sought by non-Jewish colleagues when decisions about Israel are looming. (This is not an ethnic conspiracy theory, by the way, it’s simply what happens day-to-day in congress. There’s nothing wrong with it and I don’t mention it to make a value judgment.)

    > Voters aren’t the only thing that count when shaping policy. J Street is seeking to redirect American Jews’ substantial campaign contributions from candidates endorsed by AIPAC and other right-wing Israel lobbies to candidates that are friendlier to a two-state solution. At the end of the day, this is why and how Israel counts for most members of congress. The electoral risk of being on “the wrong side” of the Israel issue is negligible, as anyone can induce from your column.

    > J Street is still in its infancy but is growing exponentially each year (yes, even in the wake of the funding “scandal.”) Only in the last few months was it large enough to launch a broader outreach initiative to the non-Jewish American community. (Google “Community of Yes” if you’d like to know more.) We have yet to see what kind of impact this will have on public opinion regarding Israel, but the commenter above was correct: these things take time.

    In sum, your argument that America is sympathetic to the Likud because Americans are sympathetic to Likud’s ideas is a good one, and I don’t think anyone sensible would dispute it. But there is more than one way to change a policy, and J Street is exploring those ways. As was mentioned above, while many Americans take a hard line on Israel, few of them see it as a top voting priority. If J Street succeeds in shifting the conversation within the American Jewish community (which is far less liberal on Israel than you have portrayed them, at least in my experience), and on the Hill, I expect most Americans would simply shrug their shoulders and move on.

  • pro-Israel big tent

    This article is unpersuasive. It exists solely at the level of generalities about our emotions toward Israel, without examining polling data in any detail, and entirely avoids examining our discourse and our policies.

    The equivalent article about the other issue mentioned here would read, “Sure, the NRA doesn’t speak for all gun owners. But why do we need another pro-gun lobby with different views? After all, America really likes guns– they’re in the Constitution!” Well, it matters because the NRA has gotten its way on every vote it really cares about in Congress for the past fifteen years. The fact that there’s an organized lobby willing to go all out skews decision-making on the issue in question, even though they don’t represent the views of gun owners generally, to say nothing of the interests of non-gun owners.

    The fundamental issue is, is there a need to change the way we debate US policy about Israel? And there quite obviously is.

    This blog post is itself evidence of how stultifying the conversation is. Mead writes that “Support for the construction of a Jewish state in the Holy Land has been an important part of American Christian and political thought going back to colonial times. During the Cold War, Americans gradually got into the habit of considering Israel one of our most valuable and reliable allies.”

    Well, ok, fine, we like Israel. We support Israel. That’s nice. It’s also 100% uncontroversial. J Street and every elected official at every level of the US government would agree.

    Things get meaningful when we ask substantive questions: should we criticize Israel over the Gaza incursion and blockade? Should we send Israel $3b a year when it continues to construct settlements when we’ve asked it to please stop? Are these Israeli policies in the interests of the US and of Israel?

    We don’t have grown-up discussions about that stuff in this country. Congressman, and retired admiral, Joe Sestak faced a pretty huge ad buy against him… because he signed a letter asking Israel to change its blockade policy… suggestions that the Israeli government eventually embraced. Even when Israel takes actions like the Gaza incursion, which are extremely controversial in general opinion polls, and strongly opposed by Democrats, all Democratic congressional leaders line up in support of Israel. If you believe that this absence of debate is a bad thing– and I do, in some measure because I believe that Israel’s actions are not in our interests, and not even in Israel’s own interests– then you must acknowledge that a pro-Israel group like J Street could be part of the solution.

    As to Mead’s citing of polls talking about how much Americans like Israel, there are more specific, and therefore meaningful, polls out there. A March 2010 Rasmussen poll found that “49% of Americans believe Israel should be ‘required’ to stop building settlements, with only 22% disagreeing.” But just like serious gun regulations, regardless of their overall popularity (or desirability, a separate issue) haven’t been discussed in Congress since 1994, there is no discussion in Congress of any negative consequences for Israel of actions it’s taken that are unpopular (in the US) and counterproductive.

    Mead writes, “if J Street is right, it is also irrelevant.” Well, if we have views on discourse or policy, that should make us feel sad. It just might be that a pro-Israel, Israel-specific lobby is not part of a meaningful effort to address that problem (I fail to see how J Street’s concealing its funders is part of the path to truth & righteousness, for one thing). But you have to recognize that problem before you dismiss J Street as part of the solution. Mead fails to do that.

  • http://www.martinbermangorvine.com Martin Berman-Gorvine

    Excellent post as usual by Professor Mead. There is one problematic sentence, however: “To the extent that there is an American Jewish establishment, that establishment favors J Street style ideas.” It’s clear from context that Professor Mead is speaking of prominent Jews in fields such as journalism and entertainment, and he may have a point about the views of such people, but it’s questionable to what extent they constitute the “American Jewish establishment.” If one looks instead at the views of such bodies as, say, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (a problematic formulation in itself, but never mind), these are much more likely to be in the AIPAC camp, or at least the don’t-criticize-the-Israeli-government-whoever’s-in-power camp, than in the J Street camp. If one looks at the views of the heads of the American Jewish religious dominations, these range from “left” on the part of the Reform, Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal movements to “right” in most Orthodox groupings (Conservative Judaism, as in religious matters, occupying a somewhat confused center).
    If one were to poll American Jews and ask who they think best represents them, the answers would be very interesting indeed, but I doubt that people like Tom Friedman, Barbra Streisand or Richard Dreyfuss would be considered leaders by very many (nor, to be fair, do they probably want such a dubious honor).

  • A.H.

    The premise of your article seems to be that AIPAC and company organize the already pro-Likud sentiment with within the general U.S. populace and therefore they are “good.” Conversely, you indicate that there is something “wrong” with J-Street because they claim to speak for the wider U.S. Jewry which is not, by and large, in line with the rest of the U.S. population. Sure, anecdotes of their sinister fund raising is raised in not so subtle fashion, but that’s only to emphasize you general theme of their “wrongness”. A group looking to establish a narrative on any issue is not something to be derided unless based on the logic (or lack thereof) of their policy proposals; of which you address none in your article. Simply to discredit them in a fashion that would make Bill O’Reilly’s “Talking Points Memo” blush is something beneath someone of your writing ability.

  • Scott

    @Ray Walker
    You have a Pam Geller caricature of Palestinian Arabs. The Arabs didn’t accept Israel for a long time (if they had, they would have been acting like no other people in history) but they have now. Note the Arab league peace overture, ignored by Israel.

  • Yisrael

    Max, could you point me in the direction of AIPAC’s endorsed candidates? I’m having a difficult time finding who they’ve endorsed…I wonder why?

    However, I did happen to stumble on this, in reference to your “AIPAC and other right wing lobbies” argument: http://www.aipac.org/Legislation_and_Policy/US_MiddleEast_Policy/default_1913.asp. In about 30 seconds I saw legislation and resolutions authored by those right-wingers Shelly Berkley, Jim Costa, Brad Sherman, Jesse Jackson, Jr.(!), Ron Klein, Chuck Schumer, etc. Of course, this doesn’t even mention the signatories and co-sponsors. But, you say AIPAC’s “right wing” so I guess that makes it so. Jesse Jackson, Jr., friend of AIPAC, notorious “one stater”! Nancy Pelosi, friend of AIPAC, staunch Likudnik!

    Until you can find AIPAC’s endorsed candidate list for me, I guess I’ll have to resign myself to looking at J Street’s, composed entirely of Democrats (so much for Israel remaining bipartisan under J Street’s watch and “good luck” next Congress).

  • nadinen

    @Scott, no the Arabs don’t accept Israel. Look how the Palestinians utterly refuse to recognize Israel as the Jewish state or to back a statement supporting two states for two peoples. They will pretend to accept Israel only insofar as it does not preclude turning Israel into another Arab state and part of Palestine, their ultimate aim.

  • http://;sadredearth.com A. Jay Adler

    J Street’s dishonesty about Soros’s support is the very symbol of its “problem.” Whatever anyone’s perception is of the truth about him, J Street knew well how he is demonized on the right and that he is not known as a committed supporter of Israel. J Street did not wish to risk the association because it would have highlighted the conceptual problem at the heart of J Street’s existence. The “pro-peace” Israel lobby? In contrast to AIPAC, aligned naturally in its support, as a lobby, with successive Israeli governments – NOT “pro-peace”? And this would support the representation of J Street as “pro-Israel”?

    J Street has been undermined from the start – as it knew – by the very challenge of convincingly portraying itself as “pro.” As it happens, I published a post entitled “The Problem with J Street” five days before Mr. Mead’s, in which I examine the problem on this conceptual level.

    http://sadredearth.com/the-problem-with-j-street/

  • Saul Lieberman

    J Street’s goal is to improve the social and political life of its members. That will never be irrelevant to J Street.
    In Jeff Goldberg’s town hall session with J Street’s Ben Ami, Ben Ami noted that Israel’s pursuit of actions which are contrary to popular opinion harms the image of J Street’s members in their personal lives. (http://israelpalestineblogs.com/2010/06/16/video-jeremy-ben-ami-jeffrey-goldberg/ 19 minute mark.)
    J Street counteracts that harm by taking positions that are more palatable in the social and political circles of its members.
    Perhaps partnering with Soros is not accepted in those circles.

  • Howard Berman

    I am an American Jew, but also an Israeli. I am in favor of both Israel and Peace. Though AIPAC is in my opinion reactionary (somewhat, or veering to the fringes) J Street is a mere fashion if not an outright fad. They have nothing at stake but a posture. Israel is not their home; it is at most a symbolic home.
    The people of Peace Now, however, are taking aa real stand, not unlike the Biblical Prophets. They, most of them, live there and most served in Tsahal. That is genuine moral and existential courage. And they are to be applauded

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  • Lillian Mueller Blaettler

    Whereas I agree with the writer of that article about his remarks about the Europeans’ attitude (I live in Europe), I disagree with his attempt to present Soros, as a harmless donor. Soros has been known in his animosity toward Israel, the Zionist idea and the existence of ISrael as a JEWISH state. No wonder JStreet has been trying (in vain) to disguise his financial support, since they have been claiming to be “pro-Israel”.

  • Slolimore

    Excellent, perceptive and full of insight. Professor Mead wonders why J-Street has been lying, until recently caught, about its mainstay funding by Sorros. The answer is simple: Sorros has taken a clear, consistent, and widely-known anti-Israel position. Yet J-Street has made “the pro-Israel alternative to AIPAC” an integral part of its name and message. Had J-Street removed the “pro-Israel” descriptor, it wouldn’t have a need to lie about Sorros funding. But then, it could not sell itself to American Jews. Therein lies J-Street’s deception.

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  • David Lieberman

    I don’t understand what Raeefa and Gary Rosen mean when they attribute to WRM the position that most American Jews are indifferent to Israel. The implication appears to be that the only options are either to tow the AIPAC line or indifference. I don’t see WRM making any such claim. Rather, his position is that the predominantly liberal American Jewish community largely *disagrees* with the AIPAC line that much of non-Jewish America endorses — sometimes quite passionately. I don’t see how such disagreement bespeaks “indifference.” And this is why WRM is also right to say that Tom Friedman, Roger Cohen et. al, *as liberals,* are more representative of the American Jewish community than are the Kristols and the Podhoretzes. As WRM points out, our voting record makes that pretty clear. And I think it’s safe to say that we’ll continue voting that way whether or not J-Street implodes from excessive (or, as WRM suggests, insufficient) embarrassment.

  • Marc Bromberg

    The problem with J Street is that as a fundamentally liberal organization it ties its views and support to Jews who, in general, support liberal policies.

    Supporters for Israel need to avoid both domestic US intramural issues and specific Israeli political issues, which change with the times. When J Street mixes into Israeli internal politics, its views are taken up by the worldwide media, which in general has taken an antisemitic and anti Israel position. The worldwide media then uses it to support its anti Israel position, which is then taken up by the supporters of the Palestinian and Arab positions to use against Israel. After all, if even American Jews support policies against the current Israeli government then they must be right.

    A good example of this is the settlement issue. J Street’s support of the freeze has provided extra support for the decision by Palestinian negotiators to hinge their further discussions on a further freeze on settlements.

    I don’t suggest that freezing settlements is the wrong thing to do, but we have to be aware of how public statements by American Jews affect both American opinion and worldwide opinion against the already unfair views foisted on Israel by the UN and the worldwide media establishment. They also alienate more centrist and conservative Jews (however few there may be) from connecting with any organization that might “speak for them”.

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    Thanks. :)The site you have provided is nice too. :)

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  • K2K

    Mr. Mead, I really want you to stop your impulse to understand the politics of American Jews or what constitutes an Israeli “settlement”.

    It is Obama’s embrace of the leftist narrative against Israel that has made me put Israel in my top two issues for my vote since 2008.
    I am a secular Jew, but now I know I am not a liberal, nor a Democrat. And, I am not alone.

    I have been absent from your blog because I find reading Commentary’s Contentions far more informative, and persuasive.

    What you miss about the entire Israel issue in the Age of Obama is that the liberals feel free to openly express their revulsion of both the Orthodox of Shas and the secular of Yisrael Beitenu, as if one third+ the population of Israel needs to be eradicated in the pursuit of a hazy memory of a leftist socialist Israel that no longer exists.

    I can no longer read the NYT on anything to do with Israel because their extreme bias is official editorial policy. Roger Cohen and Nicolas Kristof are deliberately evil in what they write, blessed by the Editors.

    You should try reading Noah Pollak and Benjamin Kerstein if you want a real voice on Israel. Assuming Noah Pollak starts writing again.

    J Street is as toxic as Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent, because Obama clings to the J Street narrative.

    Jerusalem is NOT a settlement.

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