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For J Street, holding Israel accountable is still a step too far

J Street’s 2019 conference heralded a new willingness to tie military aid to Israel to its human rights record. But the organization was quick to reaffirm a status quo of unconditional aid — despite ongoing abuses.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) speaks at the 2019 J Street National Conference, October 28, 2019. (Photo courtesy of J Street)

Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) speaks at the 2019 J Street National Conference, October 28, 2019. (Photo courtesy of J Street)

What at first looked like a sea change on the horizon has turned out to be much less. One week after Democratic presidential candidates discussed conditioning U.S. military aid to Israel at J Street’s national conference in Washington, the liberal pro-Israel group makes clear that it continues to support unconditional aid, despite ongoing Israeli human rights abuses and settlement expansion.

A statement issued Monday by J Street affirms the group’s commitment to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge over other states and non-state actors in the region — a commitment that is also codified in U.S. law. Though the statement added that “the U.S. has a right and responsibility to examine the uses to which American aid is put” and that “the U.S. should not foot the bill for annexation,” the statement also stressed: “this is not a call to reduce the level of U.S. security assistance or to ‘condition aid.’”

The only listed circumstance under which J Street would support altering the terms of U.S. military aid to Israel is formal annexation of all or parts of the West Bank. The group’s statement makes no mention of Israel’s de facto annexation of the occupied West Bank through continued settlement construction, the forced population transfer of Palestinians out of Area C of the West Bank, or the extension of Israeli sovereignty to educational institutions in West Bank settlements. In fact, the word “settlements” does not appear once in the group’s statement.

The impression from J Street’s statement is that its decision was informed more by domestic political considerations and internal organizational politics than by a concern for Palestinian human rights. In justifying its opposition to tying military aid to the behavior of the Israeli government, the organization explicitly names the need to defeat Donald Trump in the 2020 elections and the importance of not being construed as “anti-Israel.”

It is perhaps not a coincidence that J Street released its statement only a few hours after the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) launched a $10 million campaign with an ad titled “Democrats Are A Shanda” (shame or embarrassment in Yiddish), attacking the Democratic presidential candidates for their comments about conditional aid at the J Street conference.

Polling conducted by J Street itself shows not only strong opposition among American Jews to continued settlement expansion but also a clear preference for a presidential candidate who would place criteria on how Israel uses U.S. funds, yet the group appears concerned that support for conditional aid to Israel could hurt Democrats’ chances in the upcoming elections if Republicans continue to run ads like the RJC’s. JStreetPAC, the group’s political action committee, is a significant player in U.S. electoral politics and heavily invested in supporting Democratic candidates: in the 2018 midterms, it distributed nearly $5 million across 163 candidates running for Congress.

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If the recent past is any indication, refusing to support conditional aid is unlikely to prevent those in the right-wing pro-Israel community from labeling J Street as “anti-Israel.” In 2014, for example, J Street took a strong public stance in opposition to the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. That did not stop the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations — an umbrella group founded to lobby in support of the Israeli government and express American Jewry’s “consensus support for Israel” — from rejecting J Street’s bid for membership.

J Street is also facing criticism to its left, though it appears less inclined to take this criticism as reason to change its policy positions. “J Street shields Israel from accountability for its ongoing violations of human rights by supporting unconditional U.S. military funding to Israel,” a group of Palestinian activists wrote prior to J Street’s conference. “J Street dismisses our voices and our demands, pushing instead its agenda in liberal and progressive circles in ways that are harmful to our advocacy to hold Israel accountable.”

Rabbi Alissa Wise, co-executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), which supports BDS, said that J Street’s refusal to support conditional aid confirmed for her “that they’re not going to lead on this.”

“Palestinian rights are not their priority, the two-state solution is,” she continued. “It’s not about peace, it’s not about human rights, it’s about this solution that many think is already off the table.”

Perhaps another reason for J Street’s position, Wise speculated, is the fear that support for conditional aid could lead to greater acceptance of the BDS movement. “If you take conditioning aid to its logical conclusion, you find the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement,” she said. Both conditional aid and BDS are, at their core, about holding Israel accountable for its actions, a notion that J Street has so far refused to endorse in practice.

Attendees at the 2019 J Street National Conference raise posters of the organization's new campaign urging the Democratic Party to formally oppose Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory, October 27, 2019. (Photo courtesy of J Street)

Attendees at the 2019 J Street National Conference raise posters of the organization’s new campaign urging the Democratic Party to formally oppose Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory, October 27, 2019. (Photo courtesy of J Street)

The clearest example of this, after declining to support conditioning aid, is J Street’s refusal to support House Bill 2407. Introduced in May by Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum, the bill seeks to prevent the Israeli army’s use of U.S. funds in detaining Palestinian children. The bill does not call for withholding U.S. military support to Israel but rather for redirecting U.S. subsidies, yet J Street representatives told +972 Magazine’s Mairav Zonszein last week that they feared the bill “would function to significantly reduce, if not zero out, U.S. security assistance to Israel, which we support.”

Logan Bayroff, J Street’s director of communications, confirmed Tuesday that the group does not support or oppose the bill. But some Palestinian rights advocates working to garner support for H.2407 on Capitol Hill said they felt J Street was impeding support for the bill from progressive members of Congress. J Street had initially said it would back the bill before expressing concerns about its wording.

Even after decades of creeping annexation and settlement expansion, J Street appears unwilling to back putting material pressure on the Israeli government to change its policies. It remains committed to realizing a two-state solution that, in part due to its own inaction, grows less feasible with every passing day, if it can still be said to be feasible at all. By setting formal annexation as its red line, J Street is, in effect, sending the message that as long as the status quo continues, Israel will face no serious consequences for the brutality that this one-state reality entails — home demolitions, child detentions, checkpoints, routine settler violence, and endless military rule.

“If you are interested in preventing human rights abuses and other gross violations of international law,” said Brad Parker, senior policy and advocacy adviser at Defense of Children International—Palestine, “there are all kinds of ways to eliminate the blank check and place conditions on ongoing issues like settlement expansion or systematic, institutionalized ill-treatment of children in a military detention system.”

For the time being, it seems J Street is not that interested.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Bruce Gould

      “…It [J Street] remains committed to realizing a two-state solution that, in part due to its own inaction, grows less feasible with every passing day…”

      page 1, “paradigm Lost: From Two State Solution To One State Reality” by Ian S Lustick:

      Zionists saw more clearly than anyone else the catastrophe facing the Jews of Europe and the need for a refuge. Their campaign to transform all or most of Palestine into a Jewish state succeeded in 1948. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict arose from that success and from two refusals. The first, when Israel refused to allow three-quarters of a million Palestinian Arabs to return to their homes, created the Palestinian refugee problem and ensured deep and continued challenges to its peace and security. A second and far more protracted refusal stretched over decades following the Six Day War of 1967. In this period, Israel prevented a Palestinian state or entity of any kind from being established in the West Bank or Gaza strip. Israel thereby destroyed the one option available for a negotiated compromise capable of ending not only the Palestinian-Israeli dispute but also the larger Arab-Israeli conflict. This second decades long refusal and its consequences are the focus of this book….By the early twenty-first century, however, it became impossible to explain how a two-state solution could materialize and deeply implausible to expect one…”

      Reply to Comment
    2. Rivka Koen

      Since J Street’s ultimate goal is to make the occupation look progressive, this is understandable. This is not the left-wing organization anyone is looking for, no matter how histrionic the Israeli right acts about it, and they ought to be ignored by progressives rather than allowed to front as though they care about transformative justice.

      What’s really necessary is an international grassroots movement of Israeli and Diaspora Jews committed to ending the occupation, to solidarity with oppressed groups worldwide, and to joining broader coalitions against our common enemies: patriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism, European hegemony, and capitalism.

      Reply to Comment
      • Itshak Gordine

        When Pigs Fly..

        Reply to Comment
        • Rivka Koen

          I wasn’t asking you, kapo. The alliances are already being built, and I have no illusions about people like you who are rotten inside and out

          Reply to Comment
          • Itshak Gordine

            Usual answer of people without arguments: insults and slanders .. We are glad to fight these “alliances” .

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            You know, you just can’t make this stuff up. You can’t. Here in miniature is Halevy’s famous obtuseness. Rivka mounts over 100 words of intelligent argument, Halevy’s sole response is three words, the profound and scintillating, “when pigs fly.” Yet Halevy accuses Rivka of being a person “without argument.” In miniature, we see Halevy’s habitual, blithe/brazen reversal of reality, resorted to all the time when it comes to settlers versus Palestinians.

            Reply to Comment
          • Itshak Gordine

            As the philosopher says, a few words are better than empty sentences. Your verbiage and that of Rivka do not deserve better. You are both out of the real world.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            “You are both out of the real world.”

            Please see my reply to you below.

            Reply to Comment
    3. Ben

      “Democrats Are A Shanda”

      I can’t tell you how stupid and insulting this sounds to the vast majority of American Jews.

      Reply to Comment
      • Rivka Koen

        For one, it’s Zionists who have driven Yiddish to the point of near extinction (though it’s still more alive than the language of the Tanakh). I guess when Yiddish starts being cool again though, the Zionists are happy to try to piggyback off it. It won’t work, though.

        Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          Re: “…….when Yiddish starts being cool again”

          Rivka, you must join the real World before you make a total joke of yourself. Yiddish is even dying in Israeli Haredi neighborhoods like Bnei Brak. 20 years ago, one could regularly hear Yiddish in such places but now it is only rarely heard. All Sefardi Haredim never spoke it and most Ashkenazi hardedim now speak Ivrit as many need to work in other locales.

          Yiddish is a dying language. This “dying” process will take several generations until it is completely dead. Most dying languages do.

          Reply to Comment
        • Itshak Gordine

          Many of the giants of Torah in Israel speak Yiddish. Rav Kanievski, who is the world’s greatest authority on Judaism, speaks Yiddish. Stop writing nonsense.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Oh, this is beautiful.

            “You are both out of the real world.”

            This “giant of the Torah, world’s greatest authority on Judaism,” as you say, is the 91-year-old man who in January, 2019, three months before the April elections, was telling everyone who would listen that IAF airstrikes in Syria had just kicked off the imminent Coming of the Messiah, the End of Days, and, no need to pay your debts because “the Messiah will already be here before the elections.” Kanievsky was quite sure of it. So where is He? It’s now seven months past the time “the greatest authority” said The Messiah would be here.
            https://www.breakingisraelnews.com/120689/airstrike-syria-israeli-elections/
            (And on Yiddish, you and Lewis rather contradict yourselves you might have noted. Probably because Lewis realizes the man is 91 years old.)

            And WE, Rivka and I, are the ones who are “out of the real world”?? Hello??

            Reply to Comment
          • Itshak Gordine

            All our sages say that we are in the messianic period. But why start a religious discussion? Do you have the skills? You are as usual off topic. I wrote that Rav Kanievki, like most of Israel’s great askenaze rabbis speak Yiddish. What relationship with your pseudo religious comments. Returning to Yiddish, it is an endangered language just like Ladino and Arabic among Eastern Jews. A diasporic heritage that no longer interests the new generations. Hebrew is their language.

            Reply to Comment
          • john

            please itshak, enlighten us on this religious discussion you take as gospel truth – why is this the messianic period? what role does ‘king bibi’ play? (is he related to the ‘kings torah’?) why disdain centuries of jewish history to worship a state instead?

            Reply to Comment
          • Itshak Gordine

            Of course Rivka and you are outside of reality. All your desires and all your crazy dreams are not realized, hence your aggressiveness more and more present in your delirious comments sent from the USA probably. Yes, you live in an imaginary world ..
            Meanwhile, the state of Israel shines more every day in the cultural, technological, medical, etc. while its enemies are sinking. States run after us to establish diplomatic relations while hostile or racist organizations (BDS, etc.) suffer failures Wonderful, no ..?

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            So note that Itshak (Halevy) is trying to change the subject. To Yiddish and the Economy. Anything but admit that the “world’s greatest authority on Judaism” said something crazy (and not for the first time) that for seven months now has been proven simply false. And in a way that strikingly lays bare the incoherence of Itshak’s utterances. On the one hand the End of Days is upon us. The Great Rav said so. The settlements are a sign! Halluyah! And yet Itshak is eager to tell us how the technological-economic future is a bright one. Which is it? The “world’s greatest authority on Judaism” told a man not to pay his debts because the End is Nigh. Itshak, as do all religious charlatans, want to tell me I lack special “tools” to understand what the “world’s greatest authority on Judaism” said. And of course I guess “the Messianic Period” can be 3 months or 3000 years. Convenient isn’t it? (For the settlements.) Except the “world’s greatest authority on Judaism” said the Messiah was definitely coming by April 2019. So, we can take what “our great rabbis tell us” about the Hardali-Settlement-Imperative or whatever, with the same massive grain of salt we take the pronouncement that the world was supposed to have ended by April 2019. As far as I know, I am still around, my typing this is not an illusion, and life (and the Occupation) goes on. Q.E.D.

            And yet, Chalevyan Chutzpah is not a thing to be underestimated. Because in spite of all the absurdity just explained, Itshak tells me that *I* am the one living in an imaginary world, that. *I* am the one “outside of reality”! You could hardly find a more glaring example of the brazenness of the settlers than this.

            Reply to Comment
    4. Ann Turpin

      Shame, shame, shame!

      Reply to Comment