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What’s wrong with J Street – an open letter to members

By Dr. Naftali Kaminski

Dear friends,

I was among the founding members of the J Street Chapter of Pittsburgh. I attended the two previous conferences and was very active in organizing and initiating events.  Over the last year, I gradually grew disillusioned and a few months ago I decided not to continue my activism with J Street.  I never thought of addressing this publicly but several exchanges with friends and supporters of J Street made me aware that I am not alone in my disillusionment, that others shared my concerns and doubts but were reluctant to comment publicly out of a concern that public criticism may hurt the organization.

I now feel that the lack of public challenge to J Street leadership by members and activists is hurting J Street. J Street has become so shielded in its own conversation and articulate rationalizations that it is running the risk of becoming (or maybe it already is) a more palatable version of AIPAC, or a wealthier but still highly irrelevant version of “Ameinu.” To avoid this risk, J Street will need to address three major problems:

1. Inability to influence Congress: J Street’s most obvious failure was probably its most predictable. The rise of an ultra-right wing government in Israel in 2009 and the Republican victory in the mid-term elections virtually eliminated J Street as an effective lobbying organization that affects policy through campaign funding. J Street, identified with the Democrats and President Obama, does not have much access to the newly elected Republicans. In May 2011, the 29 standing ovations that Netanyahu’s hardline speech received in Congress were symbolic of AIPAC’s power and pronounced J Street’s lobbying strategy dead. The fact that among those cheering for Netanyahu were representatives supported by progressives donors demonstrated how futile our lobbying efforts were. Considering the low likelihood of success, it would be prudent for J Street donors to cut their losses and channel their funding towards more promising channels – such as funds for alternative and progressive Jewish education in the United States, support for civil society in Israel, and pro-peace media outlets in Israel.

2. Double-speak: One of the main concerns with J Street from the onset was what may be perceived as a double deceit – to its supporters, J Street tries to hint that it is more to the left than it acknowledges outright, and to the Jewish establishment that it is more to the right than it is generally perceived. This is very evident in J Street conferences, when the speakers who earn the loudest cheers are those who express views that are to the left of the organization.

This double-speak just occurred, in fact, in response to the furor that erupted when Peter Beinart, a featured speaker in the conference, called for a boycott on the settlements. The organization’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, who had previously called Beinart “Our Troubadour,” launched a process of damage control, and in an interview made sure to state that he did not like Beinart’s recent book (also featured at the conference). Israeli author Amos Oz, another featured speaker, also supports a settlement boycott. Oz and Beinart are the main draws of this year’s conference. Unfortunately, this double deceit does not really work – the Jewish establishment sees through it, as do many J Street supporters who are, frankly, embarrassed by Ben-Ami’s maneuvers.

Another example was J Street’s controversial endorsement of the Obama Administration’s decision to veto the Palestinian UN bid for statehood, a position as egregious as the vetoes the Russians are now threatening against Security Council decisions on Syria.  Fearing a severe response from the Jewish community, J Street decided to endorse the veto, despite their recognition that this would virtually close the last window of opportunity on the two-state solution, leaving the obvious impression that they were far less concerned with the positions of their supporters than with avoiding the wrath of the Jewish mainstream.

3. A disconnect from Israel: Beyond the editorial pages of Ha’aretz, very few people in Israel are as passionate or preoccupied with the two-state solution as J Street. This disconnect was perfectly exemplified this summer when hundreds of thousands Israelis protested for social justice. In the United States, J Street activists were involved in the “Two-State Summer” campaign, which would have been right on point 15 years ago. On a recent visit to Israel, I discovered a rare consensus among my politically involved friends: the right-wingers were openly advocating for annexation of the West Bank – a one-state solution – as were my lefty friends. Virtually everybody agreed that a separation based on the 1967 borders was not feasible anymore.  Thus, J Street’s insistence on a solution, instead of the principles by which a solution should be reached, seems anachronistic and not in tune with the concerns of Israelis and Palestinians.

J Street’s disconnect from Israeli public opinion was also illustrated when it invited former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to be a featured speaker. Olmert is now standing trial for multiple counts of corruption. He is extremely unpopular, having led Israel to two wars – the failed Second Lebanon War and the criminal and politically motivated war on Gaza. The decision to have him as a featured speaker is interpreted as a display of disrespect towards the Israeli legal system and a failure to recognize the disgust Israelis feel over corruption.

Although the Jewish community needs an organization like J Street, it does not really need one that so closely resembles its neighbors on K Street.  What the Jewish community does need is a grassroots movement that adheres to a set of ethical principles to guide a just and equitable solution to the Middle East conflict. With a grassroots foundation, the leaders of such a movement will be liberated from the need to pander to the right and able to forcefully represent an engaged and empowered community of supporters. J Street needs must be more democratic to survive and sustain relevance. This will only happen if like-minded members create a progressive caucus within J Street, forcing the leadership to pay attention to members’ views and dramatically enhance the weight of grassroots activism at the expense of top-down campaigning and traditional Washington lobbyism. If membership fails to do so, beltway politics and DC talking point memos will dominate. As we all know, those never drove change and never will.

Dr. Naftali Kaminski is an Israeli physician, scientist and expert on genomics, living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was born and raised in Israel and moved to Pittsburgh in 2002. Dr. Kaminski has been a member of the Middle East Peace Forum of Pittsburgh and was among the founding members of the J Street Chapter of Pittsburgh. He is no longer active with J Street. Dr. Kaminski writes at the Middle-East Peace Blog.  

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    1. Richard Witty

      J Street is important for what it does.

      You nor anyone else’s opinion is limited to its scope. It is helpful though to act (including speak and write) to not paralyze J Street’s impact (say in Congress), just because it doesn’t do what might be desired in a grass-roots organization.

      American politics are tidal. What was disadvantageous a year ago won’t remain so indefinitely.

      Let them position themselves for the future.

      The two-state approach is not dead until a super-majority overtly consents to a single state approach, in either community.

      Any state will have to be both national and democratic, even if the single-state proposed is a new form of national.

      That tension of national and democratic is a necessity in a Zionist-centric single or two state, a Palestinian-centric single or two state, or a civilist single or two state.

      Reply to Comment
    2. I was a significant donor to, volunteer with and public advocate for J Street and I left for the same reasons. I felt the organization had misled me about its goals, its principles and its sources of revenue in order to exploit the benefits of my social network and media attention. In the end, I got an AIPAC lite that was more concerned with being accepted by a Jewish establishment that would never accept it than taking a principled stance on the issues that were so important to me and my community. I have largely kept to myself about it because a world with J Street is nonetheless better than a world without it. However, after Jeremy Ben Ami publicly disavowed Peter Beinart’s call for a settlement boycott, I came -this close- to joining JVP out of resentment alone.

      Reply to Comment
    3. noam

      i don’t know who your right and left wing friends are, but there is no consensus in israel that a two state peace won’t ever be possible.
      definitely not in the left. the impossibility of two state peace is also not a consensus between palestinians, although you could think that, judging by most palestinian voices on this site.

      it doesn’t look good now. that’s true. and america’s vetoing against condemnation of settlements is a disaster. but there simply is no “one state reality”. true, there are two nationalities, one occupying the other. but there are 3 functioning governments in greater israel/palestine, and politically a one state solution had never seemed farther.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Steve

      Israel’s government is right-wing, not “ultra right-wing.”

      As for boycotts, J Street is correct in not supporting boycotts of any kind towards Israel or the “occupied territories.” The entire idea of boycotting any aspect of Israel is crazy when taking into account that Israel is up against lunatic jihad terrorist organizations, won land defensively in war, and continues to be surrounded by people who don’t even recognize Israel’s existence. Israel was criticized for being unable to make peace with lunatic dictators like Assad of Syria, which is an insane thing to criticize Israel for. Israel has trouble making peace with crazed third world dictators, because EVERYONE has trouble making peace with crazed third world dictators.
      .
      J Street is also correct in not supporting a Palestinian UN membership, because right now the current leaders of the Palestinians are Hamas. They won the elections, not Fatah/PA. So for Fatah/PA to go to the UN to try to get membership makes no sense. When Palestinians have one clear, SANE leadership that represents the Palestinian majority, that is who should go to the UN for membership. Fatah LOST the elections to terrorist Hamas, yet Fatah wants to be UN reps?
      .
      Also, the writer of this silly editorial wrote: “On a recent visit to Israel, I discovered a rare consensus among my politically involved friends: the right-wingers were openly advocating for annexation of the West Bank – a one-state solution – as were my lefty friends.”

      REALITY CHECK: The above is just absurd. THis writer is claiming that most Israelis want Israel to cease to exist. That’s false. The right-wingers want to annex the SMALL PORTION of the West Bank where several hundred thousand Jews live. Not the rest of it. Some crazed far-left extremists want all of Israel to become Palestine, which is something else entirely.
      .
      Basically, this writer is upset that J Street isn’t more anti-Israel. Tough! Too bad.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Steve

      To Richard Witty: I don’t know why you’re even entertaining the idea of Israel destroying itself in the “one-state solution.” There is a 99.9999999% chance it will never happen.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Ohad

      Daniel if you can find it acceptable to support organizations like JVP and BDS that talks about international law, but then when you ask them what about Israel? they say they don’t care , then J street is not for you you are right .
      I boycott the settlements ! more then boycott I protests against them actively but I make it clear I have no other home but Israel. not me nor my family , and I respect all international laws including the ones saying that Israel is a legal country .
      there are two camps on the Israel issue now days those who focused on the destruction of nations (from the Jewish right or the Arab right ) and those who focus on creation and democracy and international law as a whole , form the left (like J street , like peace now both Jews and Arabs ) these are your options, there is no left and right there are “destructionists” and “creationists”

      Reply to Comment
    7. Witty: Israel has chosen a particular version of 1SS, and implemented it — it exists! It is called Israel-cum-OPTs and is (at least in the OPTs) a vicious, undemocratic, multi-ethnic, multi-confessional, undemocratic (Oh! did I say that already?), oppressive apartheid (or apartheid-like) government.

      So don’t suppose for a moment that 1SS is in the future. It exists today.

      As for J-Street, I suspect that most of its members who actually attend its annual meeting want MUCH MORE than they get, as the present writer says. I suggest JVP to him and them.

      The other members (non-attenders) may merely want to feel good by belonging to a “feel-good” organization, and are not troubled by its AIPAC-like (or AIPAC-lite) policies.

      OHAD seems to find a solution for an Israeli Jew, as I suppose. JVP and BDS are the solutions for American Jews who value Palestinian human and national rights.

      Reply to Comment
    8. AT

      Point 3 is irrelevant. 99% of US Jews are mostly disconnected from Israel’s day to day reality and 99% of Israelis don’t give a fig about the US Jewish community. Having said that, there is nothing illegitimate about US Jews’ emotional ties to a symbolic vision of Israel. J Street is an organization by liberal US Jews for liberal US Jews. It allows them to retain this emotional appeal, while allowing it’s members to express their liberal values and not support Israel’s right wing governments and parties.

      As for the first two points, Amos Oz in his talk at J Street critiques both the author’s position and those commenters who support him:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=LTlSqYgQ738

      Reply to Comment
    9. Yonathan

      J Street is first and foremost a Zionist organization.
      JVP does exactly what you recommend J Street to do. Why isn’t JVP as successful as you predict J Street will be if it follows your guidelines?
      Have you ever thought about that?
      Why there was never any other Jewish liberal organization even close in its success to J Street? What J Street achieves is a miracle.
      And if its is an Aipac lite, why is Aipac fighting J Street so hard?

      Reply to Comment
    10. Ohad

      pabelmont there are not separate solutions for Israelis and Americans ,
      there is one solution that includes all of us and it is a two state solution , Jews ,Arabs ,Israelis , Palestinians, refugees ,diaspora , only solution that fits international law is a two states solution

      any other solution is nothing , I explained why BDS is not about international law

      if not listen here :
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ol8xhTySKfM

      Reply to Comment
    11. Piotr Berman

      I think that “Inability to influence Congress” and “Disconnect from Israel” are not failures. I mean, it is allegedly a sin to pray for a miracle.

      Doublespeak has no justification. If you view settlements as a vehicle for oppression and dispossession it is not logical to oppose sanctions or boycotts. There is a little issue of being on a receiving end of a fatwa (pulsa dinura?) or a Spinosa treatment. JVP is excomunicated, J Street is not. Does it matter? Perhaps it does.

      If so, it would make more sense to join in the condemnation of settlements and refuse ANY position of boycott and sanctions, as lacking consensus of the members.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Naftali

      The discussion is great. Ohad – you exactly make the point why it is critical to have a progressive caucus in J Street that will drive a commitment to a set of principles instead of a “set in stone” solution and will balance the temptation to pander to the right to stay in the imaginary “tent”. People like me and Daniel probably should not have left and tried to influence from within but while Jeremy Ben-Amy is amazingly accessible on a personal level there is no (as far as I know or could see) a real mechanism or willingness to allow activists to influence policy decisions.

      Reply to Comment
    13. aristeides

      Yonathan – exactly what has J Street supposedly achieved?

      Reply to Comment
    14. Richard Witty

      Israel hasn’t chosen a one-state solution.

      It’s chosen a deferred and oppressive form of two-state.

      All flavors of the single state are imposed flavors. None are democratic in the sense that the populace consents.

      The best agenda is to get back to the mutually accepting, mutually healthy two-state vision, and actually put some weight into that.

      Reply to Comment
    15. Lee Diamond

      I’ve attended the three conferences. There is open discussion and disagreement on different issues. That should not be turned into a weapon against the organization.

      I never heard of the author before. However, I think it is hard for any sincere critic to claim they do more for peace than many J Street professional staff and volunteers.

      I understand the criticisms. I do not think it is justified to make them in the context of alleging bad motives.

      I will make an observation. Jeremy may not like this either. J Street is an organization. It is not a movement. It is hierarchical But, there is something to be said for hierarchy in terms of staying on message.

      We do need a movement. We need to demand an immediate end to the status quo. The problem is how to execute. I think J Street is trying. There is probably more they can do but the author is very mis-guided in perceiving something dark or sinister going on here.

      My main concern is whether the Jewish community is being pushed hard enough. I would attack the JEWISH COMMUNITY……… particularly the American Jewish Establishment Peter wrote about in the New York Review of Books. They are the culprits. David Harris and all the mucky muck Machars are always attacking the sane among us with their delusional fear mongering.

      Reply to Comment
    16. Lee Diamond

      I attended JVP’s conference last year. They don’t speak for me either.

      I believe the answer lies in on-the-ground activism. I guess in that regard I do agree with the author about the importance of Civil Society. This is crucial and I have supported a number of civil society organizations.

      Beyond that……..actually probably most important is Palestinian Nonviolent Resistance.

      Dr. Mustafa Barghouti spoke at the J Street Conference. There was no lack of Palestinian participation on the panels. Of course, J Street has more money than JVP. They put on a better conference, seem to have excellent relations with a wide range of Israelis and Palestinians.

      Another question I would ask is, Are they going to bring this same breadth of perspective to Jewish communities all across the country, month after month? Are they going to refuse to back down when a small minority under a rock somewhere tries to shout US – THE MAJORITY – The Sane by the way – down? Why should anyone be shouted down in a real community anyway? As a young man said at the Conference this morning, “It is 1948, not 1938.”

      To J Street’s credit, they hosted an amazing session about the recent experiences of the Washington, DC Jewish Community Center’s Theater J. The same sort of people who denied Jeremy admission to a synagogue in Massachusetts sought to stifle Ari Roth & Theater J. …….. with rather less success I think. Ari Roth and Peter Beinart are my heroes.

      Reply to Comment
    17. XYZ

      Lee Diamond-
      Why do you feel that “on the ground activism” in favor of your views will work with American Jewry when it has failed in Israel…meaning that the Israeli Left-“peace camp” is in total ideological/political disarray? Just now, KADIMAH voted out Tzippi Livni from the leadership and put in yet another failed politician-general Mofaz. The turnout was only 41% of the membership and Mofaz won because of the machine vote which consists largely of people who don’t even vote for the party in the general elections. This was the party that in 2006 promised a unilateral withdrawal from almost all the West Bank and was the party of Olmert who officially offered this to Abbas, including practical control of the Western Wall and the other Jewish holy places in Jerusalem. Obviously, the rank-and-file party membership which didn’t turn out to vote doesn’t care and doesn’t believe it makes any difference any more. The “peace process” is dead and most Israelis who suppoted it in the past now realize it. So what is an American “grass-roots” ‘peace organization’ going to do if the people on the front-lines in Israel don’t have any idea how to advance it any longer?

      Reply to Comment
    18. XYZ

      Further comment to Lee Diamond-
      I don’t know where you got the idea that your views are the views of the “majority” (I presume you mean the majority of American Jewry). All the polls I have seen over many years show that the views of American Jewry are similar to those of Israeli Jewry-basically what we may call “center-right”, i.e. majority opposing the division of Jerusalem, support for Israeli gov’t policy regarding the settlements, security, negotiations with the Palestinians, etc.
      No doubt a majority of American Jews would ideally like a compromise agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, but since that isn’t in the cards, the majority accepts current governmental policy.

      Reply to Comment
    19. Bill Pearlman

      JVP isn’t Jewish and certainly isn’t a voice for peace. Other then that they’re great

      Reply to Comment
    20. Richard Witty

      Thanks for visiting Lee.

      Reply to Comment
    21. aristeides

      Yonathan – we seem to have a different notion of achievement. To me, achievement is taking the message to Washington and getting a positive response. I see nothing about a response. To the contrary, the article suggests that their voices went unheard, drowned about by AIPAC.

      Reply to Comment
    22. Kolumn9

      It is impossible to lobby from outside the consensus. You can have no influence if even meeting you for a conversation is toxic for a politician. Hence, J Street has absolutely no choice but to accept the current American consensus – two states for two peoples, including a Jewish state. Were it to try to endorse anything else – such as the one state solution – it would be shunned from any and all halls of power as being the extreme left-wing organization that it would be.

      Also, your Israeli friends are a little strange. I have only heard impractical right-wing and left-wing people call for annexation/citizenship for Palestinians while ignoring the long-term consequences that would destroy Israel.

      Reply to Comment
    23. Stephen Shenfield

      J Street tries to open up a very narrow space — to be critical of Israel to the small extent that might be judged permissible in establishment circles. This enabled them to sit at the same table with Obama and AIPAC. AIPAC didn’t like that because it broke their monopoly and might prove the thin edge of a wedge. It was an achievement of a sort. But purchased at a very high price in integrity. It is also very hard for them to build a stable base because American Jews are divided into two camps — a majority who are unwilling to be even a little bit critical of Israel in public and a minority who are “too” critical and alienated in terms of their strategy.

      Reply to Comment
    24. Buzz Fugazi

      Ah, what a sight… to see J Street ripped to pieces from both the left and the right.

      Reply to Comment
    25. Richard McDonough

      An interesting discussion showing the inevitable disagreements if there is more than one Jew in the room.
      More seriously, I think that J Street has had a positive role in the movement toward reform. Its present soft political nature will not change if good people with more liberal and humanistic views leave the ship. Reconsider.

      Reply to Comment
    26. isel Breshinski

      Kaminski has no clue The Palestinians do not want peace. Here is an article by a Muslim journalist published today Palestinians Dream of Destroying Israel, Peace Treaty or Not

      by Khaled Abu Toameh
      March 25, 2014 at 5:00 am

      http://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/4231/palestinians-dream-destroying-israel

      Print Send Comment Share: Facebook Twitter

      Be the first of your friends to like this.

      U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry may be able to force Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, under threats and pressure, to sign a “framework agreement” with Israel. But as this week’s rally of hatred in the Gaza Strip shows, even after the signing of a Palestinian-Israeli “peace” treaty, a large number of Palestinians will not abandon there dream of destroying Israel.

      “Jihad in Palestine is not terrorism. Jihad in Palestine is a sacred duty.” — Yusef Rizka, representative of Hamas

      A mass rally held in the Gaza Strip on March 23 showed that Hamas continues to enjoy popular support among Palestinians. Tens of thousands of Palestinians took to the streets to attend the rally commemorating the 10th anniversary of the assassination of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

      Hamas officials claim that nearly one million Palestinians attended the rally in the center of Gaza City.

      The mass rally supporting Hamas in Gaza, March 23, 2014. (Image source: The Palestinian Information Center)

      This means that Hamas, which seeks to destroy Israel, remains as strong as ever in the Gaza Strip, despite Egypt’s undeclared war against the Palestinian Islamist movement.

      The Egyptian war has indeed hurt Hamas, especially in wake of the destruction of hundreds of smuggling tunnels along the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. Hamas’s popularity among Palestinians, however, as shown by the mass rally, evidently remains unaffected.

      Addressing the crowd, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh admitted that the Egyptian war has harmed his movement. “Hamas is going through difficult times,” he said. “We are also facing harsh challenges.”

      Haniyeh added that despite Egyptian security measures against his movement and the Gaza Strip, Hamas was not in a state of panic.

      At the rally, defiant Hamas leaders repeated threats to pursue terror attacks against Israel. One Hamas official, Fathi Hammad, even expressed optimism that his movement and other Palestinian terror groups would be able to destroy the “Zionist entity in a few years.”

      Hamas seems to be hoping, however, that the rally will send a message not only to Israel, but also to the Palestinian Authority and Egypt. The message that Hamas is seeking to relay to Egypt is that, despite the ongoing Egyptian blockade of the Gaza Strip, the movement is not showing any sign of weakness.

      As Hamas representative Yusef Rizka explained, “This is a message to those who are trying to undermine Hamas and damage its reputation. We do not meddle in the internal affairs of Arab countries.”

      Addressing the Egyptians, who have accused Hamas of involvement in terrorist attacks inside Egypt, Rizka said, “Jihad in Palestine is not terrorism. Jihad in Palestine is a scared duty.”

      Still, the strongest message coming out of the rally was directed toward the Palestinian Authority.

      Palestinian Authority [PA] President Mahmoud Abbas has good reason to be worried in the aftermath of the latest show of force by Hamas. When tens of thousands of Palestinians take to the streets of the Gaza Strip to call for the destruction of Israel and an end to the peace talks between the PA and Israel, it is clear that a large segment of Palestinian society remains opposed to any compromise with Israel.

      The pro-Hamas rally is also aimed at sending a message to the U.S. Administration that Mahmoud Abbas does not have a mandate to sign any document that declares an end to the conflict with Israel.

      U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry may be able to force Abbas, under threats and pressure, to sign a “framework agreement” with Israel. But as this week’s rally of hatred in the Gaza Strip shows, even after the signing of an Israeli-Palestinian “peace” treaty, a large number of Palestinians will not abandon their dream of destroying Israel .

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