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J Street Is Minding the Mainstream

The progressive pro-Israel group has gone from outsider to political kingmaker—and a target for left-wing activists.

Former Obama officials Tommy Vietor, left, and Ben Rhodes during the J Street national conference October 28, 2019, in Washington. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Twelve hundred college students sat—and, frequently enough, jumped and applauded—in a cavernous convention space in Washington, D.C., on Sunday, rallying to get the Democratic National Committee to include the word “occupation” in the party’s national platform. One young woman from Tufts University rose to tell the crowd about her experiences on a tour of Israel and the occupied territories, “Let Our People Know,” which offers an alternative to Intourist-style organized trips to Israel that it says reinforce “the erasure of Palestinians.”

The students comprised J Street U, the “college and university organizing arm” of J Street—a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” advocacy organization, established a little over a decade ago, whose annual conference this week brought an estimated 4,000 attendees together to discuss (and debate) progressive U.S. policies toward Israel. The gathering’s theme for 2019 was “Rise to the Moment.” In the outer exhibition hall, T’ruah, a coalition of pro-human rights rabbis, staffed a table that sold shirts reading “Resisting tyrants since the Pharaoh” ($20 cash, $22 with card). The following day, in a ballroom one floor up, the chief Palestinian negotiator, Dr. Saeb Erekat, spoke at length on the importance of the two-state solution, and Senator Bernie Sanders—the most prominent of three remaining Democratic presidential contenders with a Jewish heritage—got thunderous applause when he said, “I am very proud to be Jewish, and look forward to being the first Jewish president in the history of this country.

J Street has experienced something of a flourishing during the reign of President Donald Trump, whose ambassador to Israel, bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman, in 2016 called J Street members “far worse than kapos—Jews who turned in their fellow Jews in the Nazi death camps.” The group’s supporters, Friedman had written, were “just smug advocates of Israel’s destruction delivered from the comfort of their secure American sofas—it’s hard to imagine anyone worse.” (After he was confirmed, Friedman eventually agreed to meet with J Street leaders, who put out a statement saying that “it is vital to keep an open line of communication between Jewish American and Israeli leaders with different political backgrounds.”)

“It used to be that there was simply one venue and one conversation” for U.S.-Israeli politics, Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, told me ahead of the conference. That venue was AIPAC, the hawkish American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which describes itself as “America’s pro-Israel lobby” and has advocated unquestioning support for Israel for decades. “That monolith has been broken,” Ben-Ami said; AIPAC has “found themselves essentially standing and cheering for the autocrats.” Trump’s open affection for the increasingly belligerent, media-bashing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “opened up a tremendous amount of room” for other voices on Israel and in the Jewish community, Ben-Ami said.

Those other voices exist on a wide spectrum. Further to the left—where some people once saw J Street—there are groups that don’t believe in Zionism or the concept of a nation-state for a people, Ben-Ami said. J Street does believe that Israel should be a national homeland. But it also believes that Israeli security depends on supporting the rights of Palestinians. “That balance is actually a sensible U.S. policy, and it’s the right thing for both peoples,” he said.

J Street comes armed with recent polling data—distributed in handouts at the conference—that suggests an overwhelming majority of American Jews and likely Democratic primary voters share the group’s increasingly centrist, pro-Israel, anti-occupation orientation, and presidential candidates are listening. Besides Sanders, four other Democratic hopefuls spoke at the conference. Senator Amy Klobuchar somewhat puzzlingly thanked both J Street and AIPAC for condemning Israel’s decision to bar entry to representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, the first two Muslim women in Congress. Pete Buttigieg suggested he was open to using U.S. military aid as leverage on Israeli settlements. Julian Castro echoed that call. Senator Michael Bennet, who is still running despite failing to qualify for the last candidate debate, demurred on aid questions, but discussed his mother’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor. Others, including Senator Elizabeth Warren and Former Vice President Joe Biden, addressed conference attendees in video recordings. (Warren, Sanders, Castro, and Buttigieg all skipped AIPAC’s conference earlier this year; AIPAC representatives declined to comment for this story.)

But as J Street claims the center, the group has exposed itself to criticism from the left flank. In advance of the conference, a group of “Palestinians in the United States wanting to return to our free homeland” published a Medium post arguing that J Street’s positions “do not represent the progressive, just and hopeful vision of the future that we know is possible.” It said the J Street conference’s invitees “do not represent the full array of Palestinians dedicated to pursuing freedom and justice for our people” and decried former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, a conference speaker, as “an Israeli war criminal.”

Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that opposes “anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim, and anti-Arab bigotry and oppression” and—unlike J Street—supports the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement to push for change in Israel, also did not attend this week’s conference. “I’m not sure that J Street is the right organization to take forward that progressive agenda and run with it,” Rabbi Alissa Wise, acting co-executive director of JVP, told me. “They’ve been so focused on AIPAC and Netanyahu and very attached to the two-state solution.” J Street’s positions could also squander valuable political momentum on U.S. Israeli policies, she added: “Are they going to be a drag on the progressive energy that is animating the Democratic party at this time?”

IfNotNow, a younger Jewish activist group that evolved during the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict to challenge “the overwhelmingly hawkish response of American Jewish institutions,” did attend J Street’s conference; cofounder Emily Mayer was a featured speaker. But the two groups diverge politically. “Whereas J Street takes as their starting point the two-state solution and a Jewish and democratic state of Israel, IfNotNow takes as its starting point basic freedom and dignity for both Israelis and Palestinians,” Mayer told me. “There is just so much of a gap between where the Democratic Party’s leadership is on the question of occupation—and Israel-Palestine more broadly—and where the Democratic base is,” she said, adding that the winds of the movement are shifting quickly, and “it remains to be seen how much J Street keeps up with that push and with that shift.”

Mayer and JVP’s Wise also both noted to me that J Street has not thrown its weight behind a congressional bill introduced by Minnesota Representative Betty McCollum to “prohibit funding for the military detention of children in any country, including Israel.” (McCollum estimates that 10,000 Palestinian children have been arrested and exposed to “abuse and, in some cases, torture” by Israeli authorities since 2000.)

These differences are probably just the beginning for J Street, an organization that was founded on challenging mainstream political shibboleths and now finds itself shaping the mainstream. To the extent that a progressive consensus on Israel exists, it converges on a critique of Netanyahu, the longtime Likudnik hawk who worked glove-in-hand with President Donald Trump after antagonizing Barack Obama. But Netanyahu’s political fortunes have fallen since he failed to carve out a governing coalition in Israel’s Knesset, just days before J Street’s conference. The task of forming a majority government now falls to Benny Gantz, a centrist former IDF general who has vowed to strengthen settlement blocs. Some critics—including speakers at the conference—see expansion of Israeli settlements as de facto annexation of Palestinian territory. But without Netanyahu to condemn for it, Democratic leaders might find it politically expedient to back off their criticisms of Israel’s moves. (In his J Street appearance, Castro seemed to suggest that dialogue with a new government in Jerusalem might be a reason not to place conditions on U.S. military aid just yet.)

I asked J Street’s Ben-Ami in our pre-conference interview if, against this backdrop, the flourishing of activist groups to J Street’s left—many of whom reject Israel’s Zionism as inherently unequal—and the enduring influence of AIPAC’s hardline on the right might ultimately squeeze the self-professed “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group out of the discussion. He maintained the opposite was true. “The disavowal of Zionism is a single digit view,” he said. “It’s minimal single digits. They’re very loud, by the way. And carry a microphone pretty oversized.” He then referenced the aforementioned polling data that reporters found in their flyers at the conference.

Sitting in the ballroom the Monday of the conference, I scanned the stats sheet while Sanders spoke. After embracing his Jewish Americanness, he weighed in on a longstanding national discussion, trying to move it ever so slightly to the left. “My solution is, to Israel, if you want military aid you’re going to have to fundamentally change your relationship to the people of Gaza,” he said. “I would say that some of the $3.8 billion should go right now to humanitarian aid in Gaza.” That is not, strictly speaking, the J Street line. But the J Street audience applauded.