A new documentary, "The J Street Challenge," is being shown in a series of cities in North America, including Chicago, where I attended a screening this past weekend. The movie focuses on the left-wing Obama-supporting group that was founded in 2008 by Jeremy Ben-Ami, and that has successfully marketed itself as a pro-Israel, pro-peace organization, or merely pro-peace (when pro-Israel is less readily saleable on some college campuses).
As the film convincingly demonstrates, J Street has been anything but a pro-Israel group, and has been unremittingly hostile to the current government of Israel on pretty much every issue -- from opposing sanctions (and even the threat of military action by either the United States or Iran) in dealing with the Iranian nuclear program, to exclusively blaming settlements in Judea and Samaria for the absence of peace, to advancing the Goldstone Report in Congress, to demanding that pressure be applied by the United States on Israel to accept the negotiating demands of the Palestinian Authority.
J Street has attracted a large number of members in its first few years, and has established branches or chapters in many cities and college campuses. It has been heavily funded in its first few years by anti-Zionist hedge fund billionaire George Soros (a fact denied by Ben-Ami for several years, until tax filings revealed his lies), some donors who may be fronting for Soros (including a woman from Hong Kong no one knows who gave close to $1 million), and a leading figure in a front group for the Iranian regime, the National Iranian American Council. It is an unusual collection of people who in any case would never be described as pro-Israel. Jeremy Ben-Ami himself came to J Street after a career in public relations, with firms that have represented the government of Saudi Arabia, among others.
In the case of Soros, he has never been a shrinking violet on the subject of Israel. He has been a consistent critic, and has always wanted the United States to follow the lead of the European nations in distancing itself from Israel. So far, America has resisted this path, though President Barack Obama almost certainly would prefer to follow the European approach -- which involves pressuring Israel to make the concessions necessary to achieve a two-state solution, assuming there are any concessions that would ever get the Palestinians to say yes to a deal that would end the conflict (with no more claims) and leave Israel as a Jewish-majority state. Most importantly, J Street has provided a vehicle to begin the work on changing the narrative on Israel within the Jewish community -- in synagogues, Jewish federations, and Hillels, and more broadly, in colleges, the media, and Congress.
It is no secret that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has had a long successful history of lobbying members of Congress to support a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. Given that Israeli governments move from Right to Left and back again (and are therefore at times more willing and at other times less willing to be accommodating with negotiating concessions), and American presidents have also been more or less supportive of Israel (Obama, Jimmy Carter, Dwight D. Eisenhower and George H. W. Bush among the less friendly; Harry Truman, Bill Clinton, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush among the more supportive), it has been easier for AIPAC to focus on members of Congress, rather than the executive branch, to shape a consistent bipartisan agenda on Israel.
J Street is in business in large part to weaken AIPAC and to pull away Democrats, especially leftist Democrats, from the bipartisan consensus on Israel in Congress. In an era where for the last 20 years the relations between members of the two parties in Congress has frayed, as a growing percentage of members from both parties have become more ideological and less willing to compromise, support for Israel has been one of the very few issues where members from the two parties joined together. J Street has worked to make those in Congress who are further to the Left adopt the positions of their ideological twins outside of Congress, who have pretty much all turned on Israel -- whether in the universities, the media, or synagogues.
AIPAC adopted a strategic posture of ignoring J Street. And to date, J Street has been unsuccessful in creating a new group within the Democratic Party in Congress that will challenge AIPAC. However, Obama has applied pressure on Democrats in Congress, particularly in the Senate, where Democrats still have the majority, to stand down from challenging him on issues, such as approving new sanctions on Iran if the current negotiating framework breaks down. Forced to choose between their leader and AIPAC, Obama won and AIPAC retreated and pulled the sanctions bill, a victory that J Street trumpeted as its own victory, as it of course had parroted whatever Obama called for from the beginning of his presidency (his "blocking back," as Ben-Ami has called it).
Truth be told, the consensus on Israel in Congress today represents a pretty low bar for achievement -- voting for foreign aid, signing onto some nonbinding resolutions, and cheering for Israel's prime minister when he speaks to Congress. For sure, there are real champions for the U.S.-Israel relationship in Congress, and they still come from both parties (Senators Mark Kirk and Robert Menendez, members of Congress Peter Roskam, Eliot Engel and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen), though many more these days are Republicans. However, it is easy to see how this dynamic could change in the future, and J Street is investing to make this happen.
On college campuses, future American leaders and political figures are being exposed to the progressive narrative that groups matter more than nations or individuals. You are defined by your membership in a racial/religious/ethnic group, and that is what has shaped your privilege or lack thereof, and your worldview. Morality is defined as supporting underdogs and the weaker party in conflicts, and achieving a redistribution of power and wealth/income to achieve more fairness in individual societies and in the world.
Israel loses in this equation, since it is viewed by the Left as a colonial power created by the West that drove out an indigenous people and that is now preventing Palestinians from achieving the self-determination to which they are entitled. This almost entirely false narrative is backed by nasty anti-Semitic groups that are largely Muslim (such as Students for Justice in Palestine) or anti-Zionist (Jewish groups such as Jewish Voices for Peace). When these groups battle pro-Israel groups to pass boycotts/divestments/sanctions measures in student governments, J Street has more often than not been arm-in-arm with, or in some cases, more quietly behind the groups that are pushing BDS resolutions and trashing Israel.
The vote last week by the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations not to add J Street to their membership ranks was less a reflection of J Street's alleged pro-peace politics (there are existing pro-peace groups within the conference) but anger at J Street's aggressiveness in working to splinter the consensus among Jewish organizations on issues like Iran or the peace process and undermine or harm existing members of the conference to make them less effective.
J Street would be happy if, over time, it became the group that Democrats in Congress lined up behind, and AIPAC was left for the Republicans, which would of course mean the end of a bipartisan consensus in Congress on anything impacting Israel, since J Street can be defined by its opposition to AIPAC's agenda. In essence, J Street's goal is to make Israel a Democrats versus Republicans issue, as is the case for so much else in Congress and America, especially since the Left believes that demographic changes in America will soon make the Democrats the dominant political party. Soon it hopes that hostility to Israel will be as much a mainstream Democratic Party issue as global-warming hysteria, affirmative action, immigration reform, increasing the minimum wage, and raising tax rates on the wealthy.
"The J Street Challenge" is an attempt to offer a clear-eyed view of the real J Street agenda -- especially its goal to destroy the bipartisan consensus on Israel, so that its soft, mushy PR campaign of presenting itself as the group representing the pro-peace, pro-Israel majority in America can be seen for what and who is really behind the propaganda campaign.