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.