This week’s hearings by a Knesset committee on the question of whether J Street is the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization it claims to be could further damage the group’s stature among U.S. lawmakers already nervous about a series of mistakes that have hurt the group after three years of spectacular growth.
But an equally dramatic result could be the further estrangement of younger American Jews from a Jewish state that seems to be raising the bar for what constitutes “pro-Israel.”
“It’s totally foolhardy,” said Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn. “Israel has many issues that require careful study by the Knesset; they would be well advised to spend more time on those, and not deal with perceived problems with diaspora organizations.”
Israel remains a vital connection point to Jewish life for many younger Jews who are only “marginally affiliated,” Kahn said. Singling out an American group that reflects the views of many here for an official investigation can further weaken that connection.
The unusual hearings, called by Kadima Party Knesset member Otniel Schneller, along with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to meet with J Street’s president and founder, Jeremy Ben-Ami, who was in Israel this week to testify and to lobby Knesset on the issue, are part of a broader trend that includes the growing disenfranchisement of non-Orthodox religious authorities in Israel and efforts to limit the activities of advocacy groups with foreign funding, J Street backers say.
In interviews with the Israeli press, Schneller has said the question of J Street’s “Jewish love and support for Israel” and its position on some Iran sanctions legislation justify the hearings.
Brandeis University historian Jonathan Sarna, while calling the Knesset investigation “unusual,” said the Israeli parliament is just following a well-established trend in Washington that includes Rep. Peter King’s ongoing and controversial investigations into the activities of American Muslim groups.
“In America, we have had such investigations from the right and the left for decades,” he said. “I’m wondering if the Knesset is taking its cues from congressional investigations here, especially those focusing on American Muslim groups. It would not surprise me if that serves as a kind of model.”
Since J Street is active in Israel, he said, it may be more a matter of “seeking transparency” than cracking down on dissent.
But he conceded that “in Israel as well as in America, those in power are more interested in shining a bright light on those they dislike. Organizations that have significant numbers of enemies are more likely to be investigated that those do not.”
Sarna said the investigation could be a “real opportunity for J Street to get its message out.”
J Street and its supporters don’t see it that way. What they see, instead, is an unprecedented effort by Israel lawmakers to delegitimize an American Jewish group that reflects views on Middle East peacemaking shared by a majority of Jews here.
“The Knesset hearing should trouble American Jews generally — no matter their political orientation — because it’s really unprecedented for Israeli officials to suggest that there is a political litmus test for measuring what it means to be pro-Israel or to be a friend of Israel,” said J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami. “Does Israel really want to push away a substantial portion of American Jews at a time when it’s facing increasing international isolation and needs more not less friends?”
The J Street investigation comes after concerns were raised last year about New Israel Fund grantees in Israel that allegedly support the delegitimization of Israel — and more recent revelations in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that Israeli military intelligence agencies are “collecting information about left-wing organizations abroad that the army sees as aiming to delegitimize Israel.”
Defenders of such surveillance say it’s a matter of tracking foreign funding of groups that undermine Israel’s legitimacy and support tactics like boycotts, sanctions and divestment that unfairly target the Jewish state; critics say it’s all about politics and the repression of dissent.
Wednesday’s Knesset hearing, with Ben-Ami and J Street activist David Gilo appearing to defend the group, comes after a mixed year for J Street.
The group has been plagued with what critics say are mostly self- inflicted wounds, including embarrassing revelations about funding by controversial financier George Soros, J Street’s suggestion earlier this year that the United States consider not vetoing a UN resolution blasting Israel’s settlement activities and labeling them illegal and the defection of Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Queens/L.I.) from the ranks of J Street supporters.
At its second national conference last month, the group was chastised by a longtime supporter, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, who said that its position on the UN resolution raised concerns about the direction the group was taking.
“If you alienate mainstream support you risk losing everything,” Rabbi Saperstein said.
But the group has also had some important successes. Growth continues to be rapid; at a time when many Jewish groups are cutting back, J Street is hiring. Its conference revealed a young, energetic and committed activist base; it recently scored a modest success on Capitol Hill with a congressional letter signed by 116 House members calling for maintaining current aid levels to Israel and the Palestinian Authority and urging a continuation of efforts toward a two-state solution.
There is little evidence efforts to portray the group as beyond the pro-Israel pale — and now, the willingness of a Knesset committee to consider that question — have hurt J Street with its liberal base in the Jewish community.
But this week several activists close to the group expressed concern that even the impression that important elements of the Israeli parliament consider J Street something less than pro-Israel could add to the wariness of some fence-sitting members of Congress who support J Street’s positions on key Middle East issues but worry about locking swords with the established pro-Israel lobby.
Just the fact of the Knesset hearings “creates significant challenges for J Street’s remaining congressional base,” said Kean University’s Kahn.
Groups on the American Jewish left were quick and forceful in denouncing the hearings.
“After aggressively attacking dissenting voices in Israel and trying to suppress diversity at home, some Israeli legislators are now extending their intimidation campaign across the ocean,” said Debra DeLee, president and CEO of Americans for Peace Now (APN) in a statement. “The attempt to delegitimize an American organization that supports Israel and works tirelessly to engage tens of thousands of Americans in pro-Israel activity is bad for Israel. Israel needs all the support it can get from Americans of all political persuasions.”
DeLee called the hearings “an attempt to use the same McCarthyite tactics of intimidation that the Knesset has been using against domestic dissenting voices, to now quell debate on Israel in the United States.”
Curiously, Jewish activists who have been among J Street’s most vociferous critics have been relatively silent on the Knesset hearings.
The Jewish Week asked three prominent critics of the group to comment; all three declined.
“The fact this is the Knesset, and the appearance of singling out American Jewish groups that don’t agree with Israeli policy, is too hot to handle,” said one.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said, “What’s motivating this is domestic Israeli politics.”
He said discussing the role of foreign groups like J Street that criticize positions of the current government in Jerusalem “has a place in Israeli democracy, but the Knesset is not the place for it.”
While labeling the J Street investigation a “crude, simple political maneuver,” he said it would have no long-lasting impact — on the group or on the younger American Jews who, many analysts say, have been turned off by the “Israel, right or wrong” stance of the major pro-Israel groups.
J Street’s Ben-Ami disagrees.
“We are witnessing a troubling trend across the board — with Israelis narrowing the boundaries of what’s acceptable on a number of fronts,” he said. “There are efforts to narrow the definition of ‘who is a Jew’ that leaves many non-Orthodox Jews out of the tent, to narrow who can be a citizen by imposing loyalty oaths or other conditions, and now to narrow the definition of who’s a friend to only those who agree politically.
“Israel’s goal — as a small state in an unfriendly neighborhood — should be,” Ben-Ami continued, “to broaden not narrow its base of support, and each of these steps take it in the wrong direction.”