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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

J Street seeks a middle path on Gaza. Is that possible anymore?



Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s founder and president, said “I’ve never hidden the fact that I want J Street to be on the 50-yard line of the American Jewish community.”

By Marc Tracy


Over the last five years, the Jewish political advocacy group J Street reached new heights of influence. The center-left lobby, whose slogan upon its founding in 2008 was “pro-Israel, pro-peace,” saw five Democratic presidential candidates stump at its 2019 convention. It helped persuade 48 congressional Democrats to back a 2021 bill that would have pressured Israel to further a two-state solution. In 2022, J Street had its best fundraising year to date, a spokesperson confirmed.


With the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC increasingly identified with the right, J Street appealed to many American Jews as reasonably moderate: standing by a democratic Israel, opposing the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and supporting the coexistence of Palestinians and Israelis in two states.


Then came Oct. 7.


For months after the Hamas attack on Israel, J Street did not call for a cease-fire. In late January, it backed a “stop to the fighting,” humanitarian aid for Palestinians and an end to Hamas control of the region. Just last month, an internal J Street email said the organization would use the word “cease-fire” — and it clarified that this was a semantic step and not a change in policy.


“I’ve never hidden the fact that I want J Street to be on the 50-yard line of the American Jewish community,” Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s founder and president, said in an interview.


Ben-Ami said Friday that J Street backs the Biden administration, which warned American aid would depend on Israel’s treatment of civilians, and supports a negotiated cease-fire.


But the war has raised serious concerns within J Street’s ranks about its ability to hold that middle position without being pulled apart by forces on the right and the left. Internally, some staff members have been frustrated that the group did not call for a cease-fire much earlier. They fear J Street’s delay alienated younger Americans, including Jewish ones, who are much more likely to oppose Israel’s conduct in the Gaza Strip, as the death toll soars past 32,000 and more than 100 hostages languish.


J Street’s cautious footing contrasts with the uncomplicated starkness both of left-wing groups — such as Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow, which quickly called for a cease-fire and are often on the front lines of pro-Palestinian protests — and of ones to its right, like AIPAC, which praised U.S. support for Israel’s military and is pushing for more.


The turmoil has also raised larger questions of whether a middle lane on Israel remains tenable.


“J Street is still there politically, but the times have moved on,” said Catie Stewart, who used to work at J Street but now runs her own political communications consultancy.


Employees have quit J Street because of its refusal to take a harder line against Israel, according to interviews with more than a dozen current and former staff members. Several significant donors said in interviews that they have told the group they will no longer be giving money for the same reason.


Ben-Ami said he was aware of the “handful of folks” who have stopped giving, but that they were outweighed by the extra donations coming in since the start of the conflict.


He acknowledged that among staff “we have had some very healthy disagreements, there have been a couple of staff who have left because they don’t agree with what we are doing.” He added, “You shouldn’t work in a place where you don’t agree. It means you’re really unhappy.”


In late October, dozens of former J Street employees and student leaders supporting a cease-fire signed an open letter condemning J Street’s “alignment with pro-war forces.” A similar, internal letter signed by current staff followed in November, as first reported by Jewish Currents.


“J Street’s mission was to be a bulwark against the forces in American politics that seek to entrench the occupation and blockade, and lack any regard for Palestinian lives,” the first letter said. “J Street was founded to push for diplomatic solutions over military solutions.”


Marisa Edmondson, a former J Street communications and operations associate who departed in December because of discomfort with the group’s position on the war, said that J Street had squandered hard-earned credibility with its monthslong deference to the Israeli government’s policies.


“We set ourselves up as the counter-AIPAC, and we have this power, and why wouldn’t we use it?” she said in an interview.


She added, “People to our left, whom we should be organizing with because they’re against occupation, now do not trust us.”


Ben-Ami acknowledged that the criticism has come “a little bit more from our left” than usual.

But J Street’s defenders say the group remains at the center of American Jewish opinion and insists it has adhered to its first principles.


“J Street is a Zionist organization,” Peter Frey, a financier and chair of J Street’s board, said in an interview. “It’s ‘pro-Israel, pro-peace’ — it starts with ‘pro-Israel.’”


J Street was founded on the belief that a large swath of American Jews — a group that broadly is liberal in its politics, as well as supportive of Israel — was not represented by groups on the right or the left.


J Street would defend Israel’s right to exist while pushing for a two-state solution, a position that would align it with the nearly two-thirds of American Jews who believe that possible, according to an extensive 2021 Pew Research survey of the American Jewish community. J Street’s fundamental pro-Israel outlook would also give it the credibility to criticize the Israeli right, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.


But the politics of the post-Oct. 7 world have divided liberal Jews from each other and scrambled Democratic politics.


A different Pew poll of Americans released last month showed that 62% of Jews say the way Israel is carrying out its war in Gaza is acceptable, and 45% — an unusually high figure among the religious groups surveyed — feel President Joe Biden has struck the right balance in how he favors the two sides.


That survey also found that 45% of American Jews, a plurality, support both military aid to Israel and humanitarian aid to Gaza, which describes J Street’s position.


Yet 31% of Jews in the same study said both sides’ ways of fighting the war is unacceptable. And a November study from the nonpartisan Jewish Electorate Institute found divides within the Jewish community. Most notably, while 82% of both middle-aged and older American Jews approved of Biden’s strongly pro-Israel stance at the time, just 53% of Jews between 18 to 35 did.


Such findings, along with personal accounts of generational divide that many Jews have confronted, have led to fears among J Street employees and supporters that the organization will alienate millennials, Generation Z and beyond.


“Each day, we are losing the support of younger generations, Jews and non-Jews,” said the letter signed by 20 staff members in the fall, “who once saw J Street as an essential player in U.S. politics and as the only viable left-leaning organization with sway in Washington over Israeli policies and practices.”


The majority of American Jews “still support Israel and still support the war against Hamas,” said Dov Waxman, a professor of Israel studies at UCLA. “But over time, they have had growing misgivings about the way in which Israel is conducting the war and the impact on Palestinian civilians.”


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