J Street is holding kickoff events Thursday night in more than 20 cities as part of its campaign to open local chapters across the United States.
The organization — which backs U.S. pressure on Israel and the Palestinians to produce a two-state solution, criticized the Israeli invasion of Gaza and accused some establishment Jewish groups of undermining the peace process — has proven to be a controversy magnet.
So, not surprisingly, comes a story from the Jewish Exponent about some communal figures being upset by the decision of the Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania to lease space to J Street for one of Thursday’s events:
In the local Jewish community, where the left/right divide has often cut particularly deep over the years — and where many in the peace camp have long lamented that more hawkish elements have held sway — sparks have already begun to fly.
Gary Erlbaum, who sits on the Jewish Community Relations Council’s Israel advocacy committee and is also a board member of the Jewish Publishing Group, has been outspoken in his opposition to J Street, and is upset about Hillel’s decision to host the group’s Feb. 4 event.
"What makes them pro-Israel? If the Palestinians had a lobby, it would be called J Street," said Erlbaum. "The Hillel building is an inappropriate spot for a group that’s anti-Israel."
Steve Masters, a Philadelphia lawyer who is playing a major role in J Street’s efforts to build its local presence, said that the group has been misunderstood. (He served as the national president of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom-Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace before it merged with J Street last year.)
"J Street is a completely pro-Israel organization — and there are so many different ways to be pro-Israel," he said. Creating a narrow definition of pro-Israel and excluding "anybody who doesn’t follow a particular point of view or path" is a "ridiculous proposition."
In response to the brouhaha, Jeremy Brochin, director of Penn Hillel, posted a statement explaining the decision to lease space to J Street:
Not long ago, the J Street organization requested to rent space in Steinhardt Hall for a regional meeting and nationwide Webcast on February 4th. The Hillel of Greater Philadelphia Executive Staff and board leadership considered J Street’s request and applied to it the same criteria we would apply to other Jewish communal organizations making the same request: that they accept and subscribe to the Hillel International statement that “Hillel is steadfastly committed to the support of Israel as the Jewish state with secure and recognized borders and as a member of the family of free nations”; that they do not advocate actions that will materially harm Israel or its representatives such as boycotts, sanctions or judicial action; and that present their views with civility.
Consistent with its academic orientation and location on the university campus, Hillel of Greater Philadelphia provides a platform for speakers with different points of view on Israel. As examples, last year we hosted Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky, Knesset member Effi Eitam, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer, Prof. Daniel Pipes, Prof. Ken Stein, Israeli Vice Counsel Ishmael Khalidi, media trainer Neil Lazarus, Jerusalem Post journalist Khaled Abu Toameh, and writer Nonie Darwish, among others. Individually, these speakers represent a diverse set of views, experiences, and perspectives on Israel; together they represent an exciting conversation of the meaning and direction of Zionism.
It is important to emphasize that, as with all of our speakers, J Street’s use of our facility does not constitute an endorsement by Hillel of the policies of the group or of the opinions expressed during its meeting. Moreover, the J Street program under question is not part of our ongoing Israel education activities and Hillel is not sponsoring this particular event. Nevertheless, we believe it is important that all voices that abide by our principles regarding Israel’s right to exist as the nation-state of the Jewish People have an opportunity to express their opinions in our building as long as they commit to maintaining civility in their presentations.
We at Hillel view our education mission as being one of enriching the lives of Jewish college students and providing them with exposure to points of view regarding Israel consistent with our mission so that they may have all of the information they desire to understand the complexity of the world in which we live. We take pride in both the role we play in engaging Jewish students in the issues of the day and the way we model an inclusive Jewish community that will keep them engaged as they mature into adulthood. Please feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss this matter further.
Hillel also hosted an event Wednesday night billed as a debate over the question: "Is J Street Bad for Israel":
J Street, a new lobby on Capitol Hill, calls itself "Pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, and pro-Peace." This certainly sounds nice, but what are the group’s actual intentions? On Wednesday night, Daniel Pollak, Co-director of Government Relations for the Zionist Organization of America, will engage Penn students in a debate on the following issues (and more): – Is J Street actually pro-Israel? – What does it mean to be pro-Israel? – What type of work is J Street really doing in Washington? – Where does J Street get its funding? – Is J Street acting in the interest of peace in the region, or are they simply another group attempting to pressure Israel into making concessions to her neighbors? – How is J Street different from AIPAC and other similar organizations? – Most importantly, is J Street bad for Israel? We look forward to a lively evening of debate and discussion! And don’t forget to bring great questions! Co-sponsored by the Zionist Organization of America and the Penn Zionist Freedom Alliance.
As J Street’s defenders were calling for open debate and a wide communal tent in Philadelphia, on the other side of the state the organization’s backers were protesting communal support for an event at Hillel featuring Effi Eitam.
[CLARIFICATION: In case it wasn’t clear… J Street did not take a position on the Eitam event. The people in question are invovled with the organization, but acting on their own.]
[UPDATE: Full statement from J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami: "Contrary to recent news reports, J Street has not taken an official position on, nor is it protesting, upcoming speakers or events in the Pittsburgh Jewish community. In fact, part of J Street’s mission is to broaden debate and to encourage an open, honest Jewish community conversation what is best for Israel’s future and the health of our community. We look forward to participating in that vigorous debate in Pittsburgh and around the country. We trust that the best counter to hateful, racist views is to expose them to the light of day, to counter them with arguments based in Jewish tradition and values, and to rely on the good judgment of the majority of our community to reject them."]
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports:
In Pittsburgh, liberal supporters of J Street, which calls itself a "pro-Israel, pro-peace" lobby advocating a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, are protesting this evening’s address by Efi Eitam. A retired general and former leader of two right-wing religious parties in Israel’s Knesset, Mr. Eitam will talk to local college and high school students about the threat of a nuclear Iran. …
Rabbi Art Donsky and Naftali Kaminski, J Street activists acting in this case as individuals, sent out alarms last week about Mr. Eitam. The messages called him a "racist" who has advocated expelling Palestinians from the West Bank and banning Israeli Arabs from national politics. They noted that Israel’s attorney general warned Mr. Eitam in 2006 that he could face charges for repeating those statements.
Mr. Eitam is considered a war hero by many Israelis for his part in Operation Entebbe, the war in Lebanon and other military actions. Now an emissary of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he is traveling the United States as part of the Caravan for Democracy, a program of the Jewish National Fund, which brings speakers to college campuses to "promote constructive dialogue about Israel and the Middle East," according to its website.
The local grant for his visit to Pittsburgh came from the United Jewish Federation Foundation. It was designed to bring more college speakers to talk about Israel, but was made before a speaker was chosen, according to Jeff Finkelstein, the federation president. He said the federation had no involvement in inviting Mr. Eitam.
Dr. Kaminski said his objection was not to Mr. Eitam’s appearance per se, but to the use of community money to bring him here, and to high school students being bused to the event by J-SITE, an educational program that serves local Jewish teens. He called it "a scandal" that unknowing parents might be sending their teenagers to hear "hate speech" without realizing it. He also wants J-SITE to clearly denounce Mr. Eitam’s incendiary statements (J-SITE sent out an e-mail yesterday saying it does not endorse the views of speakers). …
Meanwhile, back in Philadelphia, several of those involved in J Street’s local chapter there have drawn criticism for their remarks — about Israel.
One example: Rebecca Alpert, chair of Temple University’s religion department, who had this to say in a Yom Kippur sermon discussing her efforts to take part in a fast protesting Israel’s actions in Gaza:
How can we as a Jewish community think it’s our obligation to end genocide in Darfur and pretend that there is no problem in Gaza? There is no question in my mind that if what was happening in Gaza was being perpetrated on any other country by any other country, we Jews would be in the lead, decrying such collective punishments and lack of respect for international humanitarian law, demanding an end to the blockade, proclaiming never again!
Even if your love for Israel makes you see the political situation differently; even if the rockets Hamas sends into Southern Israel make you furious and anxious, (and it should), even if in your eyes Hamas is nothing but a terrorist organization, what Israel is permitting to take place in Gaza is wrong. I have to believe, like Isaiah, that God is calling on us to choose this fast: these are the bonds of wickedness that we must loosen, and the heavy burdens we must undo: The people of Gaza are oppressed and must go free, and the blockade is the yoke that must be broken (Isaiah 58:6)