A leader at a mainstream Jewish organization is becoming a top official at J Street.
Hadar Susskind will be leaving his position as vice president and Washington director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs late next month to join the left-wing pro-Israel group as director of policy and strategy.
Susskind, 36, will be overseeing the group’s "political and strategic campaign," integrating J Street’s Capitol Hill advocacy, public policy work, grassroots organizing and other elements into a "coordinated political strategy." He’ll also help oversee the "strategic focus" of J Street PAC, the organization’s independent political action committee.
At JCPA since the fall of 2005, Susskind said he remains a "tremendous fan" of the organization and is still committed to the variety of domestic and international issues the group works on. But this "incredibly important time" in the history of Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict drew him to J Street, he said.
"My professional and political and Jewish identity sprung from Israel," said Susskind, who spent most of his childhood in the United States but was born in Israel and returned there after high school graudation on a Habonim-sponsored program. He then decided to join the Israel Defense Forces, eventually rising to sergeant first class in a special forces unit of the Givati Brigade, and spending time in the West Bank, Gaza and the Lebanese security zone.
"I’ve always wanted to work to help and protect Israel" and "I thnk we have a political opening here in the United States for real meaningful action," said Susskind, hoping to help Israel get to a point when the conflict doesn’t have to be "the overarching theme" in every Israeli’s life.
And Susskind sees J Street as filling "an incredible void in American Jewish life and American political life." He notes that many Israel supporters are concerned about the lack of backing for the Jewish state on the left, and J Street is responding to that need by creating a "strong progressive pro-Israel voice" that can bring additional people into the pro-Israel tent.
"It’s a good thing" that AIPAC and other Jewish organizations are successful and have built so much support for Israel, he said. But those groups don’t always speak for "the entire breadth" of the Jewish community or the American political spectrum.
"I would think everyone who cares about Israel would want to see the broadest possible support for Israel across American life," he said.
A number of those in the wider Jewish community have been critical of J Street — which has grown to 20 staffers in less than a year and a half since its founding. Critics have objected to some of the group’s positions, most notably its critcism of Israel’s invasion of Gaza and calls for the White House to pressure both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; there have also been complaints about J Street’s attacks on other Jewish organizations and its calls for Jews not to work with some pro-Israel evangelicals. Some observers have said that J Street fragments the community’s traditional "one voice on Israel."
As for the latter point, Susskind asks, "Since when does the Jewish community have one voice" on any issue?
(UPDATE) Asked about J Street’s vocal criticism, at times, of the actions of other Jewish organizations, Susskind defended it as part of J Street staking out its place in the community as a new organization.
"J Street came onto the scene and is willing to go out and say things that have not been said out loud in the organized Jewish community," he said. "That sometimes means disagreeing with other people and saying so out loud," and "I don’t think that’s going to change."
Susskind said such disagreements shouldn’t be seen as "an attack on another organization," and that perhaps "people need to be a little thick-skinned."
"We’re all working the best we can to support Israel," he said, and "we’re doing it in different ways" and demonstrating there is a "wide range of opinions."
Susskind, who also worked at HIAS and COEJL before coming to JCPA — an advocacy umbrella group bringing together the synagogue movements, several national organizations and local Jewish communities across North America — says he hopes his background in the community would at the very least get people to give J Street a fair chance.
"My hope is that my joining J Street," said Susskind, "gets them to take a good open-eyed look at it."
(Susskind was honored by J Street back in May, which can be read about here.)