J Street Facing Stiff Challenges Amid Rapid Rise


Delegates to the upcoming national conference by J Street, the group that has become the favorite target of a furious pro-Israel establishment, will face both their organization’s exhilarating rise — and eroding commitment to Israel-related issues by the very Jews it hopes to attract to its ranks.

“J Street faces a variety of significant challenges,” said Jim Gerstein, a longtime Jewish peace activist — and a pollster who has done some of J Street’s widely debated surveys. “The ‘single issue’ pro-Israel people are lined up on the other side.”

On the eve of its first major conference, which begins Oct. 25, J Street may come closer to reflecting the core views on Israel of a Jewish majority, he said – but single issue groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) have big advantages in fundraising and in energizing their more narrowly focused constituents.

Other observers note that by some measures, the Jewish community is shifting to the right on Middle East issues. And relentless attacks on the 18-month-old pro-peace process lobby and political action committee for its positions on last year’s Gaza war and Iran sanctions, among others, may be having an impact. Recently an Israeli embassy official got into the act, telling the Jerusalem Post that J Street advocates policies that could “impair Israel’s interests.”

But J Street’s early successes cannot be discounted, Gerstein said.

“Look around the Jewish world; Jewish organizations are laying off people and having great difficulty raising money, but J Street is growing very fast,” he said. “What does that tell you?”

A longtime Jewish political analyst who asked not to be identified said, “J Street has to play things very carefully because there are a lot of opponents out there waiting for the slightest misstep,” this source said.

The group also suffers from early comparisons to the AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby group widely regarded as one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington.

Under the best of circumstances, it would take years of skillful planning, fundraising and outreach to approach AIPAC’s reach and power. Some J Street supporters may have done it a disservice by hailing the new group as an instant counterweight to the established lobby — a comparison that makes it easier for critics to portray J Street as a lightweight.

J Street’s founder and president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, said he is aware of these and other challenges the new group faces — and of the risks of rejecting growing calls for a show of American Jewish unity on Israel. But he pointed to some tangible signs of success in the last election cycle and, more importantly, to the group’s growing ability to attract younger Jews who have been exploring new routes to Jewish religious involvement — and who are seeking a new relationship with the Jewish state, as well.
Ben-Ami put a positive spin on the incessant barrages of criticism from the right and from some mainstream pro-Israel leaders.

“One of the most exciting things for me is what a central element J Street has become in the communal conversation,” he said this week. “We have clearly opened up a timely and badly needed conversation. The reaction of others shows we’ve hit a nerve; I see a very positive element in that reaction.”
But for a lobby and political action committee, it all comes down to political performance, said Brandeis historian Jonathan Sarna.

“If candidates with J Street views can win elections, then J Street has the possibility of gaining power,” he said. “If, as many suspect, those who follow J Street rather than Presidents Conference and AIPAC directives find that they have lost the pro-Israel vote, then J Street will rapidly lose favor. In the final analysis the power of J Street will lie in the votes that it can deliver.”

While critics deride J Street as a midget in the shadow of the AIPAC behemoth, many observers say its growth in the past 18 months has met or exceeded expectations.

Next week’s conference has 1,000 registered participants and 160 members of Congress who have signed on as honorary banquet hosts. J Street currently has a staff of 22 and a $3 million annual budget; AIPAC boasts of a $60 million plus annual budget, a $130 million endowment and 250 employees.
J Street has more than 4,000 contributors to its political action committee and distributed $578,812 in contributions among 41 endorsed candidates in the 2008 election cycle, “more than any other pro-Israel PAC,” according to the J Street Web site.

Since then it has raised money for several embattled members of Congress, including Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), who incensed Washington-area Jewish leaders by refusing to back a congressional resolution early this year supporting Israeli actions in Gaza. The group also recently completed a fundraising drive for Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), a pro-peace process Democrat who will face an uphill fight for re-election next year, that netted $30,000 — more than the initial goal.

That fundraising component is what distinguishes J Street from other pro-peace process groups such as Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum — and apparently scares other pro-Israel leaders.

It took AIPAC decades to build a vast web of campaign donors who look to it as the arbiter of what constitutes “pro-Israel” and personal relationships with politicians that begin well before they get elected to Congress.

A big question for J Street: can it do the same thing, but faster — and without AIPAC’s base of fervently committed, single-issue activists? That’s one reason J Street is absorbing Brit Tzedek v ‘Shalom, a pro-peace process group with limited national visibility but active chapters in several major cities.
The consensus among several close observers: J Street has done better than most expected, but has a long way to go.

Congressional sources say that the group’s Capitol Hill impact is in its embryonic stages. Some pro-Israel lawmakers welcome an alternative voice on crucial Middle East issues; many others are wary of angering a pro-Israel establishment that shows no signs of weakening even as J Street gains some traction.

J Street’s Ben-Ami said the group knew from the outset that convincing nervous lawmakers to line up behind the alternative lobby wouldn’t be quick or easy.

“It’s a gradual process,” he said. “Every week, we add one or two new people [in Congress] we have contact with. It’s one step at a time, not a tidal wave. Its one of the ways people try to marginalize J Street: making it seem like we planned to overtake AIPAC. In fact, the goal was always to demonstrate that there is real diversity in the views of the American Jewish community, and to take our Capitol Hill activities one step at a time.”

J Street also must contend with an American Jewish left that — like its Israeli counterpart — is tired, demoralized and uncertain of the future. And it is confronting a shift in the demography of pro-Israel activism here.

Studies show a declining connection to Israel among Jews in general — but a rising feeling of closeness among the Orthodox, as well as rising activism in that faction.
“The Jewish left is considerably weaker, less active and less engaged than a few years ago,” said Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn. “That’s true of the Israel Policy Forum, Americans for Peace Now and even the more middle-of-the-road groups like the American Zionist Movement. People are tired. That’s a problem for J Street.”

At the same time, activism and involvement on the right and in Orthodox circles are on the increase, driven to a large extent by “a religious fervor and a personal commitment that can overcome complacency,” Kahn said.

Ben-Ami acknowledged the problem created by an increasingly polarized Jewish community, with the locus of pro-Israel activism shifting to the right even as attitudes about Israel in the big, amorphous middle stay mostly the same.

“You’ve identified an important question, and I don’t have an answer,” he said. “It’s a challenge to the community as a whole; we have to find ways to keep bridges open between different parts of our community with different views.”

He said J Street will gain energy as well as supporters from an emerging movement of young Jews seeking new ways to relate to Judaism and the Jewish state.

Daniel Sokatch, the incoming CEO of the New Israel Fund and founder of the innovative Progressive Jewish Alliance in California, agreed.

“AIPAC’s power doesn’t come from millions of American Jews; it comes from a very smart organization that has put together a small core of very devoted and dedicated followers for whom one kind of support for Israel is gospel,” he said.

J Street can do the same by tapping “the rising number of younger Jews who are involved in emergent enterprises. Many of them are looking for ways to connect with Israel. [J Street] has to find ways to light that fire.”

Many of those younger Jews won’t reconnect to Israel through the established organizations, he said — but J Street, working in parallel with groups like NIF, might do it.

But how to channel that diffuse energy into lobbying and political clout is an open question with few clear answers.
Political scientist Gilbert Kahn has his doubts.
The group’s biggest problem isn’t the continuing attacks from major Jewish leaders but “the complacency and passivity of the majority of the community,” he said. “Absent a major crisis, it’s going to be hard to get the American Jewish community as a whole to mobilize on issues like the peace process. That’s going to be a big challenge for J Street.”