We’ve heard from some Washington-savvy folks about our noting that about 160 congressional lawmakers have endorsed J Street’s upcoming convention. The question, they are asking, is… what’s the big deal? Congressmen sign on to these sorts of thing all the time. True enough — but at a time when some have accused the group of being in bed with Israel’s enemies and insisting that it should be blackballed, such a show of support, however nominal/pefunctory, seemed relevant.
Now Michael Goldfarb of The Weekly Standard adds a new wrinkle: Do these congressman even know anything about J Street? (The group backs U.S. pressure on Israel and the Palestinians in pursuit of a two-state solution, criticized Israel’s invasion of Gaza and refused to blame Hamas for the conflict, and has opposed the push by most national Jewish organizations for tougher Iranian sanctions, saying the timing was wrong). In this post, Goldberg noted that one of the few Republicans to offer support — Mike Castle, the Republican congressman in Delaware who hopes to win the Senate seat previously held by Vice President Joe Biden — is jumping ship, with his office saying it didn’t really know much about J Street when it signed on:
When I called Castle’s office, they confirmed that they had asked for Castle’s name to be removed from the list. I was also told that Castle was "totally unaware" that J Street had been using his name on their materials and that the decision to attach his name to the host committee was made at the "staff level."
"Someone was asked," and because J Street billed itself as a "pro-Israel" organization, a Castle staffer "just said, oh sure, of course." The Castle aide I spoke with was surprised to learn that one of the speakers at the J Street conference had blamed Israel for the 9/11 attacks <http://www.weeklystandard.com/weblogs/TWSFP/2009/08/speaker_at_j_street_conference.asp> in the days that followed.
So the question is how many other members of the host committee are "totally unaware" that they’ve lent their names to J Street’s conference? How many other offices made this decision at the "staff level," totally unaware that the group billing itself as pro-Israel was actually pro-engagement with Hamas and anti-sanctions on Iran? The number is likely substantial, and the number of Congressmen who distance themselves from this conference is, I’d bet, likely to grow.
UPDATE: Ben Smith at Politico has a related development: Chuck Schumer agreed, changed his mind and was removed before the list was even published; Kirsten Gillibrand recently asked to be dropped, after the list was made public. Unlike in Castle’s case, Gillibrand’s office says it wasn’t asked — spokesman Glen Caplin told JTA’s Eric Fingerhut that J Street "never got confirmation from our office."
UPDATE II: J Street’s
Jeremey Ben-Ami Hadar Susskind has issued a statement: "J Street is very pleased by the large number of Members of the Senate and the House who have lent their name to the Honorary Host Committee for the J Street’s inaugural Gala. As happens in putting together events like this, the list of hosts changed constantly over several months. Names were added and deleted, and decisions on participation changed regularly. We made every effort to ensure the accuracy of the list, apologize for any mistakes and will certainly adjust the list in the days ahead to reflect both those who wish to add their name and those who wish to remove it."
In other news related to the upcoming conference and the controversy surrounding J Street:
* Back in Israel, Kadima Party Knesset Member Nachman Shai, the Jewish Federations of North America’s top official in Israel, is blasting the Israeli Embassy in Washington for saying that J Street supports policies that could "impair Israel’s interests." The Jerusalem Post reports:
Shai told The Jerusalem Post that he had sent a letter questioning the embassy’s policy on J Street to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and that he plans to raise the issue when Lieberman or his deputy appear before a plenary session of the Knesset.
"This is a grave mistake by the embassy," Shai said, responding to recent comments published in the Post, in which the embassy said that J Street supports policies that could "impair Israel’s interests."
He also urged Ambassador Michael Oren to attend the self-described "pro-Israel, pro-peace" lobby’s first annual conference later this month.
"It serves the entire Jewish people," Shai said of the embassy. "We have to build a relationship with the Jewish community in America [and] every segment of this community is entitled to have a role in the relationship with Israel."
* The Washington Jewish Week reports on a controversy over the participation of Washington DCJCC’s Theater J in the J Street conference:
As chair of the ad hoc COPMA – Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art – Potomac resident Robert Samet last week sent letters to board members of both the Washington DC Jewish Community Center and the [Jewish Federation of Greater Washington], protesting Theater J’s role in the conference, set for Oct. 25-28 in Washington, D.C.
He urged the WDCJCC board to "withdraw Theatre J’s participation as a supporting organization in this conference" and asked federation board members to "prevail upon the DCJCC as a recipient of Federation funding to withdraw Theatre J’s participation as a supporting organization in this conference."
Theater J, Samet contends, "is subverting its mission to promote culture in the Jewish community by advancing a political agenda."
The Washington DC Jewish Community Center’s Theater J has been working with J Street to present a series of conference workshops on Culture as a Tool for Change. They will focus on popular media, the spoken word, storytelling, short film and documentary film. The conference’s overall theme is Driving Change, Securing Peace.
The Washington DCJCC says participation does not equal endorsement:
In response to the letter, the WDCJCC issued a statement: "Theater J and the Washington DCJCC do not engage in legislative or political advocacy and our participation should not be construed as an endorsement or sponsorship of other aspects of the conference or of J Street’s programs and policies."
In an interview, Josh Ford, the WDCJCC’s chief program officer, said Theater J has "expertise in culture as an agent for change and I don’t see [its participation as] being out of the bounds of what their mission is. … What we’re on board with is an ongoing conversation about Israel that we explore through the arts. That’s the only thing we’re on board with." …
The federation has not issued its own statement, but Susie Gelman, president, said, "The federation appreciates the JCC statement clarifying their participation in the conference. They have clarified they are not endorsing the policies of J Street."