Bambi shoots back


Nearly 20 years ago, during the Madrid peace talks, a fine young journalist emerged among the crop covering the U.S.-convened Israeli-Arab conference: Ilana Dayan, who was covering the talks for Israel Army Radio. (She has since matured into one of Israel’s top investigative reporters.)

Dayan was modest but persistent, unlike the blowhards who usually elbow their way to the frontlines in such events. That made her well liked. So when Farouk Ashara, the Syrian foreign minister in perpetuity, exhibited rudeness toward her consistent with his refusal to recognize Israelis even at a press conference, it helped turn the assembled press corps against Syria, led then and now by a regime that in any case never excelled at diplomacy.

I was in Israel at the time, and I remember the bemusement and even relief with which the Israeli press corps reported the incident, the era of Israelis being described as innocents having long passed. One oft repeated phrase, apparently originating with an old American hand among the Madrid press corps: Ashara’s behavior toward Dayan was like "shooting Bambi." Bullying is bad enough, but bullying someone who is young, hard-working well-liked and earnest — whoo boy.

Like I said, Syrians, diplomacy, it ain’t a good mix. But it’s not just Syrians.

Lenny Ben-David, the former Israeli diplomat and AIPAC staffer who has taken a lead role in the drive to "expose" J Street, kind of shot Bambi when he took aim at Rebecca Abou-Chedid, one of its donors. Rebecca formerly worked for the Arab American Institute, she now works for the New America Fund’s Middle East Task Force:

Take for example, the case of Rebecca Abou-Chedid. She appears in the federal elections records as contributing to J Street’s PAC. Her occupation is listed as “consultant” for “USUS LLC.” But until recently, she was also the national political director at the Arab American Institute where she “was responsible for formulating AAI’s positions on foreign policy … and represented the Arab American community with Congress as well as the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, and State.” Today, Abou-Chedid is the director of outreach at the New America Foundation’s Middle East Task Force.

Rebecca is also friends with a lot of folks in the Middle East policy community here. This is because she is outgoing, always helpful, and more substantively, an avid backer of a two-state solution. Part of her role now at the NAF involves shlepping around Israelis — Israelis who belong to bonafide Zionist parties, albeit of the left — when they come to Washington. Her helpfulness extends beyond promoting such a solution: she tipped me a few years ago to the story of her uncle opening Cleveland’s first kosher Subway, in that city’s JCC. (So, full disclosure: I consider her a friend.)

That kind of makes her Bambi, which is what occasioned a furious counterstorm of attacks on Lenny. Some of these were to the point, some were silly bordering on foot-shooting, implying the threat of crazed encounters with Lenny.

The best response, though, came from Rebecca, a Bambi who, it turns out, comes armed. It appeared in Foreign Policy:

The attacks on the organization, its founder Jeremy Ben-Ami, its staff, and their supporters have taken on an all too-familiar form — eschewing substance to malign the motives and associations of those they disagree with. Ben-David and his supporters are now attacking J Street for accepting contributions from Americans of Arab descent. The donations in question are largely symbolic, many of them in amounts between $30-$100, but his point is loud and clear — an organization that receives Arab-American support must, by definition, be suspect.


Ben-David’s allegations offer two competing conclusions. Either J Street is not sufficiently pro-Israel (how else would it attract Arab-American support?) or there is a significant group of Arab Americans for whom being pro-Palestine and pro-Israel are not mutually exclusive. He assumes, and hopes everyone else will also assume, that the former is self-evident and the latter is impossible. He is wrong.

It is possible to be both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine, not out of some blanket support for either government, but out of a sincere belief that peace is in both people’s best interests.

Lenny replies in the comments section that Rebecca might have been named Golda Meir and he would have exposed her anyway:

What I find disturbing about J Street is the deception surrounding it. A donor will sign federal documents saying he is "not working" and living in Orlando when he’s actually Palestinian billionaire from the West Bank. You are registered in the PAC as a "consultant" for USUS, not for the Arab American Institute. These disclosures have nothing to do with ethnic background.

Except, here’s Lenny on the first page of the article in which he named Rebecca (he is addressing J Street director Jeremy Ben-Ami in this passage):

When asked about J Street’s funding by the Jerusalem Post — the newspaper that ran the original exposé — you responded “at most 3 percent” of contributors were Muslim or Arab.  Now you state that the figure may be closer to 10 percent. One tenth of J Street’s budget of $3 million, or $300,000, is a substantial sum. Why do so many Arabs contribute to an organization that purports to be “pro-Israel?”

So Lenny apparently does believe being a Muslim or an Arab should automatically trigger questions about the bonafides of the donor and the organization.

There are other holes in his argument: ten percent of donors do not necessarily contribute ten percent of intake; and contributions to a political action committee often have more to do with the candidates who will receive the money (J Street is among the PACs that allow donors to earmark their funds for specific candidates) than they do with the PAC.

Lenny’s larger point is a good one, and I can’t help endorsing it as a reporter: PACs are required to list donors, but J Street’s non-PAC, tax-exempt arm is not:

If there were transparency to the organization, allowing people to see who makes the contrarian decisions and who pays the piper, then the mistrust would evaporate immediately. I suggest you make your donations to Peace Now or the Israel Policy Forum instead where the organizations’ decision-makers and contributors are public record.

Of course, my endorsement comes with a caveat: Such transparency must be a sine qua non for any Jewish or pro-Israel group.

Lenny? Same caveat?

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