J Street’s mixed messages about ‘my beloved Israel’ are purposeful

Congress-people attending the J Street gala, December 5 (Screenshot - MW)

Philip Weiss

Mondoweiss  /  December 7, 2022

J Street gave a shout out to Rep. Betty McCollum from the stage but didn’t invite her to speak at gala. The liberal Zionist Israel lobby group is terrified of the left’s view of Israeli “apartheid”.

The saddest moment at the J Street conference took place Monday night when its CEO Jeremy Ben-Ami saluted Minnesota Congresswoman Betty McCollum in the audience for passing up the congressional ball at the White House to attend his gala.

It was sad because Ben-Ami couldn’t give the congresswoman the mic. Brave Betty McCollum wasn’t a speaker at the conference. No, J Street had many Congress-people speaking and they all talked about their respect and concern for Israel, but left it at that. Betty McCollum has actually taken action, sponsoring a bill to stop U.S. aid going to child detention, and calling out “apartheid.”

You’d think J Street would want to highlight its support of Betty McCollum’s legislation. Ben-Ami himself said that the organization wants to restrict U.S. aid that goes to deepening the occupation.

But J Street is not very forceful about that stance. It took pride in hosting Secretary of State Antony Blinken, but he used his speech to oppose any restrictions on aid! “Our security assistance to Israel is sacrosanct.”

The Congress-people featured on J Street’s stage have not co-sponsored McCollum’s legislation– and they just issued bromides about Palestine.

Like Rep. Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania:

“Sometimes when I get overwhelmed, when I see the reorganization under the-looks-like-future prime minister, again, and I am so gravely concerned about… the direction that coalition will take Israel and the Palestinian people, I try not to get so overwhelmed. And I believe that these relationship-building, these learning trips[led by J Street], the sharing of common human experience– what Israel is struggling with we are struggling with. We are struggling to make everyone equal.”

Rep. Jamie Raskin:

“The inclusion of political extremists in the government of a democratic society [in Israel], as we have seen recently here in the Trump administration, constitutes a clear and present danger to democratic values, the rule of law and human rights. My friends, there is a struggle going on today within every society and every nation on earth… there is a struggle today within humanity to make civilization real… I want to thank you J Street for providing a lot of hope for America, for Israel, for democracy and for peace on earth.”

Or Becca Balint (representative-elect) of Vermont:

“I will be a strong ally in Congress fighting for democratic ideals, human rights and the constant, constant pursuit of truth and peace.”

The mixed signals are purposeful. J Street is a Jewish organization; and while it is squaring off against the rightwing group AIPAC over Which Israel lobby speaks for Jews, it does not want to alienate its Jewish base. That base, according to J Street’s own polling, is highly sympathetic to Israel, even if it supports conditioning U.S. aid so that it can’t be “used to expand Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.”

You can see from these graphs J Street published recently that American Jews are still overwhelmingly Zionist and pro-Israel– “My beloved Israel,” as one J Street leader said on a conference video. Yes, they support pressure on Israel, but they prefer mild pressure. And only 15 percent of Jewish voters percent favor a democratic state “neither Jewish nor Palestinian”.

As Betty McCollum was sitting silently in the audience, J Street gave awards to three Jewish advocates who related their close connections to Israel while acknowledging its “complexities,” as labor leader Randi Weingarten put it.

If that sounds vague, that’s just what J Street wants. It wants to pay lip service to demands on Israel to curb its conduct, but not apply real force.

The conference featured many great Palestinian voices describing life in Palestine and demanding American government action. “Netanyahu’s vision includes war and occupation forever. This vision includes the Palestinian families killed by Israeli missile strikes paid for by American taxpayer dollars,” politician Ayman Odeh said. Odeh called out Biden:

“When politicians including the Biden administration provide a blank check to the Israeli military, they materially support this vision. When they discuss Israeli security, I don’t believe that my children’s safety is considered part of the equation. It is time they have the bravery to implement policies that demand democracy, equality and peace.”

A panel on young Palestinian leadership was angrier.

“Palestinians are dying daily, including our friends and our family,” activist Shaker Nairat said. “We are being killed either way,” Balqees Aldeek of Palestine Peace Coalition said of one state/two state discussions. Palestinian youth face a “dead horizon” in which they are denied all rights and “are more willing to go into jails rather than universities,” Aldeek said. “I just want to pray in Jerusalem, I just want to practice that right.”

“I won’t commit to any solution, one state, two states, that doesn’t give me equal rights,” Yara Amayra of A Land for All said– and cited the right of “my aunt and her husband to return to her homeland.”

J Street didn’t permit that “We-are-being-killed” reality on its main stage. Blinken blamed the violence in the West Bank on “Palestinians and Israeli settlers,” giving the murderous Israeli army a pass.

While awardee Ilyse Hogue talked about getting her first kiss as a teenager in the Galilee.

Hogue is from an AIPAC-supporting family; her father was president of the local Jewish Federation; and while charting a career on progressive issues, Hogue did not criticize Israel for years for fear of alienating that family. This is still J Street’s base. Establishment Jews, often older and well-off, who are disturbed by what Israel has become but leery of joining the left. Those Jews feel represented by J Street but they are afraid of progressive critics of Israel.

This is the danger of organizing inside the Jewish community; it’s conservative on Israel policy. Or as Ayman Odeh explained about Israeli politics: “A Jewish-only left is doomed to fail.”

James Zogby said much the same thing:

I’m at the J Street dinner. A lot of friends & really good people who are struggling w/ squaring a circle. They want to be pro-justice & oppose the occupation but are unwilling to acknowledge the reality of Apartheid. Saying you’re pro-peace & pro-Israel just doesn’t cut it now

J Street is terrified of the left’s political/discursive power. It throws us crumbs and hopes we don’t notice the bad messaging.

Ben-Ami even asked Weingarten about “The challenge of how do we explain to folks on our left what is good and right over there [in Israel] when there is so much obviously that is against these values.”

Weingarten declared that the left needs to “engage” and learn to “trust” co-existence activists in Israel and in the occupied territories. She left out that Israeli forces killed over 200 Palestinians this year, including the journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, and is shutting down leading Palestinian human rights organizations, and every human rights organization calls the situation apartheid.

That’s the problem. J Street is scared of the left but can’t go there. It treats Betty McCollum like a potted plant. It wants to talk about “what is good and right” in Israel.

Philip Weiss is senior editor of Mondoweiss.net and founded the site in 2005-2006